Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Cultural resources planning in DC: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king

Lincoln Theater, U Street NW
Today's Post has an article about the possible imminent failure of the Lincoln Theatre, because an expected allocation of $500,000 from the DC Government does not appear to be forthcoming. See "Storied Stage Could Go Dark," subtitled "U Street Venue Close to Broke, Director Says."

This has the feel of a broken record. See:

-- City Museum on Shaky Ground: After 14 Months, Visitors and Cash Are in Short Supply" (Post article from 2004)
-- Debt-Ridden Source Theatre Closes, Plans to Sell Building (Post article from 2006)
-- Racing to Save a Victorian Gem (Heurich Mansion, Post article from 2006)

Since these articles were published, the original iteration of the City Museum ceased operations, the Source Theatre building has been sold to the Cultural Development Corporation, although the organization had signed a contract to sell it to a restaurant company and I believe the theatre company is folding, and the Heurich Mansion managed to stave off foreclosure through a successful emergency fundraising campaign.
Gateway sign on Rhode Island Avenue NE, entering DC from MDDCist Source Theatre Goes Dark for Good.jpg
(Source Theatre photo source unknown.)

When the same kind of thing keeps happening over and over, it's an indicator that there is a problem with the system of supporting (or not) cultural resources more generally within the City of Washington.

Relatedly, after the Washington Sculpture Center and the Washington Glass School were displaced by the Washington Nationals Baseball Stadium, these organizations did not relocate within the city. The Sculpture Center has ceased operations and the Glass School is moving to Arlington County. See "D.C. Seizes 16 Owners' Property for Stadium" from the Post.
Washington Glass School
On the other hand, Montgomery County, Maryland, faced with the imminent sale of the house with the attached building that likely served as the home for the person who inspired the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, took only two weeks to come up with the money to purchase the building. See "Unique Montgomery Property for Sale: Uncle Tom's Cabin," from December 2005 and "Public to Glimpse 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'" from June 2006 both from the Post.
Exterior, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Montgomery County, Maryland
Exterior, Uncle Tom's Cabin. AP photo.

Or contrast this to how Arlington County supports cultural affairs, such as their expanding the Shirlington branch of their library to include a theater and space for the Signature Theatre, see "Shirlington Redevelops Its Character," subtitled "Flagship Building Will House Innovative Signature Theatre," from the Post. Another theater company resides in the theater at the Arlington County combined facility, the Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Community Center.
Shirlington Branch, Arlington County Library + Signature Theater, Virginia Sign, Thomas Jefferson Middle School & Community Center
And this is an issue all across the country. In fact, it's being discussed now on an national e-list that I'm on, and I'm trying to organize a session on the broad topic of supporting cultural resources for this fall's annual meeting of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Because of the systemic nature of the problem within DC, it happens that I wrote a memo about this in September. It hasn't been widely distributed because it is very much an early draft, something I work on from time to time in between other activities.

But there's a need to distribute it more widely given the "deja vu over and over again" that we are experiencing in the city in terms of supporting our cultural organizations.

The funding stream for cultural resources cannot rely strictly on admissions fees. Just as roads are subsidized to the tune of 50%, or schools are paid for out of tax revenues, history is the social and cultural infrastructure of our society and warrants public funding.

But we have to figure out what our marketing message is. The "building public will" session at the Portland Trust conference is really pathbreaking. Our challenge is to figure out what the messages are with history in all its manifestations and how to touch people in terms of their deep, felt values (as the presenter put it).
Framework for Building Public Will
(Image from the Metropolitan Group website. Their link to the actual paper is not working at the moment.)

I don't think we've done it yet, or we wouldn't be having the problems we're having... I mean, in a couple weeks the National Archives is sponsoring a presentation about the rise in public museums (On January 18th, click here for the calendar) yet, the Archives just massively reduced night-time and weekend access hours because of a $6-$8 million budget cut...

So here it is. Compared to the average blog entry it's very long. Comments encouraged.

Note: there are three significant omissions in this draft. The first concerns a broad discussion of tourism development and promotion. The attitude of the author is that creating great places for residents has the fortunate benefit of creating great places for people to visit. The second is providing enhanced visitor services. Many cities locate visitor center services in historic buildings and sites that also communicate local history and significant events, and/or serve as a staging area for tours. The third is a more detailed discussion of support of the visual, media, and performing arts in the context of developing a truly comprehensive cultural management plan.

Washington, DC lacks a thorough and comprehensive cultural management, development, and funding plan and program focused upon locally-owned and directed assets. This is complicated by:

-- the fact that most of the nation and in fact most people around the globe define Washington within the context of its role as the national capital of the United States of America;

-- the large number of federally owned and managed cultural assets located in the city and visited by the public including the Smithsonian Museums, the National Gallery of Art, various National Park Service-controlled properties, a variety of other assets controlled by other departments ranging from the Arlington National Cemetary (U.S. Dept. of Defense) to the National Arboretum (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture);

-- most of the federal cultural assets are open to the public at no charge; and-

- the District of Columbia lacks a county or state government to provide additional financial or technical assistance for managing and funding access to locally-focused cultural resources.

While not directed specifically towards such planning, the concept of the cultural landscape, and a focus on the broad narrative and stories that are encompassed within, provides a useful framework for beginning to think about such issues. The "heritage area" framework is a useful way to operationalize planning for cultural resources at the local and regional level.

The Alliance for National Heritage Areas website defines heritage areas as:

[slightly edited] a region that has been recognized for its unique qualities and resources. It is a place where a combination of natural, cultural, historic and recreational resources have shaped a cohesive, distinctive landscape.

In heritage areas, local communities and leaders cooperate on efforts to preserve the resources that are important to them. The partnership approach to heritage development involves collaborative planning around a theme, industry and/ or geographical feature that influenced the region's culture and history. This planning strategy encourages residents, government agencies, non-profit groups and private partners to agree on and prioritize programs and projects that recognize, preserve and celebrate many of America's defining landscapes.

The heritage areas seek short and long-term solutions to their conservation and development challenges by fostering relationships among regional stakeholders and encouraging them to work collaboratively to achieve shared goals. Preserving the resources and activities in heritage areas in ways that recall the traditions that helped to shape these landscapes enhances their significance.

The U.S. Congress has created a designation system for "National Heritage Areas," which provides some money and technical assistance from the National Park Service to programs around the country. There are upwards of 25 such programs today including the Rivers of Steel NHA in Pennsylvania and Handmade in America in the Piedmont.

States such as Maryland and Pennsylvania have created a system to designate local heritage areas and support broad planning and the identification, development, and support of cultural resources within the designated areas. (The Pennsylvania program predated the national program.)

Two such districts in Maryland include the City of Baltimore Heritage Area, as well as the Anacostia Heritage Trails Area in Prince George's County, which abuts the City of Washington (this program even sponsors boat trips on the Anacostia River which journey into the City).

Whether or not a state or locality has a heritage area program, the process for creating the "management plan and priorities" for a heritage area is a useful exercise, and could be adopted by any city to guide its cultural resources development and management planning.

Using the same kind of framework, states (Maryland was the first) and localities have also created "arts districts" or "arts and entertainment districts" as another way of harvesting and managing cultural assets to achieve a variety of community and economic development objectives.


States such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Louisiana manage and make available to the public a wide variety of cultural resources. (This complements and supplements the provisions of such services at the county and local level.)

For example, the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism for the State of Louisiana manages:

-- state parks, historic sites, and the state arboretum
-- state museums (5 in New Orleans, 1 in Baton Rouge, and 3 others)
-- state library and archives
-- historic preservation management including archeology
-- the Main Street historic preservation-based commercial district revitalization program
-- other cultural programs
-- tourism development.

Similarly the State of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission operates the State Museum, the State Archives, 25 other museums around the State, the State Historic Preservation Office, and other programs which provide funding and technical assistance to cultural programs at the local level. The Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks and the Pennsylvania Tourism Office provide additional services, whereas in Louisiana, all such functions are in one such office (which is managed by the Lieutenant Governor).

At the local level, many cities have agencies which combine cultural resources programs which might normally be located across a number of agencies into one office (although this may or may not include historic preservation activities).

One example is Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts. This agency handles certain community social and organizational capital development programs such as the "Believe" in Baltimore campaign, the support of two state-designated arts and entertainment districts (Station North and Highlandtown), assistance to farmers markets (public markets are managed by a separate corporation), and arts-related programs. BOPA also mounts Artscape, the largest arts festival in the Maryland, DC, Virginia region, and other city-wide festivals and events.
However, the Baltimore Heritage Area and the city's historic preservation office are both separate organizations, although the Heritage Area works closely with BOPA.

The Chicago Park District is a different kind of entity equally interesting. It is an independent taxing authority defined by Illinois State Statute as a separate (or "sister") agency of the city of Chicago. The CEO of the Park District is appointed by the Mayor of Chicago. The CPD manages over 220 facilities throughout the city – more than 7300 acres of parkland, 552 parks, 33 beaches, nine museums, two world-class conservatories, 16 historic lagoons, 10 bird and wildlife gardens, and thousands of special events, sports and entertainment programs. The organization has a $385 million annual budget.

Some of the institutions include the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Garfield Conservatory, DuSable Museum of African-American History, Notebaert Nature Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Adler Planetarium, Lincoln Park Zoo, and the Museum of Science and Industry.

Comprehensive community cultural planning

According to The Community Cultural Planning Handbook, cultural planning is defined as:

Structured, community-wide fact-finding and consensus-building process; To identify cultural resources, community needs, and opportunities; and To plan actions and secure resources to respond.

A comprehensive community arts and cultural plan (or cultural plan) is a "community-wide plan for broadly defined arts & culture: arts, humanities, ethnic cultures, festivals, historic preservation, community development, social service, open spaces, economic development, etc." and a community cultural assessment is the "comprehensive identification and analysis of a community's cultural resources and needs."

(In the author's opinion, the draft Arts and Culture Element in the DC Comprehensive Plan is more a collection of various programs, and not a comprehensive plan. Additionally, the Comp Plan lacks an element on Tourism Development and Management. Previous plans for creating a Downtown Arts Plan and a "Living Downtown" are not available online. )

Funding and management of local cultural assets Many local museums of all sorts have been and continue to be created, ranging from house museums, African-American history and culture centers and museums, children's museums, transit museums and collections, etc.

The traditional local response of creating a house museum to save and utilize a local historic landmark or the creation of a local historical society to collect and save local knicknacks is becoming a problem in terms of providing quality experiences. And as such offerings proliferate, they are increasingly difficult to fund, especially given the budget pressures faced by local and state governments.

According to the Association for the Preservation of Virginian Antiquities, "as the nation becomes clogged with historic houses and sites, [we are] less able to care for all of them with public funds or private donations,[and] we need to explore alternative solutions."

Newspapers across the country too often run stories about the opening of new museums and programs and not too much later appear follow up stories about problems and failures and funding shortages.

African-American museums in Philadelphia and Louisville face severe funding crises, even as new museums are being created in those cities. The African-American Museum in Detroit opened a renovation and expansion to the tune of $12 million and within less than one year of the opening the organization was on the ropes financially.

The Baltimore City Life Museum failed in the late 1990s (before Baltimore had created the Baltimore Heritage Area and during trying financial times). Open air museums such as Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, and local historical societies such as the Maryland Historical Society and the New-York Historical Society have also experienced or are experiencing great financial difficulties.

The new Lewis African American Culture Museum in Baltimore avoids this problem because the State of Maryland, which created the institution under the auspices of the State Department of Housing and Community Development, committed to the long-term provision of 50% of the Museum's operations budget, and a significant amount towards initial construction. This provides a significant safety net not enjoyed by most local museums.

Even while the Maryland Historical Society currently is experiencing financial hardship, the City of Baltimore, County of Baltimore and private benefactors are providing funds to allow the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walthers Museum to be open without charging admissions, beginning October 1, 2006.

Similarly, the State Library, Museum and Archives located in Augusta, Maine doesn't face the typical year-to-year funding vagaries of a local institution, although like other such institutions around the country does experience ebbs and flow due to changes in political adminstration, which can lead to decreased support for cultural resources, as well as overall budgetary pressures that are increasingly experienced by state and local jurisdictions throughout the United States.

Typically, cultural resources are funded through a variety of sources including from regular government funding sources (property and/or income taxes), special assessments and bonds, and tourism and entertainment taxes, ranging from special taxes on hotel rooms, restaurant meals, car rental, and sporting and entertainment events.

Entities supplement their budgets through membership development and fundraising, retail sales, publishing, and facilities rental. (In Washington, DC, the National Building Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts generate significant revenues from facilities rentals. The Reynolds Center of the Smithsonian looks to do so when the Central Courtyard is enclosed by a Norman Foster-designed glass roof.)

In DC most tourism tax revenues are directed towards the Convention Center and to the Washington Convention and Tourism Corporation, which is the local "convention and visitors bureau" tasked with promoting convention business and other tourism development efforts. The WCTC and the Deputy Mayor's Office of Planning and Economic Development provides some financial support to local cultural heritage efforts.

In Orlando and other jurisdictions there has been greater discussion of redirecting some of the tourism tax stream towards the support of cultural activities. Sometimes this runs into opposition over hotel and hospital industry preference for a focus on additional tourism marketing activities or over support for professional sports related arena and stadium development.

DC funds a variety of cultural activities. In addition to those programs funded by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, other support is provided in what appears to be an ad-hoc, dis-coordinated fashion. Typically, institutions approach individual Councilmembers or the Mayor's Office or agencies, and earmarks are included in various budgets, or otherwise special programs created (such as TIF programs).This has the disadvantage of being unfair, without transparency, and lacking an overall management plan and process, it is not clear that priorities are set, and funds allocated accordingly.


1. That DC develop a comprehensive cultural development, management, and funding plan, setting priorities for the development, harvesting, and funding of cultural resources assets;

2. And consider the development of an allied tourism management and development plan, either separately or within the same framework;

3. create a comprehensive Cultural Resources Management office*, likely merging a variety of programs and assets currently spread around various agencies

4. Provide funding, both for capital improvements and operations, that that also considers providing significant ongoing funding to cultural resources deemed important.

5. Develop an open and transparent grant process.* Programs that could be included:

(Feel free to chime in on suggestions for improvements).

The first overall categorization is type, and within types you can separate out city-wide from more neighborhood-based and oriented resources.

heritage/history/visitor services - city wide
Cultural Tourism DC; City Museum/HSW; DC Historic Preservation Office; DC Main Streets Program; DC Archives; Sumner School Museum and Archives (DCPS); The Washingtoniana Collection and the Peabody Room are particularly important related collections, as are special collections at institutions such as GWU's Gelman Library and the Moorland-Spingarn Collection at Howard University;

heritage/history/visitor/cultural/arts services - neighborhood
individual Main Street programs, Brookland Visitors Center; Peabody Room; the developing Mary Church Terrell House and Le Droit Park Visitors Center (in formation); Military Road School; support of neighborhood festivals-community days; community-based arts programs

Public and Farmers Markets
Eastern Market (publicly-owned), Maine Avenue Seafood Market, the Capital City Market (privately owned) and farmers markets

arts generally
DC Commission on the Arts, Cultural Extension Program (not currently extant); support of other cultural facilities; expansion of Arts on Foot into a more than one day Artscape-like extravaganza

theater/performing arts/cinema
Lincoln Theater; Howard Theater; Takoma Theater, Avalon Theater; Ticketplace

visual and decorative arts*
Corcoran Museum; Phillips Collection; Textile Museum; Washington Glass School; Washington Sculpture Center

support for artists specifically

* Can separate out schools-teaching-community learning centers

Adding parks and libraries might be a bit much, but the Central Library, including a variety of special collections, could be included.

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