Artists Are The Only Asset Found In Every Community

The video of ArtPlace America’s CEO Jamie Bennett’s keynote at an Invest Health convening came across my feed recently.  What I found valuable in his speech was that he laid out an argument for the value of the arts that didn’t pivot to economic statistics.

Around the 6:50 mark he starts to talk about the factors that influence those who move into a community in making the decision to stay: social offerings; openness to new ideas and people; and aesthetics.  He says arts and culture bring all those things and helps people feel rooted in a community.

His definition of art and culture is inline with that expanded definition embraced by everyone from the National Endowment for the Arts and respondents to the recent Culture Track survey. It is the parks and food trucks as well as the opera houses.

He talks about arts and culture as a facilitator of social cohesion citing the observations of drumming circles and informal arts by an anthropologist working at the Field Museum in Chicago.  Bennett said that the anthropologist found that the act of “…art making, doing and experiencing art together, acts as a master identity.”

He goes on to say that this was based on observations of immigrants and first generation Americans living in Chicago who participated in drumming circles. As each performed drumming particular to their own cultural background, the group bonded.   Bennett says this observation is important because it potentially illustrates that arts and culture is a pathway for integrating society that doesn’t involve assimilation–“I don’t have to become more like you to become more closely bonded.”

The a-ha moment for me came around 9:15 when Bennett mentions that artists are the only asset that exists in any community. Not every community has a waterfront to develop, transportation infrastructure or an anchor institution (i.e. higher ed, medical) around which to build industry.  You can count on those who practice and participate in the arts being in your community. With some investment, those people/groups can form the basis around which community cohesion can be cultivated.

He talks about the process of Creative Placemaking as something that has to be particular to each community -“resident centric, locally informed and holistic.” You can’t copy what works somewhere else and expect it to work in your community.

While the local arts community is well-placed to respond to the needs of their community, the challenge to them is to shift their perspective to focus on creating solutions for challenges in their geographic community rather than thinking about responding to their community of donors, subscribers and peer institutions.

As an example, he cites the efforts of Springboard for the Arts in helping to mobilize 600 artists to help mitigate the negative impacts of two years of light rail construction on residents and businesses in St. Paul, MN.

Bennett says the success of this project ran contrary to many of the assumptions and expectations people have. He points out the solution came from artists who already lived in the community. No one was brought in from outside to help save the neighborhood. All the positive associations about arts and culture the project inspired didn’t require the construction of an arts center, nor was it dependent on a physical arts oriented facility or cultural district. The focus was on the human beings involved.

His comment that really intrigued me and I hope is true, is that many of the businesses in the area who benefited from the 150 events the 600 artists created have started diverting promotional money to commissioning work because they saw the events brought in more business than advertising did.

Bennett’s thought process might not immediately satisfy a government official or policy maker that wants the promise of quantifiable results. However, there is something compelling in the argument that the arts and culture community is an already present asset that can be mobilized to effect.  If they are soliciting support employing this rationale it will be incumbent upon many arts and cultural entities to start focusing on addressing the challenges in their region rather than doing more what they have done in the past.


Hey You Damn Kids, Come On To My Yard!

About three years ago, I heard about the PorchRokr Festival in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.  I had since learned that there was a whole series of Porchfests that have sprung up since the 2007 inaugural effort in Ithaca, NY.

Just before Thanksgiving CityLab had an article that mentioned the revived interest in porches as an architectural feature, citing the Porchfests in the process.

To younger urbanites, he says, porches look like stages. In the Instagram age, the front steps have become places to see and be seen, throw a rocking concert or party, and to foster metropolitan community in a walk-by, stop-in-for-wine sense. “Not by design but by accident—by having strangers descend on their yard, having a musician play, sharing a beer, and meeting some new folks—I gave all these people a tool to look at what porches mean in a new way,” Doyon says.

In 2016 as part of the lead up to the PorchRockr festival, the organizers were holding sessions to teach people how to replicate the festival in other communities. They also held 4 workshops on consecutive weeks to teach participating music groups how to get organized for the festival, deal with stage fright and engage in banter with the audience.

At one time porches and front stoops were central to communal life for families and neighborhoods and show hints of reclaiming that role again.  According to CityLab, one woman in the Buffalo, NY/Toronto, ON area sponsors a whole series of events.

In the warmer months, on her own front steps, she also hosts a “Stories From the Porch” series of speakers on art, history, and culture. Her events have attracted participants as young as 11, who—like her twentysomething kids—love hanging out on the porches. Glica takes pleasure in redefining her community’s relationship to an American architectural feature once dismissed as old-fashioned. “It’s subtle,” she says. “In 10 years we’re going to go, ‘When did that happen?’ But it’s definitely happening.”

While these types of activities can certainly manifest as outgrowths of an organization’s current activities, as someone who believes every bit of creative activity helps to cultivate the cultural ecology of communities, I offer these ideas up to readers as things they could do as individuals as well.

What Is Curation These Days?

I was perusing the Arts and Letters Daily site and saw a link to a Weekly Standard article discussing how the idea of curation has evolved from PT Barnum’s American Museum to a professionalization of the process to the current state where:

…“curating” has emerged in recent years as a ubiquitous cultural tag for fashion, groceries, Instagram posts, Pinterest accounts, and much else. Grammy winner Usher “curated” a July 4 fireworks and light show for Macy’s. On its website, a strip club in New York promised a few years ago to “curate a night of Curious burlesque.” Self-help gurus suggest that by self-curating—decluttering your life—you can find inner peace.

The mention of social media posts as forum to present a collection of things, ideas, images, etc that one has personally curated reminded me of a post I made last month about the search for authentic experiences.

In that post, I cited a CityLab piece that suggested that in aggregate, the unique experiences presented on social media sites blended in a bland sameness.

Consumers craving “authentic” experiences tend to build their digital personas by recycling the same kinds of content that populate their own feeds. Especially on Instagram, photos of under-the-radar coffee shops, building interiors, and artful design objects begin to look utterly banal as they aggregate by the thousand. The real world, without any impetus other than the encouragement of the market, has conformed to these aesthetic standards in response.

I started to wonder if arts organizations might have a role to play in helping people stand out by bringing the focus more sharply on them as an individual again. Nina Simon has talked about setting up pop up museums in bars where people can display artifacts of their failed relationships. Providing this sort of opportunity allows people to curate as a fish in a much smaller pond and lends some of the prestige and imprimatur of an arts organization to the individual.

Even if every other arts organization replicates the same program, the fact the experience is only occurring at a single physical location avoids the problem of being able to see 100 variations on an idea in 15 minutes that exists with social media curation.  Sure the curator receives fewer “likes” but hopefully the face to face validation ultimately feels more valuable.

Now my suggestion that an arts organization would be lending their prestige to amateurs might raise the hackles of some who fear the diminution of their reputation. Others would counter that arts organizations need to recognize reality and not seek to preserve their reputation at the cost of a diminishing audience.

Both views have merit. The degree to which an arts or cultural organization invests themselves in providing these opportunities and promoting what people have curated should be well considered.

Being associated with something silly or low quality may be embarrassing, but there is an opportunity to recover. The Weekly Standard makes reference to the Confederate statuary which is being torn down around the country. It is often mentioned that many of those statues were erected years after the Civil War ended and were funded by various interest groups which strikes me essentially as a form of curation by the public. Towns and cities permitted the placement of those statues and now find themselves involved in some controversy.

Lest you interpret this as a cautionary tale against being too permissive or emphatically supportive in any future programs that allow community participation, it is just as much a warning about hewing closely to any longstanding, potentially unsavory associations your organization has had that may come to light. Being viewed as increasingly open and welcoming to involvement by the breadth of the community might mitigate any negative historic associations.

Does Cultural Track Data Challenge Assumptions About Your Community?

As I promised in my last post, I took a deeper look at the Culture Track reporting over the weekend.  More specifically, I took at a look at both the Top Line deck and Supporting Data documents which are available for download. I didn’t review the raw data.

The Supporting Data document is presented with visual graphs which makes it easy to interpret. Though I also hungered for some analytical commentary from the Culture Track folks about what the greater implications might be.

A few observations from Supporting Data in the hopes of making the opportunity to dig in irresistible for readers.

First of all, the charts seem to belie the idea that Millennials are  abandoning cultural experiences. Except for watching TV (which includes streaming) they lead in every category. This is only one of three pages.


Now you may be saying, sure but participation once a year isn’t a high hurdle.

However, that generation also leads in frequency per month too.


If you remember what I quoted and wrote last week about the perceptions of those who were high frequency attenders, this has some important implications.

People who attend three or more cultural experiences per month are 94% more likely to cite “it doesn’t change” as a barrier to more frequent cultural participation compared those who attend one or fewer cultural experiences per month.

Given that what people define as a cultural experience is pretty broad, the chances that your average attendee is participating in three or more experiences a month is pretty good. Being 94% more likely to feel lack of change is a barrier to participation is pretty significant.

While you shouldn’t take all this information at face value without digging in and questioning the basis of the findings, the fact the data depicted may contradict your assumptions can be enough to get conversations started reevaluating long held beliefs.

The study authors slice and dice the data through a number of different lenses which make for interesting viewing. Most every question is presented in terms of generation, race/ethnicity, community size, education level, marital status and parental status.

So for example, the following information about where people get advertised and non-advertised information about cultural activities is presented in these contexts. (There is also a chart for offline information sources which I haven’t included)


Perhaps of most interest to different arts and cultural organizations, they break down motivators and barriers for participation for 12 different disciplines/cultural activities.

Below is a sample for art museums. There is also a chart with barriers for non-participants for each area.



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