Guest post by Bea Dominguez
Learn more about Bea and join #artsmgtchat on June 22, 2012
There have been a lot of conversations around the role of the arts in the creation of vibrant cities. These conversations have gained popularity since the release of Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life. The book argues that “creatives” – those whose economic function is to create new ideas – can encourage the sort of economic development that drives urban revitalization. Such economic development also influences the launch of large-scale funding initiatives such as Art Place, a private-sector partnership created to foster “creative placemaking” supported by major national foundations. But are artists and arts organizations the saviors of our cities? Can art truly change our neighborhoods? The economy? The world?
Art Neighborhoods, Art Districts and Urban Developments
For decades, artists and arts organizations have transformed communities by accident: moving into cheap, rundown, and “dangerous” areas and slowly transforming them into safer, “trendy,” and thriving neighborhoods. When artists and organizations move into a neighborhood they become invested in its well-being and begin to develop cultural activities that attract audiences and other artists. This people traffic attracts businesses and, over the course of several years, the neighborhood changes organically.
Government agencies and developers have started to take note of the social change potential in the arts. They see integrating artists and arts organizations into local efforts in community development as an important tool for economic recovery. Arts organizations and artists bring vibrancy to neighborhoods, vibrant neighborhoods attract people, businesses move in, crime goes down and, inevitably, property prices go up (increased value).
In San Francisco, two large development projects are happening. The privately-driven 5M Project is a four-acre, mixed-use development project in downtown San Francisco spearheaded by Forest City. The city’s own Mid-Market Redevelopment Project was launched by the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD), and seeks to bring new life to abandoned buildings around mid-market/tenderloin area.
Both projects are focusing deeply in the art and community component of their plans. 5M, whose lofty vision statement describes a utopian space, is partnering with Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco’s oldest alternative art space. Intersection left their space of twenty-plus years in the Mission District to collocate inside the development project with the hope of gaining a permanent building. The Mid-Market Redevelopment Projects goal is “to invest in the physical rehabilitation of existing buildings and spaces, new mixed-use affordable housing, and arts focused catalyst projects in the area.”
Public Art and Community Art. The Artist Citizen.
“Artists are expert at uncovering, expressing, and re-purposing the assets of place – from buildings and public spaces to community stories. They are natural placemakers who assume – in the course of making a living – a range of civic and entrepreneurial roles that require both collaboration and self-reliance.“ – Jeremy Nowak, Creativity and Neighborhood Development
Artists think about connections, about possibilities. They see a bare wall in a dirty alley and they think: canvas. They think: community theatre, dance, poetry, and music project involving at risk youth. They think: I am a citizen. I am to come to this place and leave it better than it was when as I found it.
Last month, Emerging Arts Professionals SFBA, a networking and professional development group for emerging leaders, hosted a conversation around the role artists play in community rehabilitation. Artist Citizen was an engaging conversation that addressed the complex issues and civic responsibility of artists engaging in the public sphere.
What Artist Citizen anchored for me is that public art is community art. Art cannot be separated from its role in society. Putting up a sculpture in the middle of a financial district can be nice, but art without a clear social intention it is a missed opportunity.
Any thinking about urban rehabilitation and place-making must acknowledge the possibility of negative impact. Who in the community is seeking the transformation? How will this transformation affect those who call the space home? Who sets the agenda and who benefits?
Gentrification is real. It is the ugly elephant in the room of creative place-making. When we say we want our neighborhoods and our cities to be “better,” this is a statement loaded with its own prejudice, and artists and arts organizations need to be aware of their gentrifying presence. Arts organizations have already been thinking about race and class (among many other issues) as they relate to audiences and the people they serve. What we as arts workers and orgs need to do is to translate this thinking, continue having these conversations, and proceed fully knowing how our actions will both benefit and affect those closer to the project.
I personally love the fact that arts are being brought to the table, that artists and arts organizations are being recognized and asked to participate. However, my cynical self keeps in mind that real estate developers have their own interests apart from artists and arts organizations. Artists and arts organizations need to be conscious of what those interests are, push their own interests and remain true to their mission.
Art Alone Is Not Enough
The arts are agents of community rehabilitation, but art alone is not enough. There is no real cure to complex social and economic problems. We cannot assume letting artists move into a neighborhood, giving up a few bare walls, or letting an arts organization move into an abandoned building is somehow going to make change.
When we think about urban development projects, cross-sector (public, private, civic) involvement is critical, as each sector levers and strengthens the other encouraging creativity and learning.
Art’s True Value
There is no doubt in my mind that the arts create more vibrant communities and neighborhoods thus creating a more thriving economy. But I think the most important contribution arts make is that they create a connected community: a platform for diverse groups to share common experiences and understand each other better. This is what makes a great city.