Last month we were up in Seattle for Dynamic Adaptability and had the opportunity to hear from four "bright spots" who are engaging with their communities in deep and authentic ways. We heard from James Kass from Youth Speaks, Chris Coleman from Portland Center Stage, Lisa Sasaki from the Oakland Museum of California and John Michael Schert from the…
I recently attended the World Cultural Economic Forum in New Orleans, which brought elected leaders together from all over the world who were focused on recognizing and investing in the cultural economy in their communities. Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans is truly a leader in this arena, not only as Mayor of New Orleans, but also in his previous post as Lieutenant Governor of the State of Louisiana. There, he created the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation whose mission is to support the economic health and quality of life of the cultural workforce of the state.
Increasingly, political leaders are being drawn to the cultural economy for its potential to create jobs and economic activity, as well as the other social and community benefits that Mayor Landrieu mentioned in his speech. In these conversations, cultural workers and the activities they generate are often described as “assets,” which is undeniably true—they are valuable resources that yield tangible social and economic benefits. Yet, I want to suggest that these people and activities might be more accurately called the cultural sector’s “natural resources.” While this reframing may seem semantic, it suggests a subtle shift in thinking that I think is actually quite important to ensuring that cultural development is pursued in a sustainable way that benefits all of our communities’ inhabitants. While the word “assets” has a connotation of property that can be used for whatever means, “natural resources” brings along with it the expectation of common benefit and a responsibility for careful stewardship to ensure its sustainability.
Just like the natural resources provided to us by the environment, creative people and the ideas, products and services that they produce seem to emerge from nowhere. It is a natural human urge to create and express culture. That is why arts and cultural activity can sometimes seem so magical in its transformation of neighborhoods, bubbling up from the grassroots to create beauty, connection, vitality and community where those were lacking before. In fact, cultural activity often exists most vibrantly in some of our poorest and least economically developed areas (Bushwick in Brooklyn, Detroit, Watts in Los Angeles, the 9th Ward in New Orleans and so on), making it an even more tantalizing catalyst of growth and revitalization in the areas that need it most. And yet, while this cultural life is naturally occurring, just like our physical natural environment it needs responsible and careful attention in order to thrive and realize its full possibility. Dr. Mark Stern, who is working on a Creative Asset Map of Philadelphia as part of an ArtPlace project, put it this way: “The arts are a critical force for promoting urban vibrancy, but without wise public policies, the vibrancy we see in many “natural” cultural districts today may disappear tomorrow. Thus, as we celebrate the positive aspects of creative placemaking, we need to treat these districts as vulnerable habitats that need wise stewardship if they are to flourish.” (Full disclosure: I led a panel at the convening that included Gary Steuer of the Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy; who is partnering with Stern on the Creative Asset Map).
So, I hope that this effort for cities to recognize and invest in cultural activity continues to gain momentum. And I hope that, as it does, we all think about how we can steward our naturally occurring cultural resources in a way that ensures they will continue to thrive for a long time to come.
[This blog post is reposted from a response to a post on ArtsBlog)
Hi everyone. These days we are writing over on the bright spots blog. Come talk with us there!
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Marcy Cady on our team did a workshop yesterday at the annual conference for the National Guild of Community Arts Education on program planning. She referenced this handbook on Cultural Participation that she co-authored. Since we ran out of the print outs we brought, I thought that I’d post it here for easy reference.
I wrote a comment I made on a blog post on arts participation by Ian David Moss on the American’s for the Arts Artsblog. I am reposting it here because I think it is a challenging topic that deserves continuing dialogue.
Interesting post on a tough topic. Mind if I challenge you on one thing?
I agree completely that the majority of arts organizations that present what the NEA defines as “benchmark arts activities” are going to have to radically transform to reach audiences that differ drastically in type from their current ones–people who are younger, located in rural areas, less wealthy or from different ethnic or social backgrounds.
On the other hand, I think to remind ourselves that just because 65% of Americans did none of these particular benchmark activities they did not participate in art. In fact, other studies have found data to suggest that art is a critical part of the lives of most people…it just isn’t the kind of art that our system has traditionally validated. In fact, Alan Brown’s work in the Inland Empire, one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse regions in California, suggests that a majority of people in that region not only participate in the arts, but actually create art of some kind. Our conventional definition of arts participation is antiquated and euro-centric, and leaves out many arts practices that are “indigenous” among younger and more diverse populations such as hip hop, quilting, dancing, film-making, and many heritage and religious activities. Many of these are created at professional levels of skill.
I think this underlines your point about the benchmark arts institutions needing to make a radical transformation if they want to reach the other 65%, but offers a slightly different frame on the challenge. If many of those who aren’t coming to conventional arts venues are already doing something creative, something that they enjoy, how do you convince them to spend their time with you instead?
I think the answer has something to do with 1) authentically appealing to what they value in a way that is authentic to you, 2) treating them with respect, and making them feel comfortable and welcome, and 3) showing them a really good time. But even so, at a certain point we might have to accept that every kind of art doesn’t speak to everybody…and that is ok.
The implication for the support system for the arts is slightly different. If our system (mostly) validates and supports some arts and not others…And the type of arts that are validated and supported appeal to some people and not others…And the people who are interested in the validated kind of art tend to be the most privileged in our society… Something ain’t right.
Remember the Nicolas Carr article in The Atlantic a couple of years ago called, Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Guardian asked a bunch of smart scientists, writers and experts to comment. Some agree, some don’t. It is interesting reading.