chicago_beanCities need look no further than “the Bean,”Anish Kapoor’s iconic Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, to realize how investment in the arts can pay off in terms of urban place making, as well as in economic terms.

Rocco Landesman, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), sees the arts as one of the keys to America’s economic recovery. Landesman, who retired at the end of 2012, told Urban Land in mid-2011: “Historically, unemployment has been solved by citizens picking up and redistributing themselves to where the jobs are. But today, with so many underwater mortgages and such widespread unemployment, that is simply not possible. So we need to create new economic activity in every community. Art does that.”

Following the premise that most art is place-based, Landesman directed the NEA to strengthen and expand a program it has funded since 1986—the Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD). This partnership between the American Architectural Foundation and the U.S. Conference of Mayors brought mayors and design professionals together for three-day symposiums six to eight times a year in different cities, preparing mayors to become what the MICD calls the “chief urban designers of their cities.”

Landesman spent part of his three-year tenure at the NEA touring the cities and programs that came out of these conferences. “The arts put feet on the streets, which is the most important thing you can do to improve public safety. The arts also create brand identity for places, and they drive local economies.”

Landesman was no economist; he was a celebrated Broadway theater owner and producer, best known for the Tony Award–winning hits Angels in America and The Producers. But as an entrepreneur, Landesman had a clear vision of what makes America’s economy tick. His views are supported by a 2012 study, Arts and Economic Prosperity IV, sponsored by Americans for the Arts. This study revealed that the estimated $61 billion in 2010 spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations leveraged an additional $74 billion in event-related spending by arts audiences—parking, dining, shopping, and even baby-sitting—and supported more than 4 million full time–equivalent jobs.

In 2010, the NEA launched the MICD 25th Anniversary Initiative (MICD25) to support creative place-making efforts across the country. MICD25 was conceived as a grant program to help communities shape their social, physical, and economic character by engaging the arts. That year, the NEA’s MICD25 program awarded 21 grants totaling $3 million.

In 2011, the NEA incorporated MICD25 into a new initiative, called Our Town, which supports creative place making with goals that include

  • improving the quality of life;
  • encouraging greater creative activity;
  • fostering stronger community identity and a sense of place; and
  • revitalizing economic development.

In 2011, the NEA awarded $6.575 million in grants to 51 communities in 34 states. To date, the NEA has supported 190 projects in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with total funding exceeding $16 million.

“In addition to the 190 primary grantees, more than 1,370 other organizations have been official partners in these projects,” notes Jason Schupbach, NEA director of design programs, who has led the Our Town program since its inception. “Each year, we have had at least 250 communities applying for these grants. Many of our grantees are looking at how arts can address community ills.” (For more information on applying for grants, visit

Opening Opa-locka

In 2011, the Opa-locka (Florida) Community Development Corporation (OLCDC) became one of the program’s first participants with a $250,000 grant. Located a 35-minute drive northwest of Miami Beach, Opa-locka is home to North America’s largest collection of Moorish revival buildings, but for decades has been better known for its high rates of poverty and crime.

A nine-block area in northern Opa-locka became the nexus of a drug-fueled crime wave during the 1980s. In 1986 and 1987, the city erected metal barriers to block off almost all access to the area, which became known as “the Triangle.” The plan backfired: crime diminished but continued, buildings were abandoned, and the neighborhood’s population dropped dramatically. Today, the neighborhood has only 500 residents.

Under the leadership of OLCDC and with funding from a variety of public and private sources—even a public relations campaign renaming the Triangle area “Magnolia North”—Opa-locka is undergoing an arts-focused turnaround. The 2011 Our Town grant is funding public art installations and streetscaping where metal barriers once sealed off an entire community. The first piece, a monumental sculpture by Gale Fulton Ross, will be dedicated next spring. Another portion of the grant is helping two artists transform small houses for use as micro-enterprises—a concept called “Made in Opa-locka.” Other local artists are funded to work with OLCDC on a public art master plan.

This year, the NEA followed its inaugural Our Town grant to Opa-locka with a $30,000 grant from its Art Works program, which will leverage a $2 million grant from Miami-Dade County to preserve and repurpose the city’s iconic Moorish city hall as a regional arts and cultural center. OLCDC is holding stakeholder meetings and planning the $2.5 million renovation, scheduled to begin in 2014 and be completed by 2015.

To complement the center, OLCDC is planning a 60,000-square-foot (5,600 sq m) development where artists can live, work, exhibit, and perform, located on the site of a shuttered hotel and two vacant lots across the street from the renovated city hall. The project, expected to cost about $10.5 million, would include 30 live/work units, fabrication shops for resident and nonresident artists, exhibition space, a black-box performance space, and a management office.

This year also brought OLCDC a second ArtWorks grant—$70,000 to support Oakland, California–based landscape designer Walter Hood’s design for the enhancement of Ali Baba Avenue using recycled metal from industrial sites and automobile recycling yards that now line this 2.2-mile (3.5 km) gateway street.

The NEA’s contributions are creating synergy with the city’s charrette-driven community revitalization program, funded in part by a $20 million grant in 2010 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Under the HUD program, OLCDC is buying and rehabilitating foreclosed and vacant housing. Earlier this year, OLCDC and the Related Urban Development Group of Miami broke ground for 127 rental apartments designated for low-income seniors. Scheduled to be completed early next year and located within walking distance of the city’s Tri-Rail station, the town center development is the first of a planned transit-oriented development corridor in the city’s downtown.

“Three years ago, no one associated with this project would have believed the degree to which the public image of Opa-locka has begun to change,” said the NEA’s Schupbach. “Established artists and galleries are now considering relocating from Miami Beach and Wynwood to Opa-locka, where they can enjoy inexpensive studio space. But being able to maintain their relationship to Art Basel Miami—the annual megashow—is critical.” Added Willie Logan, CEO of OLCDC, “Providing access to arts can change lives, and having artists become part of the community is central to our strategy.”

Other NEA Our Town projects can be found across the country.

  • A rendering of the Creative Corridor courtesy of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center and Marlon Blackwell Architect.

    A rendering of the Creative Corridor, courtesy of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center and Marlon Blackwell Architect.

    Little Rock, Arkansas. A 2011 Our Town grant of $150,000 funded a visioning process for developing as “the Creative Corridor” a four-block stretch of the historic but neglected Main Street in Little Rock’s struggling downtown. Building on an earlier study through MICD and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Greening America’s Capitals programs, the initiative is aggregating cultural arts organizations that were scattered throughout the metropolitan area.

Complementary “townscaping” strategies have reconfigured the street as an illuminated work of art that changes as people pass through. State-of-the-art lighting technologies include weight-bearing illumination for plazas, three-dimensional digital building-screen displays on vertical surfaces and arcades, and extensive lighting effects that frame urban rooms and interior spaces of existing glass skybridges. The Creative Corridor is intended to catalyze development of mixed-use, affordable living environments in a downtown that lacks a substantial residential population. The corridor already has attracted about $60 million in private sector renovations.

  • Main Terrain. By turning the wheel at the base of the pylon users can turn the massive bridge truss elements to create new sculptural formations.  (Photo by  Samuel Burns)

    Main Terrain. By turning the wheel at the base of the pylon, users can turn the massive bridge truss elements to create new sculptural formations. (Photo by Samuel Burns)

    Chattanooga, Tennessee. Planners are combining art with physical fitness to revitalize a vacant and dilapidated tract of land that was once a railroad yard. With funds from the NEA and other sources, the city created a 1.7-acre (0.7 ha) “urban art fitness park” called the Main Terrain.

The park’s large-scale public art installation, running the length of the park, comprises nine sculptural elements, the largest of which is 24 feet high (7.3 m) and weighs 9,000 pounds (4,100 kg). The works, modeled from cast concrete pylons and steel trusses, are reminiscent of the city’s iconic Walnut Street Bridge. In three of the sculptures, an attenuating wheel is mounted on the base of the pylon. Users can turn the wheel, causing the massive bridge truss elements to rotate and create new sculptural formations.

The park also features an oval track for running and walking that is divided into 165-foot (50 m) segments marked by terrazzo inlay displaying four haikus referring to the four seasons. The Main Terrain is designed to encourage people to move through the space of the park, engage in physical activity, and venture to Main Street, says artist Thomas Sayre of Raleigh, North Carolina, who designed the artwork.

  • A rendering of Festival Village Square. (Image courtesy of Copper Carry)

    A rendering of Festival Village Square. (Image courtesy of Copper Carry)

    Omaha, Nebraska. Adaptive use of historic downtown buildings is part of numerous communities’ revitalization strategies, funded in part by Our Town grants. In Omaha, the city’s first African American–owned bank building was renovated to serve as an arts center with exhibition and performance space, artists’ studios, and a sandwich shop.

Completed this year, the $720,000 Carver Bank building renovation was funded by the city, the Rebuild Foundation, other foundations, and private donors, and is now managed by the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. A $50,000 NEA Our Town grant was matched by the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority to plan Village East Festival Square, a 1.2-acre (0.5 ha) public open space repurposed to host events and festivals, a weekly artisan market, and more.

This project, in turn, is part of the planned economic revitalization of 24th Street, the cultural heart of Omaha’s African American community. All these projects are part of the city’s ongoing effort to redevelop four north Omaha neighborhoods.

  • The renovated Carnegie Library in Fort Collins, CO is home now to the Arts Incubator of the Rockies. (Photo courtesy of AI)

    The renovated Carnegie Library in Fort Collins, Colorado, is now home to the Arts Incubator of the Rockies. (Photo courtesy of AIR)

    Fort Collins, Colorado. The 1904 Carnegie Library building is being transformed into a new home for the Arts Incubator of the Rockies (AIR) by the city of Fort Collins, Colorado State University, and local not-for-profit arts organization Beet Street. AIR has moved in and launched public programming; renovations over the next three to five years will create new cultural programming, a community gallery, and performance space.

A $100,000 Our Town grant has helped leverage $500,000 in additional contributions from the Downtown Development Authority, foundations, and private donors. The repurposed center is expected to spur redevelopment of other underused buildings in the area while serving as a hub of creative activity.

  • From the devastating 2009 fire to the Central Fire Station to the Central ARTSTATION…the Shreveport Regional Arts Council moves out of the ashes and into the arts! (Photo courtesy of the Shreveport Regional Arts Council)

    From the devastating 2009 fire to the Central Fire Station to the Central ArtStation, the Shreveport Regional Arts Council moves out of the ashes and into the arts. (Photo courtesy of the Shreveport Regional Arts Council)

    Shreveport, Louisiana. Another arts incubator has opened its doors in a 16,000-square-foot (1,500 sq m) repurposed fire station, built as Shreveport’s central fire station in 1922. In the 1970s, the historic building was remodeled for use as a modern fire station; in 2002, the fire department moved to a new facility.

While the historic structure stood empty, the office of the Shreveport Regional Arts Council (SRAC) was destroyed by arson in 2009. The solution to both problems was to restore the fire station for use as an arts incubator and venue as well as the site of new offices for SRAC.

The $425,000 design was funded with $50,000 from a $100,000 NEA MICD25 grant, matching funds from the city, and additional foundation and private contributions. City, state, and private donors covered the $4.25 million cost of building and furnishing the new Central ArtStation, which opened in 2012. The remaining $50,000 from the MICD25 grant, along with funding from the city and two foundations totaling $150,000, helped create the Shreveport Common Vision Plan for an arts-led revitalization of a nine-block area of the city. A 2011 New Town grant of $100,000 is supporting technical design for CommonLink, an arts-based interactive transportation and information station within the new cultural district.

  • The Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks campus with the flame from The Bridge by Elena Colombo adding to the colorful illumination. (Photo by Jeff Levy)

    The Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks campus, with the flame from “The Bridge” by Elena Colombo adding to the colorful illumination. (Photo by Jeff Levy)

    Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A natural gas flame burns along 34 feet (10.3 m) of the spine of Elena Colombo’s 68-foot (21 m) steel sculpture The Bridge, designed as the signature visual element of Bethlehem’s SteelStacks Arts and Culture Campus. The sculpture’s concrete base features etched tiles listing prominent structures built with steel produced in Bethlehem, such as bridges, battleships, and skyscrapers. A $200,000 Our Town grant plus private donations covered the $421,428 cost of the sculpture, base, and installation.

Unveiled in 2011, The Bridge is part of the SteelStacks campus located on the site of Bethlehem Steel, which shut its plant in 1995 and declared bankruptcy in 2002. The abandoned 1,600-acre (650 ha) site—accounting for one-fifth of the city’s area—became the symbol of a city that had lost its major economic engine and much of its civic pride. Eventually, most of the land was sold to industrial developers, and 124 acres (50 ha) in the center of the city were converted into the SteelStacks campus.

The project—which includes the ArtsQuest Center for Performing Arts, Levitt Pavilion, PBS 39 Broadcast Center, SteelStacks Plaza, Town Square, and Festival Plaza—has brought new life to Bethlehem. It features programs designed to appeal to diverse members of the community, including a two-screen cinema showing independent and foreign films; the 600-seat Musikfest Café, presenting live music; the Blast Furnace Community Room; the ConnectZone Media Lounge; and Creativity Commons for community music, poetry, and theater.

Bethlehem has used arts and culture as the basis for successfully redeveloping an industrial brownfield. SteelStacks now draws more than 800,000 visitors per year, and The Bridge provides an iconic focal point to the campus, linking the city’s industrial past with its postindustrial future.