WEPA! Festival in South Williamsburg Brooklyn. Photo: El Puente

Neighborhood-based arts and culture are a critical but undervalued part of the region’s creative sector

The tri-state region is a global leader in creativity. Its world-class art institutions are essential to the region’s identity and vitality, and drive major economic benefits through tourism, film production, fashion, and other supporting industries. Yet creativity on the neighborhood level is often overlooked and receives less support. While large, traditional institutions are financed by foundation donations and government grants, many smaller organizations and spaces across the region struggle to find adequate funding and other resources, making it difficult to make long-term plans. There is a lack of diversity among the groups that do receive funding, less support for art spaces in communities of color, and a lack of diverse representation in the programming of larger cultural institutions.

Another major challenge for local arts and culture is a lack of space to create and enjoy art. Many local zoning and building regulations make it difficult or expensive to establish the flexible spaces artists need to create and share their work. In many communities, real estate prices are beyond what local artists can afford; and when the less affluent neighborhoods artists settle into becoming more desirable, they can find themselves at risk of being displaced by wealthier newcomers.

Create the space for naturally occurring arts and cultural districts to flourish

Arts and culture are often treated as luxuries, and defined in the limited terms of traditional arts such as theater and museums. But a broad range of local creative and cultural activities, from libraries to street festivals to small galleries, provide compounding benefits to all communities. There are documented social, economic, and health benefits from local arts and culture activity in low-income neighborhoods. Local artists, cultural spaces, and institutions should be supported in all neighborhoods through initiatives at both the local and state level through zoning, funding initiatives, and comprehensive creative placemaking efforts. Cultural events can help communities bridge divides, increase citizen participation, build trust in government processes, create safer and healthier communities, and preserve neighborhood history while elevating the narratives of traditionally marginalized communities.

Invest in arts and culture

While most communities consider arts and culture projects to be important, that often doesn’t necessarily translate to monetary support from private and governmental sectors. Planners should see arts and culture as a fundamental part of a community’s infrastructure. Joint ventures between local governments, community groups, and cultural institutions can encourage a more equitable investment in arts and cultural activities.

All publicly funded projects should build in a budget for art. New York City’s Percent for Art and the MTA’s Arts & Design are innovative programs that have, in the 30 years since their inception, promoted local artists and local art, increased civic pride, and demonstrated that city government and transit authorities are effective custodians of public space. Other communities and state agencies should follow their lead. New Jersey has adopted a different but equally effective strategy of dedicating funds from the state’s hotel tax to the arts. Both Connecticut and New York should explore leveraging a similar tax or developing new funding streams to bolster arts and culture in local communities.

Lastly, municipalities can engage more residents in creative activities by providing more arts programs in public schools and continuing education opportunities through local universities, community colleges, or other educational institutions for adults and seniors. This could be accomplished through partnerships with anchor institutions or through public planning processes, like Participatory Budgeting.

Build and preserve flexible and affordable space for living and producing art

Municipalities can support local artists by creating more flexibility in the zoning code to include provisions for live-work artist housing and workspaces, zoning bonuses for cultural uses, temporary occupancy permits, allowing rooftop cultural spaces, and giving special considerations to development projects that include arts—as Seattle has done.

Promoting arts and culture can be an effective way to invest in the future of historic neighborhoods, including historically underinvested low-income communities of color. In addition to the zoning provisions specified above, municipalities can promote the preservation and reuse of historic buildings into community facilities or live-work situations by assisting owners with national register designation, historic tax credits, and other preservation opportunities. The CreateHereNowCT project has partnered with twenty cities in Connecticut to use vacant buildings as spaces for creating art. But local leaders also need to take steps to ensure investment is sustainable and equitable by protecting existing low-income tenants from displacement. In communities with expensive real estate, municipalities can promote community preservation by strengthening their affordable housing regulations.

Expand access to arts and culture opportunities

While the region has unmatched arts venues and events, art can also be experienced in a wider range of places, including the public spaces that tie communities together.

Local leaders should leverage streets, plazas, transit, community centers, and schools as places to create and enjoy arts and culture. New York City runs several city-wide and neighborhood-led street-closure events that are a simple and inexpensive way to program public space and engage hundreds of thousands of visitors in creative activities. Smaller cities and towns have similar car-free days, which should be expanded and made permanent when possible.

States, municipalities, and private funders should increase support for innovative neighborhood arts initiatives spearheaded by local organizations. Arts East New York, Newark Arts, open studios in Newburgh, and the Wassaic Project are just three of the many initiatives across the region that have grown local cultural offerings and helped to sustain communities through partnerships with local artists, schools, and government officials. Connecticut’s Office of the Arts has also provided numerous grants for arts education in an effort to grow future arts audiences statewide.

Space for arts and culture provides multiple benefits to the region's communities beyond beautification and economic development. Photos: Safe Harbors of the Hudson, Van Alen Institute, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Christian Abraham, Hearst Connecticut Media.

Use creative placemaking to engage residents and other key stakeholders in planning for their community’s future

Communities throughout the region are struggling with low local participation in political and planning processes. Creative placemaking emphasizes fostering more meaningful and inclusive community dialogues by investing in a community’s existing cultural strengths while promoting equity, justice, and inclusion. Rather than revitalizing communities by attracting artists from outside the community, creative placemaking promotes comprehensive planning with a central focus on art from the community up., Creatively rethinking how we plan our communities can result in innovative solutions to some of our most pervasive problems.

Communities looking to pursue creative placemaking can apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town project and ArtPlace America. New York’s Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts Council and the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking based in New Jersey, can also serve as a technical resource for communities hoping to engage in the process.

Outcomes

Supporting existing creative and cultural assets in an equitable way would lead to more engaged communities with more active street life, civic pride, and economic activity. Children who have more access to the arts in school have better education (and therefore health) outcomes. Other vulnerable populations, such as seniors, who engage in social and creative activities, feel more connected to society. By embracing a wider range of the region’s already rich cultural network, the region would see a rise in arts and culture tourism in other parts of the region, while boosting distressed communities and preserving their history. And through creative placemaking, neighborhoods would be better able to plan for and, with their cultural assets, ensure their success in the future.

Paying for it

Greater investment in neighborhood arts and culture could come from reallocation or incremental expansion from existing programs and funding streams. But creative ways for incorporating arts in both public and private initiatives should be explored, including tourism taxes, as the arts are a driving force of the region’s tourism economy. Participatory budgeting should be considered as a way for residents to drive creative programming in their neighborhoods. Partnerships with institutions, such as hospitals, universities, and museums, could bring additional resources. And, in order for communities to engage in creative placemaking themselves, they should consider grants from the National Endowment for the Arts or ArtPlace America.

1. Devos Institute, “Diversity In The Arts: The Past, Present, and Future of African American and Latino Museums, Dance Companies, and Theater Companies,” 2015
2. University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts Project, “The Social Wellbeing of New York City’s Neighborhoods: The Contribution of Culture and the Arts,” 2017
3. The New York City Council, “Participatory Budgeting,” 2017
4. The City of Seattle, “The CAP Report,” 2017
5. New York’s Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts Council, “Creative Placemaking From the Community Up,” 2017
6. National Endowment for the Arts, “How to do Creative Placemaking: An Action Oriented Guide to Arts in Community Development,” 2017
7. National Endowment for the Arts,”Creative Placemaking,” 2010