There’s something you should know about me: I’m a professional amateur. For the past seven years I’ve been co-writing and performing in original works of musical theater with my wife’s theater company, Downtown Art. We’ve just opened our latest piece, Bowery Wars (Part 2), a rock musical about the history of the Lower East Side 100 years ago, Tammany Hall politics, gang warfare, and Romeo & Juliet. It rocks, and yes you should come see it.
But I’m not just here to flog my latest masterpiece. We professional amateurs are artists who fly under the radar. We don’t make our livelihood from our art. We do other things to put bread and butter together. I happen to be a highly compensated community develop consultant, but many of my peers are dog walkers, administrative assistants, massage therapists, and restaurant workers. (By the way, in another shameless plug, you should check out my brother Dan’s blog on the lives of restaurant workers and artists in Chicago). I also serve on the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts Working Group, and I’m currently doing some research for the Municipal Art Society on revenue trends for the nonprofit cultural sector. I’m my previous work I ran an “Arts and Economic Development” giving strategy from the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation along with my colleagues Gary, Alessandra and Sam (hi guys!).
All in all, you might say I have a rather engaged perspective on the question of where arts and economic development intersect, and where they don’t. There are four major trends right now in NYC.
Research: the Cultural Data Project is the motherload of new data. Built to track the economic life of individual arts organizations, this data set provides a wealth of information regarding income, expenses, audiences, performances and many of the operational parameters of the participating nonprofit culturals. (In my current MAS research, I’m studying a subset of 700 NYC based nonprofit culturals to understand income trends and how they vary by organizational size and activity.) But CDP is not alone. The NEA has been bringing on a whole team of statisticians to analyze data produced by the “Our Town” and “ArtPlace” initiatives, and other foundations and arts industry service organizations are conducting research as well. The problem is, most of the research is not directly relevant to the nonprofits providing the data.
Infrastructure: The hardest thing about making art in NYC is finding a place to do your work. It’s expensive out there, folks. New programs like SpaceWorks (in the process of being renamed), and existing stalwarts like Chashama are about taking under-utilized public and private spaces and converting them to temporary uses for making and exhibiting art. FAB’s Dance Block is another great example at the grassroots level of helping artists connect with affordable elbow room. There are a great many other examples, and they are being facilitated by aggressive new funding and financing strategies from the public and private sectors.
PlaceMaking: ArtPlace is probably the biggest example, but Rockefeller’s Cultural Innovation Fund, Deutsche Bank’s Arts and Enterprise program and Ford Foundation’s work Supporting Diverse Arts Spaces all cover similar territory – helping cultural activities and institutions work within the context of their own community to strengthen local vibrancy and expand economic activity. The idea has been popularized by researchers like Richard Florida and his Creative Class concept, which essentially says that vibrancy attracts talent, and talent attracts economic strength.
Grassroots cultural organizing: the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts Working Group also draws on this idea that cultural entities are catalysts of local development, but is much more focused on bottom up efforts connected to community organizing, public performance, and local visioning. In many ways it’s congruent with placemaking strategies, but with a strong and clear intent of avoiding tricky little issues like gentrification and the exclusion of more marginalized local populations.
This is all great stuff, but there’s a problem. While leaders in these various efforts are all in contact with one another through various channels, there’s been no effort yet to create a strategic framework that better integrates these four key areas of activity. And we need to. New York City’s cultural sector is facing a defining moment, and a real opportunity to lay the groundwork for the next 10 years of public/private partnership around the arts. These four areas of activity are going to be central to this effort, and each could (and should) be leveraged by and connected to the others. Much could be done to align resources to support specific geographies (hello, Bushwick!) and populations (particularly low income artists and residents), while also better achieving the goals of strengthening communities. But we’ve got to better connect the dots.
Photo by the Michigan Municipal League via Creative Commons, CC BY-ND.