Building the arts and culture ecosystem in DC: Part One, sustained efforts vs. one-off or short term initiatives
The Economic Function, Billboard text at the corner of Corporation Street & Alma Street, Sheffield S3. 6 April - 20 April 2004.
This work was part of a commission for Public Art Forum (now called Ixia) by Hewitt & Jordan called "The Three Functions."
On Friday I went to a presentation on how the city needs an "arts incubator," and it caused me to look back at my 2009 paper, "Arts, culture districts, and revitalization" in the context of various arts initiatives in DC since then, and the idea of "an arts incubator," which is being touted in various quarters, sparked in part by the sexiness of "accelerators and incubators" and start up culture on the IT side of local economic development.
I wrote the paper in support of my participation on a panel on "Theatre, theatres and urban revitalization" at the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs national conference that year, which was held in DC, with the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Penn Quarter as the primary venue.
The basic point was that artists and artistic disciplines can't expect real estate developers to represent artist interests. They need to ensure that they represent themselves.
Working with enlightened planners--if there are any--artists and arts organizations should aim to create discipline-specific cultural plans for a community, to best represent their interests.
- some academic work
- the difference between arts as consumption vs. arts as production
- the conundrum of developing a local arts scene that is complete in itself in the face of how DC's national arts presence (Smithsonian Museums, Kennedy Center, National Gallery of Art) sucks away a lot of the energy that would normally be present in a local arts scene
- the price of space here because of the frothy real estate market
- but how in many cities, the historical presence of industry gave to cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, etc., a detritus of massive old buildings with limited reuse opportunities were harvested by artists at low cost
- how other communities do planning for cultural space
the paper lists five things artistic disciplines need to do from a planning perspective:
- create a discipline specific cultural plan
- create a sustainable facilities plan as an element of community-wide and discipline-specific cultural plans
- create anchoring organizations and spaces that artists and disciplines need to support cultural production
- networking at the community scale
- share audiences/co market as a discipline.
SMU National Center for Arts Research.
Creating an integrated ecosystem of arts and cultural organizations. The paper reads well enough six years later, but I realize that I neglected to make clear a basic point that is unmentioned, which undergirds this argument (and virtually everything else I write).
That is the necessity of a networked system, in this case comprised of arts and cultural organizations, supporting the development and maintenance of the local cultural sector.
I take thinking in terms of systems and structures and processes for granted, but maybe it is too subtle for others to see.
Temporary efforts don't contribute to the long term. So much of what happens in DC's local arts scene is ephemeral and isn't well focused on building a stronger and greater whole.
One example is Artomatic. I think Artomatic--the next edition is upon us and will be held in Hyattsville starting at the end of the month--is really cool. It's a big extravanganza featuring hundreds of artists, performances, and talks in a "temporary space," and lasts for about six weeks.
But based on my focus on structural and social change and empowered civic participation, and adding to that the more academic perspectives of the Growth Machine (sociology) and Urban Regime (political science) theories about how cities work politically, I argue in favor of a focus on "sustained efforts" aiming to achieve significant outcomes.
Applied to arts and culture the aim should be creating an integrated framework of cultural institutions (aping the idea of the integrated public realm framework that I write about frequently in a variety of contexts).
Therefore my criticism is that the city's cultural sector isn't well developed, isn't focused on the long term and sustainability, and the focus on events--like Artomatic or "Art all Night" or "temporariums"--rather than on institutions and organizations, while neat, doesn't contribute substantively to the creation of a healthy arts ecosystem.
Slide from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David Barth.
Temporary vs. tactical urbanism. About three years ago I wrote why I hadn't been impressed by the various DC "Temporium" efforts. (During the peak of the recession DC had a bunch of "temporary urbanism" initiatives across various commercial districts, focused on the arts,.)
It's because I am more interested in how to "sustain effort" in revitalization--because it takes years--and these projects have been one-off events that aren't part of a program leading to additional and further improvements in an area.
In other words, a temporium "event" shouldn't be an endpoint, but a beginning or midpoint project in an overall initiative to revitalize a commercial district.
In some respects, "Tactical Urbanism" is misnamed, it's more about citizen-engaged revitalization. Anyway, according to the Tactical Urbanism manuals, it is about sustained efforts:
While exhibiting several overlapping characterstics, “tactical urbanism” is a deliberate approach to city-making featuring five characteristics:
• A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;
• An offering of local ideas for local planning challenges;
• Short-term commitment and realistic expectations;
• Low-risks, with a possibly a high reward; and
• The development of social capital between citizens, and the building of organizational capacity between public/private institutions, non-profit/NGOs, and their constituents.
Governance is about "the agenda" and it is achieved over long periods of time. To delve into practical theory for a moment, Growth Machine theory is better at explaining why things happen they way they do in the local political and economic system, while UR is great for understanding the mechanics of how it works. And those mechanics operate over long periods of time. Hence my focus on sustained efforts.
In the paper, "Now What? The continuing evolution of Urban Regime analysis," political science professor Clarence Stone writes:
An urban regime can be preliminarily defined as the informal arrangements through which a locality is governed (Stone 1989). Because governance is about sustained efforts, it is important to think in agenda terms rather than about stand-alone issues. By agenda I mean the set of challenges which policy makers accord priority. A concern with agendas takes us away from focusing on short-term controversies and instead directs attention to continuing efforts and the level of weight they carry in the political life of a community. Rather than treating issues as if they are disconnected, a governance perspective calls for considering how any given issue fits into a flow of decisions and actions. This approach enlarges the scope of what is being analyzed, looking at the forest not a particular tree here or there.Limited adaptive reuse opportunities in DC. For any sector, the long term is what matters. In strong real estate markets, the only way organizations control their own destiny is by controlling their space.
By looking closely at the policy role of business leaders and how their position in the civic structure of a community enabled that role, he identified connections between Atlanta's governing coalition and the resources it brought to bear, and on to the scheme of cooperation that made this informal system work. In his own way, Hunter had identified the key elements in an urban regime – governing coalition, agenda, resources, and mode of cooperation. These elements could be brought into the next debate about analyzing local politics, a debate about structural determinism.
In terms of spaces that support the arts, unlike other major cities that expanded during the industrial era especially from 1870-1920, DC doesn't have a "large stock of old [and big] buildings" that as industry shifted to the suburbs and then overseas, can be adapted and captured for arts purposes.
This problem is further accentuated by the city's strong real estate markets and land use capacity constraints (zoning, height limit, one-third of the city's land is federal or otherwise large campuses like colleges, unavailable for other use), which means that only the best funded nonprofit uses can compete successfully against market uses in the competition to acquire and hold and operate properties.
Ecological conservation and "critical habitat" environmental concepts are relevant to thinking about local (DC's) arts ecosystems. At the Friday presentation, and in response to what I might call the veneration of temporary uses in the face of the difficult structural conditions for arts groups, I started thinking about the local arts scene in terms of the environmental and conservation concept of "critical habitat."
In US conservation law, "critical habitat" is:
a specific geographic area(s) that contains features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and that may require special management and protection.In terms of the DC arts scene, while people are pursuing "temporary spaces and projects," they miss the reality that the amount of space ("critical habitat") devoted to local arts and cultural uses continues to diminish.
A focus on temporary uses fails to ensure the long term creation and preservation of cultural spaces and a sustainable local arts scene.
Building the arts ecosystem. Building a local arts ecosystem is actually pretty simple (but not cheap or fast). What I outlined in the 2009 paper is still the case, it just needs to be extended across the entire cultural sector.
You start with a plan, you build institutions and spaces that support the arts and artists, and you create a sustainable funding system.
Apparently the city is in the process of creating a cultural plan (something I've advocated for 12+ years), compared to a lot of jurisdictions the city spends a lot of money on culture, both as citizen consumers and through our local government (for example, DC Government appropriates more money to the arts than does the State of Maryland Government, which has well defined arts support organizations, a regulatory framework--such as heritage areas and arts districts, and a transparent funding system), and we have a bunch of spaces, although not all that many, not very many large spaces, we're losing spaces and the cost of space is high.
At the same time a cultural plan for DC has to deal with the tensions between arts consumption and arts production, supporting artists versus supporting artistic disciplines, and the development of a strong local arts scene in the context of how the national arts institutions based in DC have for the most part shaped DC's "local" arts scene around the national arts narrative and artists and the presentation rather than the creation of art.
Forthcoming pieces in the series:
-- Part Two will focus on the different types of arts anchoring institutions
-- Part Three will focus on the different types of "arts districts"
-- Part Four will discuss that the planning framework discussed about needs to be executed at three scales: city-wide; by artistic discipline; and at the sub-city (neighborhood/commercial district/sector) with some examples from other placess
-- Part Five will briefly discuss how "everybody" (including me) missed the opportunity to keep the Corcoran Gallery alive by repositioning it as DC's "local" fine arts museum
-- Part Six will discuss the lost opportunity to have reconceptualized the to be rebuilt Martin Luther King Jr. Central Library as the city's premier local cultural institution with a program that would have made it one of the world's most exciting "local" libraries
"Patterns of Behavior in Endangered Species Preservation," Land Economics, February 1996
ABSTRACT. This paper analyzes statistically the main determinants of government decisions about the preservation of endangered species. As explanatory variables, we use proxies that include 'scientific' species characteristics, such as "degree of endangerment" and "taxonomic uniqueness," as well as 'visceral' characteristics, such as "physical size" and the degree to which a species is considered a "higher form of life." These proxies are used to study the government's protection and spending decisions on individual species. Overall, we find that the role of visceral characteristics is much greater than the role of scientific characteristics.