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The arts, believes Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), just might help put the country on the path to economic recovery and pull real estate development out of the doldrums.

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Rocco Landesman 

Landesman, the former Tony Award–winning Broadway impresario who brought “The Producers” to the Great White Way as well as a number of other hits, explains that Austan Goolsbee, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, has said that two things make the current recession different from previous ones. “Historically, unemployment has been solved by citizens picking up and redistributing themselves to where the jobs are,” says Landesman. “But today, with so many underwater mortgages and such widespread unemployment, that is simply not possible. So we need to create net new economic activity in every community. Art does that. Net new economic activity comes from the creation of new commodities—works of art—and from innovation, which is the definition of an artist: someone who can imagine something that has never before existed. Most art is place-based. It has to be consumed in person, in place, and in real time. It cannot be outsourced. I truly believe that art will soon be part of every conversation about strengthening communities.”

Using the arts as part of an economic development strategy isn’t radical, Landesman adds: it is actually common sense. “But recognizing that this is a strategy that makes sense for public investment—that is new,” he continues. “We have been working closely with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has now listed the arts as one of the explicit areas eligible for regional planning support. The Department of Transportation and the Department of Agriculture are both talking with us about some concrete ways they can explicitly include the arts in their portfolios. This is new ground, and I hope it will soon become commonplace.”

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Vizcaino County Park & Drive In 

Talk with any mayor in any city across America, he adds. “They all know that the arts are linked with economic development in key ways,” says Landesman. “The arts put feet on streets, which is the most important thing you can do to improve public safety. The arts also create brand identity for places—think of Marfa, Texas, or North Adams, Massachusetts. And the arts drive local economies. Not just the money that people spend directly on the arts, but think of the dry cleaner next to the Metropolitan Opera, or the parking lot attendants near Disney Hall, or the bar owner next to—well, let’s be honest, next to just about any theater. Dance NYC actually did a fascinating survey of how many baby-sitters are required by dance audiences in New York City. It was eye-opening.”

That’s why earlier this year, the NEA launched grants for Art Works, an update to its existing Grants for Arts Projects category, and Our Town, a new grant program that supports creative place-making projects in American communities. Our Town is designed to fund innovative projects in which communities, together with their arts and design organizations and artists, create livable, sustainable neighborhoods with enhanced quality of life, increased creative activity, distinct identities, a sense of place, and revitalized local economies. The inaugural round of Our Town funding totaled $6.75 million in grants to 51 communities in 34 states that have created public/private partnerships to strengthen the arts while shaping the social, physical, and economic characters of their neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions.

In Portland, Maine, for example, Terra Moto—an organization that brings creativity into civic life—is focusing on “Art at Work,” an initiative that brings art-making projects into municipal governments. With a $100,000 Our Town grant, Terra Moto will match pairs of artists and community facilitators with local neighborhood associations to explore each neighborhood’s history, identity, and personal stories. “The process will lead to a public art installation in each neighborhood, followed by a citywide festival that celebrates the neighborhoods, the art created, and the relationships built,” says Landesman. “This is an ideal project because it will truly infuse Portland with art—and art that is specific to Portland’s neighborhoods and residents. Along the way, something like 55 artists, 300 neighborhood residents, and more than 2,000 community participants will get involved. These are the sorts of broad, art-centric partnerships we want to encourage.”

In Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the Red Cloud Indian School will increase self-sufficiency among the Lakota People and other Native Americans by capitalizing on the distinctiveness of their artwork using an ArtPlace grant. They are working to integrate entrepreneurial and business training for local artists with new technology and community branding to build new markets and generate increased visitation to the area.

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The Farm/Art D-Tour in
Reedsburg, Wisconsin

And in St. Paul, Minnesota, the city is developing six miles (9.6 km) of light-rail corridor over the next three years and has received an ArtPlace grant. “This is a great investment in infrastructure by the city, but—as all of us know—infrastructure projects like this can be majorly disruptive to local businesses and residents,” says Landesman. “Springboard for the Arts will bring in teams of artists charged with both simultaneously developing these areas as a cultural corridor and also helping to mitigate the disruption for the community. Artists are being brought in to help solve a problem in real time.”

Worm Farm Institute, Inc., in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, is another Our Town grantee. The NEA is supporting its “Farm/Art D-Tour,” which takes place along rural roads in northern Sauk County and features farm-based, ephemeral art installations and performances; artist-designed and artist-built mobile farm stands; and interpretative signage about rural culture and the local arts, food, and farming communities. “Worm Farm is doing exactly what we ask of all Our Town grantees: celebrate your unique artistic tradition and the specific place where you are,” Landesman says. “What makes sense in Sauk County isn’t necessarily the right intervention in Austin, Texas, which has a very different local arts tradition.”

When he began the conversation about creative place-making at the NEA, Landesman sought to use it as a framework for some of the NEA’s own investments, and to help spark a national conversation. One of the first people he spoke with after being named NEA chairman was Luis Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation. “As I started in on my sermon about how the arts can lead community revitalization, Luis cut me off and said he had a perfect example of what I was talking about just north of his office,” recalls Landesman with a laugh. “Luis took me to see P.S. 109, in [Manhattan’s] Spanish Harlem. It is an abandoned public school that Artspace Projects, Inc., and El Barrio’s Operation Fightback are redeveloping as artist live/work space and community arts facilities. Luis and I then decided to gather the heads of the biggest arts foundations in the country and ask if they shared our vision of investing in the arts in order to strengthen communities.”

Eleven foundations and five major financial institutions came together and created a pool of $11.5 million in private funds that were invested in creative place-making projects across 20 states. “Often, the private sector leads government to innovation. In this case, just the reverse happened and the NEA’s Our Town grants inspired the private sector to invest differently,” he adds. “Over the past two years at the NEA, we have been talking about creative place-making, which means the ways that communities are using the arts and other creative assets to shape their social, physical, and economic characters,” continues Landesman.

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Jason Schupbach 

The NEA has funded many planning projects focused on the redevelopment of historic spaces for creative and cultural uses, continues Jason Schupbach, the Endowment’s director of design. “All of these projects, if successful, will lead to rejuvenated buildings, putting them back on the tax rolls, and new spaces for experiencing and producing artistic practice,” he adds. “They will create vibrant new places for the public to convene, start businesses, spend money, and enjoy the arts. We hope that all of the planning projects become good examples for communities to emulate.”

For instance, the NEA provided a $250,000 Our Town grant to Florida’s Opa-locka Community Development Corporation, Inc., to develop new open spaces with environmentally functional landscape design. “Opa-locka is a historically disenfranchised community that was sealed off with metal barriers in the middle of the access roads to the community in the 1980s in a failed effort to reduce crime,” says Schupbach. “This project is about reopening those streets and turning the access points into beautiful gathering places that the neighborhood can be proud of. It’s about taking what most people see as a negative and turning them into a major positive for the community. We’re funding the planning and design process for the new entry points. It’s been shown that better access and transportation corridors improve communities.”

Schupbach emphasizes to real estate entrepreneurs that creative place-making is about local assets. “It’s about working with the artists, designers, and cultural organizations in a community in partnership with other local development and planning partners to do a project that makes sense for that place,” he continues. “It’s about a project unique to that community working with what makes that place special.”

Creative place-making is about partnerships, he adds. “As a real estate developer, who are you not talking to who might be able to help you do something special that will make a community vibrant? Have you spoken to the local arts organization and artists/designers? Have you thought about how they might populate your space, do special events, or design public art? Working with creative people early on in your process is a great way to get ideas!”

Creative place-making is just one part of the solution. “It takes a lot of elements to make a place vibrant, and building a successful city is a complex process,” Schupbach adds. “Creative place-making works when it’s not treated as an isolated project, but instead tied to overall development projects and planning.”

Adds Landesman: “As I have traveled the country, I have seen over and over again that it really only takes three things for creative place-making to succeed: a local—and specific—tradition of the arts, a committed philanthropic sector, and a local government structure that ‘gets it.’ ”