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, July 21, 2009

Art, culture districts, and revitalization

I spoke last week at the national conference of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, a conference on theatre, in a session on "Theatre and Urban Renewal." My basic point is that real estate development interests have their own interests apart from artists, and that artists and arts organizations need to be conscious of what those interests are, harvest what they can from them, but never stop representing their own interests first and foremost.

I am really sorry that I didn't come across this image before the talk.
Hewitt & Jordan - The Economic Function.jpg
The Economic Function, Billboard text at the corner of Corporation Street & Alma Street, Sheffield S3. 6 April - 20 April 2004. The work 'The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property' sets out to question the function of art in the public realm within the economic regeneration of post industrial cities. The image will accompany a text in a journal by Public Art Forum to be published later this year. This work is the second part of a commission for Public Art Forum by Hewitt & Jordan.

There is some great academic writing on this issue. The sad thing is that it doesn't percolate down and get read by many people in the arts and revitalization field, although there are a number of papers published by the Social Impact of the Arts Project at Penn, some in association with The Reinvestment Fund, that discuss the issues and have a number of great citations to writings from academic journals.

-- Cultivating “Natural” Cultural Districts
-- Culture and Urban Revitalization: A Harvest Document
-- Creativity and Neighborhood Development: Strategies for Community Investment
Although there wasn't time to discuss the issues in great detail--we could have done an entire conference on the topic of "Theatre and Urban Renewal"--as a planner I did have some key points. This is the bulk of the paper (not all of it), but I spoke extemporaneously. I expect to keep expanding the paper. The intro was brief and didn't discuss the specifics of revitalization much at all. Note also that while arts and community building is important, and important to many people, it's not what I am personally interested in, and it is something different from economic revitalization.
This weekend we went to Artscape in Baltimore and the Station North Arts and Entertainment District there is a classic illustration of Montgomery's paper (below) as well as just about anything ever written by Jane Jacobs, in particular her point that vibrant cities need "a large stock of old buildings" because they have low running costs and therefore low rents and are available at low cost to support innovation and creative efforts.
For a long time, the area north of Penn Station and anchored by the Charles Theater complex was still pretty much bombed out... Now it might not show well, but it is amazing how it is starting to "fill in" between the cultural anchor of the Loads of Fun building at Howard Street and North Avenue and the Charles Theater. In between, along Charles Street and on North Avenue between Howard and Charles there are many "new" spaces that function as bar-restaurant and venues, a live music venue/bookstore, many independent and very small theater companies, of course bars and taverns.
This was part of the introduction to the paper, and the contrast between Baltimore and DC illustrates the points to a t...
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Lacking the large stock of old buildings[1] that comes from having a manufacturing base which is the basis of bottom-up conditions that support artistic endeavors elsewhere, Washington DC is a textbook example of complications that arise from translating theory into on-the-ground reality, in a place where large and national-global arts institutions (Smithsonian Institution, Kennedy Center) dominate the cultural landscape, making it difficult to develop a thriving local arts scene.
Remembering that the impetus for developing an “arts district” tends to be driven by a desire to enhance real estate values, too often questions around how we develop, support and strengthen artists, creative organizations, artistic disciplines, and the creative economy are glossed over or under-considered throughout the various stages of the process of creating, developing and managing “arts districts.”

[1] In Death and Life of the Great American City (1961), Jane Jacobs wrote that successful cities have four characteristics: density (which supports diversity); mixed uses; permeable spaces; and a large stock of old buildings to support innovative new uses.
A big problem for artists is that the role of art and artists, their importance and relevance, may be secondary to institutional or real estate interests. This conflict is illustrated by the State of Maryland’s program of designated arts districts. Some are very much focused on entertainment and tourism, while others are more focused on building multi-faceted cultural production centers and contributing in significant ways to the development and furtherance of artistic practice.
Artist Mode of Production
Sharon Zukin in her study of SoHo in New York City[1], wrote about the “artist mode of production" where the arts and artists are used to convert (reproduce) low value (often abandoned industrial) property into high value commercial and residential property, and get displaced/priced out in the process.
The displacement effect is most likely to occur in places like DC and New York City, which are high value real estate markets.
In weak market cities like Pittsburgh or Baltimore, displacement is less of an issue because there are plenty of abandoned or underutilized low cost buildings available—although artists have other things to worry about—finding support and audiences, and remaining relevant are issues that matter to all of us, regardless of the size of our community or the strength of the real estate market, and especially the state of the economy.
Observations and Experiences in DC
DC has a successful local arts scene. The City of Washington spends millions of dollars supporting arts venues and organizations. At the same time, there is a high rate of organizational failure, and the ability to develop a wide and deep arts scene from the ground up is very difficult. Because the city’s identity is wrapped up in the story of the founding of the United States, it can be difficult to define and develop the local arts agenda separately from supporting large institutions, “National Myth” and what we might call “dead artists.” This comes at the expense of living artists, innovation, and the creation of new organizations.
Some of the things I have learned or am still trying to figure out, from working on urban revitalization in DC derive from the lack of a fully developed cultural infrastructure in the city:
1. How communities support the development, maintenance, and type of cultural facilities and organizations matters. DC is ad-hoc. And the culture generally is focused on supporting arts organizations, especially large institutions, not artists.
2. Arts organizations must represent their own interests but at the same time must look outwards towards best practices and bring that knowledge home. How can arts organizations ward off displacement as neighborhoods and districts improve?
3. There need to be more anchor organizations focused on supporting and developing artists, disciplines, and the creative impulse.
4. We need to leverage the power of the (creative) network;
5. At the same time how do cities protect their investments in arts organizations and facilities if problems occur with the owner-tenant-organization, and the municipality has invested in the organization and/or facilities.
6. How is the creative impulse, the ability of art and artists to challenge the status quo supported, not compromised?
7. Individual theaters compete against each other any one night, but the focus should be on generating audiences and repeat business -- people willing to come to a downtown or urban location need to be shared amongst the facilities, and that audience needs to be nurtured and expanded.
8. Community building is important but it isn’t economic revitalization.
Towards a Framework for Understanding Cultural Infrastructure
As a planner, I believe in plans and comprehensive frameworks, and believe that we can move forward by coming up with more complete ways of conceptualizing and addressing these issues. Artists and organizations need plans and frameworks (both general and discipline specific) for understanding how the systems of cultural production and cultural consumption are conducted and to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place to support the creative impulse, arts production, and sustainable arts initiatives.
Cultural infrastructure is both hard and soft. The academic literature has tended to not differentiate between hard and soft infrastructure, but instead focuses on the definition of types of facilities, focusing on differences in type of space and programming. Instead, I argue that cultural infrastructure is comprised of at least five
- Place;
- Space and facilities;
- Artists;
- Cultural organizations and support networks;
- Cultural-creative businesses;
and we should differentiate between hard (buildings/the physical), squishy (organizations) and soft (people) infrastructure. These five elements—place, space, artists, organizations, and businesses—are the components of cultural clusters or cultural quarters.
Organizational failures should be seen as indicators of problems within the subsystems of cultural infrastructure
Furthermore, I would argue that failures, when they occur within the network of artists, arts organizations, facilities, and businesses, are indicators of weakness in one or more of these elements of cultural infrastructure.
Instead of focusing on individual failures, although we grant that this often is an issue, we prefer to look at problems as part of the greater whole.
Cultural quarters/clusters
John Montgomery[2] discusses in great detail the necessary conditions and the factors that support the development of balanced cultural districts. A balanced district is a place for cultural production (making objects, goods, products, and providing services) as well as cultural consumption (people going to shows, visiting venues and galleries).
A cluster is a grouping of industries linked together through customer, supplier and other relationships
enhancing competitive advantage. Over time the network of suppliers and organizations builds as organizations work together, and new businesses are created. Competitive clusters are characterized by organizations that are active in both local and non-local markets, and constant improvement and innovation. Montgomery calls this a production–distribution–consumption value chain.
Characteristics of cultural quarters (from Montgomery [2003] -- slightly revised and reordered)
1. Cultural venues at a variety of scales, including small and medium.
2. Availability of workspaces for artists and low-cost cultural producers.
3. Small-firm economic development in the cultural sectors.
4. Managed workspaces for office and studio users.
5. Location of arts development agencies and companies.
6. Arts and media training and education.
7. Art in the environment.
8. Community arts development initiatives.
9. Stable arts funding.
10. Identity, image development, branding and marketing support
11. Complementary day-time uses.
12. Complementary evening uses.

Five things artists and arts organizations must do to represent their interests
If we can agree that the characteristics enumerated above are the kinds of elements of a creative community that we want to achieve within our cities and sub-districts, then we have to figure out what pieces of the cultural infrastructure are missing within our communities and/or the arts and cultural districts and how to bring them about. There are many things that need to be done, but in the interest of time I will list the five that are most important.

1. Create your own discipline-specific cultural plan Many communities have cultural plans. Usually these are broad documents covering many issues including facilities, funding, disciplines, education, and community building. Some cities may have sub-plans within their cultural plan for facilities or public art. Seattle and Chicago are discussing the creation of framework plans to support the music industry within their communities.

But it appears that no city has developed what we might call a “theater plan.” Not New York City, where Broadway is central to the city’s identity and to tourism and where the theater industry is a key component of the region’s creative industry. Not Chicago, which is known for the most thriving theater scene between the coasts, ranging from neighborhood and repertory productions to “national” plays and musicals at Downtown theaters. The plans must be multifaceted, and address the needs of artists and cultural organizations, not just the economic or community building concerns of various constituencies. And, the plans must focus on matters concerning cultural production equally with the promotion of cultural consumption, arts-oriented tourism, etc.

Write a theater plan for your community

2. Come up with a sustainable facilities plan for your community Part of your theater plan should include a sub-plan on facilities. Communities should develop holistic facilities plans that maximize use and revenues, and reduce overall costs, especially the demand for rent, so that arts organizations can achieve a relatively sustainable cost basis.

Washington, DC and nearby Arlington County in Virginia have two very different methods for supporting arts organizations. Arlington prefers to support a wide variety of organizations, and chooses to develop government-owned or controlled space in ways that support cultural initiatives in addition to other objectives. The County provides space (at low or no cost), access to a shared costume shop, and the use of a costume library to many theater organizations. The county has developed some facilities, including the Shirlington Library, which includes the Signature Theatre Company, and the Thomas Jefferson Middle School, which contains a large auditorium supporting a resident theater company and other productions, in ways that most communities do not. Arlington calls this approach their “Arts Incubator.””[3]

DC provides money to organizations for the acquisition or rehabilitation of facilities, but not in the context of a broader cultural plan focused on consensus priorities. In the past few years, many of the organizations that have received this support, including the Source Theater and the Lincoln Theater, have either ceased operations or have been pushed to the brink of financial solvency. In the broader cultural program, certain arts anchors have been pushed out of the city in favor of the baseball stadium, while other organizations, depending on their relationship with the Executive or Legislative Branches of Government, enjoy preferential earmarks. These grants are made without regard to a vetted set of priorities or through an open and competitive grant process.

3. Create anchoring institutions Artists, advocates, and organizations need to build their capacity to plan, organize, develop, and execute. Markusen and Johnson[4] found that the arts best contribute to regional economic and social development when there are “dedicated centers where artists can learn, network, get and give feedback, exhibit, perform, and share space and equipment. “

In their paper on creative infrastructure[5], the Creative City Network of Canada outlines six types of creative space, and four of the six: multi-use hubs; incubators; multi-sector convergence projects; and production habitats; are anchors, a set of either cross-disciplinary or discipline-specific facilities and programs that support the development of art, artists, partnerships, networking, connections, and cultural production. Building the capacity of artists and organizations through these types of investment supports local economic and community building objectives, and improves the likelihood of success for all types of cultural initiatives. There are many examples of these types of facilities across North America (just not in DC) that serve as examples that you can consider for your own communities.

4. Networking-representing cultural interests at the scale of the community In addition to artistic centers and anchors—support and capacity development entities—arts organizations need to engage in some rethinking about how to work together to develop the arts community as a component of the community’s cultural infrastructure and as a force to represent artists and artist organizational interests in land use, capital investment, public finance, cultural, tourism, education, and other local policy matters.

5. Sharing Audiences Another matter to consider is whether or not organizations can share and maximize the value of audiences within your community.  Years ago I applied for a job at the Warner Theater, not realizing they were owned by the big entertainment venue firm Live Nation.  The Warner is one block from the National Theatre. In my cover letter, I made the point that while the theaters compete against each other at one level on any given night, at another level they share audiences amongst people willing to come Downtown to consume cultural events.  (This was when going Downtown was seen as a risky adventure, when DC's reputation was somewhat unseemly.)

And that they need to do co-marketing and joint audience development. What best practice examples of arts marketing and membership can be adapted to your community, both for individual organizations as well as to build the success and identity of the theater community as a whole? Urban revitalization focuses on neighborhood improvement, usually through real estate-based strategies. Arts and culture strategies are particularly useful methods for reinvigorating otherwise ignored or abandoned places. But supporting and developing a place doesn’t always mean the support of arts, culture, artists, and the creative impulse in the manner that artists may prefer.


If we are to create balanced cultural quarters where new work is created, culture is maintained and developed, and the economy grows by reaping the value of production through the consumption of work in theaters, galleries, concert facilities and other venues, then artists and arts organizations are going to have to step up and better represent their interests in the context of a complicated economic, political, social, and creative environment.

By focusing on building a robust network of hard and soft cultural infrastructure, anchoring institutions and networking systems, in part through the development and implementation of discipline-specific culture and facilities plans, the theater community will be better placed to represent its financial and creative interests within the framework of broader community cultural planning.

[1] Zukin, Sharon. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982
[2] Montgomery, J. “Cultural Quarters as Mechanisms for Urban Regeneration. Part 1: Conceptualising Cultural Quarters.” Planning, Practice & Research, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 293–306, November 2003
[4] Artists’ Centers: Evolution and Impact on Careers, Neighborhoods and Economies. Project on Regional and Industrial Economics, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, February, 2006.
[5] “Cultural Infrastructure: An Integral Component of Canadian Communities.” Online document, 2009. Creative City Network of Canada,

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