The Local Arts Planning System: Current and Alternative Directions

June 25th, 2008

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by Carl Grodach

Defining the Bifurcated Arts Planning System

Local governments increasingly rely on the arts to achieve multiple development objectives ranging from stimulating tourism and consumption to enhancing community participation and capacity. However, cities seem to express the most interest when the arts are framed as a component of the larger cultural or creative economy. Studies by Americans for the Arts (2006) and Richard Florida (2002), for example, have convinced many cities that “the arts mean business,” while media reports announcing the success of flagship arts destinations like the Guggenheim Bilbao have compelled local governments to pursue their own high-profile cultural projects.

While this rising interest is potentially good news for local arts communities, most US cities have yet to implement a truly comprehensive arts or cultural planning effort. Rather, local arts planning initiatives tend to be economically-motivated, project-based, and geographically uneven. In most cities, planning around the arts exhibits a bifurcated pattern with one set of strategies focusing on the downtown and another more diffuse approach that thinly spreads resources throughout the rest of the city. Downtown strategies tend to favor the construction of iconic cultural centers and arts districts, which typically feature the work of renowned artists and other broadly appealing work. The objective here is to create a high-status destination point that will enhance the city image and spark new commercial activity that is affordable and appealing largely to upper-middle class residents and visitors. In contrast, community-based initiatives look to multifunctional community art spaces or arts education and training programs, for instance, as tools to support local artistic production, build social capital, and engender indigenous economic development. These activities often target neighborhoods lacking access to commercial arts activities and employment opportunities. While there is of course variation between cities, the bulk of municipal funding and support seems to fit this divided pattern.

Not only is this bifurcated arts system in itself detrimental to local arts development, but attempts to emulate the “Bilbao-effect” or pursue “creative class” strategies can exacerbate already difficult problems associated with it. In particular, these approaches increase the likelihood that the bulk of available resources will be funneled downtown and to nearby gentrifying areas and away from community-based projects where economic benefits are often indirect or hard to quantify. As a result, extant geographic and institutional inequalities in arts and cultural activity may intensify. In addition, public funding sources may steer clear of politically charged, experimental, or amateur work and embrace what is often more easily commodified and less apt to offend. Ultimately, a bifurcated approach to arts development is detrimental to a healthy local arts ecology comprised of all types of arts organizations that serve a wide demographic and diversity of interests.

Indeed, the arts and community development field emphasizes that the benefits of a more dispersed, neighborhood-based approach is often overlooked. These scholars and activists argue that building on local cultural assets, including informal arts activity and “natural cultural districts,” is in fact more likely to spur neighborhood revitalization, encourage diverse participation in the arts, and promote consumption of local arts activities, which in turn support local businesses and jobs while attracting and retaining artists (Borrup, 2006; Markesun and Schrock, 2006; Stern and Seifert, 1998, 2005; Wali, et al, 2002). While these authors provide a much needed counterargument to the flagship and creative class approaches, their work tends not to deal with the potential inherent in a comprehensive approach that coordinates and builds on existing arts infrastructure and programs across geographical and institutional divides. We need a framework for discussing and addressing the marginalization of community-based arts that at the same time taps into the downtown and its concentration of prominent cultural institutions and comparatively substantial funding sources. To do so, we need to examine in more detail how local governments perpetuate the bifurcated arts planning system. This is important to address, because while cities may have little hope of reshaping the global cultural economy, they can adapt how they confront it.

Local Governments and the Bifurcated Arts Planning System

Most cities possess an ad hoc framework for the delivery and support of arts activity, in which multiple departments conduct arts-related programs. For example, a convention and visitors bureau may market a blockbuster museum exhibit to attract out-of-town visitors while a community development agency may commission murals as part of a neighborhood revitalization project, or a redevelopment agency may create a public art program as an amenity to lure development. Although many cities maintain an office of cultural affairs, it is rare that such an entity coordinates these efforts. As such, there is greater likelihood that services will be duplicated in some communities and lacking in others. Moreover, rather than distributing services based on need, the various agencies pursue arts development in response to their own objectives. Redevelopment agencies, for instance, have a mandate to create a market for private sector investment in targeted areas. This objective not only biases marketable arts activity, but also favors those places where developer interest can be most influenced by public incentives and thus perpetuates an uneven pattern of arts development.

The situation is compounded by the divergent resources and tools that the agencies possess (Markusen, 2006). Community and economic development agencies can tap into state and federal funding sources such as Enterprise Zones, Community Development Block Grants, and EPA Brownfield grants. Planning departments possess regulatory power over land use and can establish tax increment financing districts. In contrast, most cultural affairs departments have only limited budgets and regulatory power (Grodach and Loukaitou-Sideris, 2007).

Finally, the lack of departmental coordination is compounded by a failure in most cities to adequately include the arts in the comprehensive plan. When an arts component does exist, it tends to consist of broadly defined goals and strategies and does not identify specific needs or benchmarks. For example, the “arts and culture” component of Fort Worth’s comprehensive plan dedicates just one page each to goals and policies such as “Support public art as a valuable asset to the community” (goal) and “Encourage the development of Fort Worth’s unique art and cultural experiences” (policy). Similarly, Seattle’s comprehensive plan contains an 8 page “Cultural Resource Element” defined by objectives like “Promote the development or expansion of cultural facilities…in areas designated as urban villages and urban centers” and “Work in partnership with artists, arts organizations, ethnic, cultural, musical and community associations, and education institutions to foster opportunities for lifelong cultural exploration for all citizens.” None of these broad statements give an indication of agency roles, anticipated expenses or funding sources, or the level of community involvement.

In short, without a comprehensive plan that clearly identifies a set of goals, procedures, and standards towards the arts and a strong cultural affairs office to coordinate such efforts, departments individually develop their own definition of “the arts” based on their particular interests. In many places, the result is an emphasis on place-based building projects intended to stimulate consumption and development downtown and scattered assistance throughout the rest of the city. This situation contributes to an inequitable distribution of arts activity and unequal funding and support for organizations and individual artists.

An Integrated Framework for Arts Planning

Many of the negative factors associated with the bifurcated arts planning system can be addressed by 1) creating a more integrated and comprehensive inventory and map of arts-based activity that informs 2) a clear and detailed set of guidelines in the comprehensive plan to coordinate departmental action, and 3) the establishment of regional arts initiatives that account for neighborhood differences. An integrated arts planning framework has the potential to more widely serve a city’s communities while still generating economic development.

Mapping the Arts in a City or Region

A first step toward an integrated arts planning model involves creating a baseline of information so that cities can identify and build on existing assets rather than blindly following strategies applied elsewhere. One reason local governments often demonstrate weak support for community arts planning is that they are unaware of the potentially vast community arts network and its development potential. Whereas downtown arts activity is typically presented in prominent facilities, community-based arts programs often lack appropriate venues and take place in schools, churches, and other sites not primarily associated with the arts. The mapping process can increase visibility and awareness of community-based arts.

The mapping process should document all arts institutions and programs including not only sites of consumption, performance and exhibition, but also the artist studios, schools, commercial spaces, and non-arts venues where artistic production, education, and training take place. The arts projects carried out by the various departments should be recognized as well. The data gathering process requires the participation of arts organizations and artists, residents, educators, and those in the cultural industries. The mapping process, therefore, represents a first step toward inclusive arts planning and provides a means to strengthen existing institutions and programs and identify potential linkages within and between areas as well as with the commercial cultural industries. To this end, the arts map can be set up in an interactive, publicly accessible web-based format that permits registered users to make additions and changes over time and thus enable administrators to better address emerging issues.

Arts in the Comprehensive Plan

The arts component of the comprehensive plan should include a clear definition of “the arts,” a list of objectives and their rationale, and a set of policies and indicators to identify how and when objectives are achieved. The plan should identify the roles and responsibilities of the various departments to establish a clear link between the provision of arts activity and other city functions such as economic development, transportation, or parks and recreation while at the same time increasing the likelihood of weaving the arts into other operations and strategies. The plan needs to focus attention both on supply-side issues—for instance, the availability and location of various types of cultural facilities—as well as ways of increasing demand such as through school and community-based arts programs or internship programs that involve youth in commercial arts sectors. Finally, the plan should identify those cultural industry sectors that share similar concerns with local arts organizations and identify ways to foster new or strengthened partnerships.

City-wide and Regional Arts Planning Initiatives

Regional initiatives can overcome the bifurcated approach to arts planning by building connections between downtown and community-based programs, strengthening neighborhood representation, and developing a diverse assortment of arts activity throughout the city. Specific strategies would draw on the arts resource map and arts component in the comprehensive plan so as to effectively draw on and connect the resources, funding, and capacity of the individual departments and nonprofit and commercial cultural sectors.

One way to strengthen cultural affairs is to position the agency as the coordinating body for any departmental action involving the arts. This “watchdog” role would ensure that departmental programs contribute to the goals identified in the comprehensive plan and increase the likelihood that involvement is more equitably distributed throughout the city. This role would also be useful to identify potential partnerships between city departments and commercial, nonprofit and community arts organizations. To further ensure representation of community interests, cultural affairs organize a neighborhood arts council comprised of elected officials, representatives of nonprofit and commercial arts organizations, and residents from council districts. The council system provides local actors with a forum to discuss local issues, identify funding and development needs, and build networks between themselves and local government.

Another potential strategy to alter the dominant center-periphery pattern is to create opportunities for communities and artists to work in the city center. One approach is to actually build a space in the center of the city—a space typically reserved for mainstream, high culture exhibitions and popular attractions—for the display of local, experimental, and community-specific art. While these organizations may not attract the sheer number of visitors that many flagship institutions do, they nonetheless provide significant benefits that a larger institution can not and, given their smaller size and lower overhead, at significantly less cost. Community-specific and alternative art spaces in the city center such as Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and the Fort Worth Community Art Center function as incubators for local artists and are often more involved in local outreach than the flagship art centers. Such work is increasingly recognized not only for its social importance, but for its economic development role as well (Markusen and Schrock, 2006). With an accessible and visible downtown location, these art spaces can provide even greater opportunities for emerging local artists and introduce people to work they may not otherwise experience if in another location.

Cities can also focus on increasing and diversifying demand at downtown cultural institutions by, for example, providing funding to waive admissions costs. The San Jose Museum of Art, for example, doubled its attendance and greatly diversified its audience upon enacting a free admission policy. Museums in Baltimore, Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Dayton have implemented free admission policies with similar success.

In addition, funding and other incentives can be offered to encourage flagship arts institutions to work more closely with communities and artists from throughout the region. Rather than putting all funds upfront toward building costs, as is often the case with publicly funded downtown cultural facilities, cities can reserve money for the development of regular exhibitions that feature emerging local artists, artist-in-residence programs, or symposia. Alternatively, they can provide funding and support for downtown institutions to create exhibitions and performances that tour throughout neighborhoods or operate venues in underserved areas. For instance, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra offers a regular concert series in six suburban cities, often performing at neighborhood churches. Similarly, cities can arrange for exhibits and performances in libraries, parks, and other public spaces. Vacant or underutilized city facilities and can also host exhibitions, performances, live/work spaces, arts incubator, artist-in-residence, and arts education programs through partnerships between cultural affairs, community organizations, and major institutions. Cities can likewise partner with school districts on programs such as the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative, a major program that will integrate regularly scheduled arts education in all public schools. Perhaps most important, cities can reduce barriers to participation by ensuring efficient and affordable public transit and providing safe public spaces.

Despite the potential, a number of challenges exist that may impede realization of an integrated arts planning framework. One crucial factor is a committed municipal leadership that recognizes the contribution of artists and arts organizations to local economic development and community well-being. An additional challenge includes surmounting potential turf claims between both municipal departments and cultural institutions. At the same time, advocates must convincingly argue for the arts against other pressing needs. Finally, much more research is needed to determine the extent to which the strategies outlined above actually help to more equitably distribute public assistance, generate economic development, and boost and diversify demand. Despite these challenges, the enhanced attention to local cultural activities at large provides an opportunity to implement an arts planning framework that is economically viable, socially inclusive, and beneficial to all artists, arts organizations, and their audiences.


Americans for the Arts. 2006. Arts & Economic Prosperity III: The economic impact of nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences. Washington DC: Americans for the Arts

Borrup, T. 2006. The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook: How to transform communities using local assets, art, and culture. Saint Paul, MN: Fieldstone Alliance.

Florida, R. 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.

Grodach, C. and A. Loukaitou-Sideris. 2007. “Cultural development strategies and urban revitalization: A survey of US cities.” International Journal of Cultural Policy 13 (4): 349-370.

Markusen, A. 2006. “Cultural planning and the creative city. Working Paper 271, Project on Regional and Industrial Economics,” Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

Markusen, A and Schrock, G. 2006. “The artistic dividend: Urban artistic specialisation and economic development implications,” Urban Studies, 43(10): 1661-1686.

Seifert, S. and M. Stern. 2005. “‘Natural’ cultural districts: Arts agglomerations in metropolitan philadelphia and implications for cultural district planning.” Working Paper #2005-2, Social Impact of the Arts Project, University of Pennsylvania.

Stern, M. and S. Seifert. 1998. “Cultural participation and civic engagement in five Philadelphia neighborhoods.” Working Paper #7, Social Impact of the Arts Project, University of Pennsylvania.

Wali, A., R. Severson and M. Longoni. 2002. “Informal arts: Finding cohesion, capacity and other cultural benefits in unexpected places.” Chicago: Chicago Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College, June.

Carl Grodach is Assistant Professor in the School of Urban and Public Affairs, University of Texas at Arlington.

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