Who Benefits from Arts and Cultural Districts?

Many arts districts are centers of economic development. But who benefits more from these cultural hubs — the arts community or local government?

Oklahoma City is home to the Paseo arts district.
The Paseo in Oklahoma City is one example of the many arts and cultural districts contributing to economic development in urban centers.

Is there an arts district in your city or town? Chances are, the answer is yes.

In recent years, there has been an increased connection between the arts and economic development in urban centers that has resulted in the establishment of over 90 arts districts (otherwise known as cultural districts) in the last 20 years. These districts are usually geographically defined areas with an agglomeration of buildings dedicated to the creation and presentation of the arts. They are often home to museums, visual and performing arts spaces, non-profit organizations, and for-profit creative businesses. At their height, these districts become the center of cultural dissemination across the city, allowing the city to define itself in new ways. But does the arts field — and the arts spaces in these districts — benefit from this partnership as much as the local governments and developers involved in fostering these cultural hubs?

Urban planning or organically grown – which is best?

Arts districts have proven to be an excellent economic development tool for many cities, particularly when combined with urban rejuvenation efforts like repurposing vacant factory buildings or renewing blighted neighborhoods. The majority of arts districts are established in one of two ways.

In the first scenario, they are strategically planned over several years, involve many voices in the development process, are strategically placed in the urban environment and, most importantly, usually have financial support and leadership. Successful versions of this type of district are demonstrated in Pittsburgh, Columbus and Dallas. The districts in these cities were intentionally planned by local governments in collaboration with arts organizations and placed in areas in need of revitalization. These neighborhoods primarily house arts organizations and for-profit arts businesses. There are typically few artist studios or residents in these districts. This can make the districts feel a bit precooked, but the arts and the city’s redevelopment goals have an equal partnership that mutually benefits all involved.

The other way that districts are established is through the designation of a region that developed organically, usually by artists who move into such an area seeking cheaper rent and amble studio space. In this second scenario, there is typically far less financial support from the city and less planning for its growth. Developers often arrive shortly after designation status is granted, and begin building condos and repurposing vacant spaces that can support residential and commercial spaces. The more successful and desirable these districts become, the more expensive and gentrified they become. Taxes increase, rents go up.

The Northeast Minneapolis Arts District is an example of this type of arts district. Taxes have increased dramatically since the establishment of the arts district and new condo projects have already broken ground. They have also had a significant increase in visitors to their district as well as to their annual arts festival attendance. The designation of these organically emerging creative districts brings attention to the arts spaces that are already established there, and attracts new artists, arts organizations, visitors and tourists.

Who benefits from arts districts?

A piece of public street art in the Wynwood Arts District in Miami. Image from the .
A piece of public street art in the Wynwood Arts District in Miami. Image from the Renegade Fashion Writer.

While more intentionally planned arts districts lack some of the character and authenticity of organically developed districts, I would argue that they are far more sustainable for both the arts and the development of the city. A lengthy planning phase and the investment of time and energy from a wide range of individuals and organizations can create a cultural district that has a stable financial foundation as well as a focused value on the content and partnership that the arts provide. Organically created neighborhoods may be more authentic, but they have less structure and support, and the benefits to local government and businesses seem to far outweigh what artists and arts organizations get out of the district designation.

The best kind of arts district is the one that equally benefits the city government, the art scene, and the businesses in the district. Revitalizing a neighborhood on the backs of an existing neighborhood won’t benefit any of these groups in the long run. If cities want to benefit from their arts and culture community, then it needs to be in a fair and responsible way. Planned arts districts may not have the same flavor of authenticity, but they will have the most positive impact. Let the organically grown neighborhoods be themselves without government interference.

As arts and economic development continue to be linked, and several cities and states have already combined these two governmental departments, the question of what those in the arts field get out of this relationship becomes more important. The arts and culture communities are serving these cities in many beneficial ways – they contribute to urban revitalization, economic development and artist centers. They provide cities with a better quality of life and allow them to brand themselves as creative and cultured in order to promote tourism, attract new residents and encourage new businesses. With minimal or no financial incentives for these districts, local governments are getting quite a bargain.

How can the arts make sure they receive proper support from local governments that benefit from the existence of arts districts? What is your perspective on arts and cultural districts and their role in contributing to urban economic development?

[Header image from Oklahoma City News Channel 4.]

Erinn Roos-Brown is the Program Manager for the Creative Campus Initiative at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts in Middletown, CT where she oversees the program’s mission to elevate the place of art, artists and the artistic process at Wesleyan and to innovatively strengthen teaching, student learning, artmaking and cross-disciplinary exchange and inquiry.

  • Joe Carbone

    Partnerships require all parties to give 100+% according to their missions vs. what they can expect to get. Companies will locate where there is a vibrant arts community as that community contributes to a high quality of life attracting high quality employees seeking great places to raise families. Med-high incomes generate taxes and donations for things that matter in people’s lives such as schools, security, and the arts. Economic development will thrive when the mix of companies, government, and nonprofits do what they do best.

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  • Frances Phillips

    Which model benefits the quality of life for the people who have been living in the distressed neighborhood? In my observation of cultural hubs that are devised by local government, a focus on jobs–increasing tourism and commerce–trumps services for neighbors.

  • cpeila

    I think it’s time to integrate the two models. Adaptive! It would help keep creative and intellectual resources in areas that were once derelict. It would be a coo for community development, especially if a government would recognize the organic grass roots development as the seedling and they value it and put time, money and energy into not only developing an arts district, but also continue to support the artists, cultural organizations, businesses and community that initiated the growth and change in the area.

    The ‘either or’ leads to gentrification not integration and disparity of those who can keep their home and must again move to a cheaper area. How can we work with existing infrastructures and build off of them, not remove those who develop thus creating a diverse area for new people to visit, experience art, and live and where, over time, income begins to increase and rents can slowly be raised. If we can keep those who initiated the change and add luxury housing and business to the existing stabilized rent areas, we can create an exciting and vibrant cultural district and community without displacing and disrupting grass roots social development. I think this is the challenge for us all.

  • Francesca

    I agree with
    Phillips’ comment: planned arts district even with the best intentions can
    still be problematic. Roos-Brown says these “become the center of cultural
    dissemination,” but I ask what culture is being disseminated? We need
    development that economically and socially benefits people currently living
    around the “blighted neighborhoods.” When I went to the NET Microfest in Hawaii
    this summer, we visited an area called Kaka’ako, a previously industrial area that
    is being strategically developed into an arts district. These new businesses
    and loft apartments are now pushing invested citizens out because property
    taxes are rising, forcing many of the original businesses owners to leave.
    Planned or organic, to truly create the best kind of arts district the culture
    and community that is already there must be at the table. I live in New Orleans
    and this issue is incredibly contentions, as seen here (http://louisianajusticeinstitute.blogspot.com/2013/01/how-not-to-be-gentrifier-with-your.html)
    and here (http://thelensnola.org/2013/04/09/gentrification-flap-rooted-in-an-older-debate-over-new-orleans-exceptionalism/).

  • Bruce

    This subject is an important facet of the industry of art, thank you for addressing it. Do you have any data on the claim: Organically created neighborhoods may be more authentic, but they have less structure and support, and the benefits to local government and businesses seem to far outweigh what artists and arts organizations get out of the district designation. Thank you for any help you can be.

  • Brown Miller

    There is an interesting phenomenon that seems to be happening here. As much a blessing as the work of organizations like the Americans for the Arts has been, there does seem to be disturbing side effect taking place now. The collective knowledge and experience of hundreds of communities and organizations has been distilled into collections of best practices and use case scenarios, allowing planned districts to be deployed faster and more successfully and designations of organic ones to offer better support and incentives to keep them stable and thriving.

    But, the unfortunate consequence of this streamlining and knowledge aggregation is that the cultural district is becoming so commonplace that they in danger of losing the very essence that defines them: the accentuation of a community’s unique character as expressed through creative arts and cultural experiences.

    The key word there being “unique”, it’s becoming all too easy to just tap into the jaded, culture-saturated overflow from urban centers desperate for reasonable rents and a fresh start someplace where people might actually be impressed or shocked or emotionally impacted by their work. The old “bring in a bunch of big city weirdos and let their rich friends follow” tactic. Although this does provide a much needed escape route for urban culture refugees, it doesn’t usually do much for the communities that host them.