Art Works Blog

A Commitment to the Arts That Will Transform Communities

Luis Ubiñas. Photo courtesy of the Ford Foundation

I am often asked why I have such a deep commitment to the arts. It’s because I see the arts as part of what will deliver us from this time of deep economic and, more importantly, spiritual dislocation. The arts can heal, and the arts can build. In this time of need, the arts can give.

Carol Coletta wrote in this blog a few weeks ago that “quality of place” and “quality of opportunity” are the attributes that draw and keep people together. That is the inspiration and aspiration of ArtPlace, a unique partnership that brings together federal agencies, private financial institutions, and philanthropies to address the essential role of the arts in fundamental issues of the recovery:

  • How do we nurture creativity in a time of want?
  • How do we position the arts and artists as an element of economic recovery---rather than as something ancillary?
  • What role can the arts play in healing a nation?

One of the lessons I have learned in a peripatetic life which has taken me to dozens of countries is how a vibrant creative community is a constant feature of places that have rebounded from decline.

In New York, I saw it in Soho in the 1970s and 80s and later in Chelsea and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I saw it in the South End of Boston in the 1980s and 90s and in the last decade, across SOMA in San Francisco. Internationally, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and London prove the same point.

Each of these places took distressed neighborhoods that housed burgeoning arts scenes and through a combination of rezoning, infrastructure investment, and private development turned them into powerful engines of local economic growth.

Artists and cultural institutions have a unique ability to kick-start local economies, create jobs, and attract new businesses. We now know that more inclusive communities---urban and rural, places that welcome a diversity of ideas and people---grow faster than cities that do not. We now know that places with thriving arts communities and facilities grow faster than those that don’t have promising cultural assets. Art is not a luxury; art is a precondition to success in a world increasingly driven by creativity and innovation.

Arts spaces are economic anchors around which communities can build. Think about it: Communities will lobby to locate a small manufacturing plant that can be moved off shore at any point, but how many communities will fight to attract the diverse, creative people and art spaces that can create just as many jobs and become a permanent asset that nourishes not just the pocketbook but also the soul?

Indeed, investing in arts and cultural institutions that are strong, powerful economic catalysts within their local communities can be the economic equivalent of bringing a manufacturing plant to a neighborhood and---from a cultural and quality-of-life standpoint---more than surpass it. ArtPlace marries Ford’s long-standing work in urban and regional development with its history of support for creative, entrepreneurial arts spaces.

ArtPlace itself is an act of profound creativity and innovation.

It’s not every day that you see the Ford Foundation joining with Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Mellon Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and other philanthropic groups in support of a single project, but as my colleague Don Randel, president of the Mellon Foundation, said earlier this month, “It seemed too important not to do.”

This collaboration goes beyond foundations, it’s an alphabet soup of public agencies as well---from the NEA, HUD and HHS, to Ag, and the Office of Management and Budget and Domestic Policy Council at the White House. A cross-agency collaborative is helping to coordinate ArtPlace investment and federal policies.

Finally, there is also assistance from major financial institutions, including Bank of America, Chase, Citi, Deutsche Bank, MetLife, and Morgan Stanley---corporate leadership that shows us the business community at its best.

In the end, ArtPlace creates a partnership model that has the potential---through support for the arts---to transform communities, make neighborhoods more attractive, address urban challenges, and perhaps, above all, connect people. The strength of these partnerships ensures that ArtPlace moves beyond its outstanding beginning.

With ArtPlace we are reaffirming the essential role that the artistic community plays in not only spurring creativity and innovation, but also in reimagining how arts and culture can shape our communities, our country, and our shared future for the better.

You will see precisely that type of potential in the projects ArtPlace is funding:

  • In Detroit, ArtPlace is supporting the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, a linchpin of the developing Sugar Hill Arts District; the Sugar Hill Music Venue, a flexible performance space; and the Fab Lab, a planned art creation space and art studio in Midtown Detroit has the potential to spur new economic growth in a place that desperately needs it.
  • On the West Coast, SoFa Gore Park in downtown San Jose will create a new urban plaza and outdoor space that connects the city’s most significant arts institutions. It’s part of a project to transform the SoFa district and leverage more that $60 million in redevelopment funds from the city.
  • In Seattle, an ArtPlace grant will support the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience---which is part of a larger effort to revitalize the Chinatown-International District, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
  • In New York, ArtPlace will invest in the redevelopment of P.S. 109, a turn-of-the-century school in East Harlem, which will become home to the first housing development for artists in the area.

Each of these projects represents a new model for helping towns and cities succeed by integrating artists and arts organizations into local efforts in transportation, housing, community development and job creation. And this is just the beginning. ArtPlace expects to invest another $11-12 million in the next round of funding in 2012.

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