Art Works Blog

Postcard from The Future of the City: The Arts Symposium

Washington, DC

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millenium Park. Photo by Santi Diaz via Flickr

The University of Chicago is running a series of symposia on the future of the city and all its dimensions. Last week I attended the second one, which was on the arts and the future of the city. This particular convening was co-hosted by the NEA, the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, and the Cultural Policy Center, which is a joint initiative of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies and NORC at the University of Chicago. The great thing about this conference was it took on all the most challenging questions: How do you value culture in a global city? How do you foster civic engagement through the arts in the city? Why does arts participation matter? How can you use art, architecture, and design to transform place, to transform your neighborhood, your city, your region, in a global context?

There was a really diverse group of participants---both speakers and audience---in attendance, including folks from the United Kingdom. These were cultural policy experts, they were economists, they were architects and designers, they were artists. Theaster Gates is from Chicago, and he is both an artist and a cultural planner. Wendell Pierce is an actor on The Wire and Treme, and he also is a civic activist. (He set up the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation in New Orleans.) There were also journalists, city officials, and policy researchers, including many who have worked extensively with the NEA such as Maria Rosario Jackson, from the Urban Institute, Mark Stern from University of Pennsylvania, and Carol Coletta, the director of ArtPlace. It was a very well informed conversation with people with a great depth of expertise coming together to address these issues.

John Holden, a UK researcher, gave the keynote. His topic was valuing culture in a global city, and that the linking of the two things is important. So, for example, he pointed out that if you go to Florence in Italy, you certainly value culture deeply, but you are not in a global city, you are in a heritage city. He said that we need to look at what it is that culture does in a global city. His critique of the way that Americans approach cultural policy is that we tend to look only at the not-for-profit world. His thesis is that if you don’t look at all three spheres where culture happens and where the arts happen, it is impossible for you to do an intelligent analysis and evaluation. The three spheres that he outlined were the funded sphere, the commercial sphere, and the homemade sphere. He believes that if you don’t look at all three spheres, you’re missing a lot.

Holden makes the point that a global city defines itself by its cultural choices. So how do you know what’s the heart and soul of the city? You know it by its cultural choices. So it absolutely identifies who you are. He says that if you don’t look at all three areas, you’ll miss who are the new audiences for art and culture, you’ll miss the new art forms, and you’ll miss the new distribution mechanisms. Holden contends that without the arts, you are not really a global city. You are not going to be a leadership city without art and culture helping you define who and what you are.

When you look at cities, traditionally planners look at the infrastructure--- the roads, the plumbing, the traffic, the electric grid, the bridges, the tunnels, so that’s your physical infrastructure for the city. But if you don’t look at your cultural ecosystem, you are not going to understand what the possibilities of your city are. Holden maintains that when you take those three spheres together---the funded, the commercial, and the homemade---and understand them as overlapping circles, then you are looking at the second ecosystem in the city, and it’s the second ecosystem that drives talent. So you need to understand that ecosystem if you want to hold talent in your city. He said that in the old city, “The Arts” was often recognized as just for a narrow band of people. In the new city, the arts are for everyone, because you have to look at these three overlapping circles.

The other thing he says you need to understand are the networks: where’s the cultural connectivity in your city? What’s the system for connecting? Where are the places where networking happens, where there’s interconnection? And then you have to look at the capacity of people to use these cultural assets. Do they have access? And if they don’t have access, then you have to work very hard on building the bridges between the assets and the people. Otherwise the assets will just wither away because people won’t care about them if they don’t connect with them.

You also have to look at if you’re supporting artists in creating new art, otherwise you end up with a lot of cover bands, you don’t end up with something original. So you have to look at your infrastructure to make sure you are supporting originality. And you have to look at your policies to make sure that you can do that. Thus zoning becomes a really important thing, whether or not people would be allowed to throw up a pop-up gallery, or whether or not they would be allowed to play music after eight at night. That’s all regulations, and if you can’t have regulations that support the generation of new work, then you are not going to have a lively scene and everyone will move and go elsewhere.

I’d like to note that one truly remarkable thing about this conference is that it raised questions that brought together three or four different domains who don’t usually speak to each other. Policy welfare analysts, cultural policy people, economists, people who do art experiments, they’re often not in the same room together, so the more you do that, the more sophisticated a discourse you can have. And the NEA will be actively working, through our Research office, to keep encouraging these types of conversations.

One of the conversations I particularly enjoyed was about how the arts, in a way, reveal the citizens of a community. Writer-producer David Simon talked about being a journalist, and covering all kinds of undercover stuff. And journalists are supposed to be reporting the facts, the news, and the story. But at a certain point, journalism became so headline driven that he was being forced to distort the real story of the people’s lives by putting labels on people, so that you could get the sound bite at the top. This was opposed to how he’d tell the same kind of story on The Wire, which would show the complexity of the life of a kid on the corner selling drugs, and how he came to be there, and what the pressures were, and what his life was like, which was something Simon couldn’t actually do anymore as a reporter in the news. So in a way, he was saying that when you talk about the truth as your goal, when you talk about the best way to get the truth, you wouldn’t think that a cable drama series would be the best way, but in fact it was the truest way to tell the story, as opposed to having to turn the kid in the journalistic story into either a hero or a victim, the one who escaped and went to prep school, or the one, you know….So I found that very interesting, and I found him extremely smart.

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