The past decade has seen an increased interest in employing the arts as a community and economic development strategy. But this is not a new idea, Mark Stern, a social policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, reminded participants at a Reinventing conference session on the arts and culture. This strategy dates back to the days of urban renewal in the 1960s when older industrial buildings and housing were replaced with symphony halls and cultural spaces. Today, however, there is interest in “moving beyond larger, more mainstream investment in the arts to focus on more immediate, participatory strategies for engaging a wider urban community in the art world,” noted Stern, who moderated the session.
Collaboration among different sectors can be the linchpin in effective revitalization efforts, and projects involving the arts and culture seem to attract collaborative efforts. In fact, the three panelists each recognized the important role that collaboration played in the success of their projects. They also attributed the artists’ successful efforts in revitalizing their small towns to the artists’ willingness to take risks:
In 2009, Seton Hill University expanded its campus by establishing a performing arts center, classrooms, and offices in downtown Greensburg, PA, catalyzing downtown development and stimulating private investment.
Beside Ciampini’s desk in city hall in Greensburg, PA, is a quote by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham (1846–1912): “Make no little plans think big.” This quote is one of Ciampini’s mantras. Ciampini and the city of Greensburg, a western Pennsylvania town with about 15,000 residents, have won multiple awards for comprehensive, far-reaching “big” plans. Ciampini said that three factors have been critical to Greensburg’s successful redevelopment: (1) planning, (2) proactive thinking, and (3) partnerships.
“Focus on the assets you have” is another of Ciampini’s mantras. Greensburg had some relatively untapped assets: Seton Hill University, which sits on a bucolic hill above the center of the city, and the Westmoreland Cultural Trust, an advocate of the arts that develops and enhances the cultural life and economic well-being of the region. Together, the city, county, and state, along with the trust and other partners, were able to provide the incentives necessary for the university to build a new performing arts center on a blighted site in Greensburg’s downtown. A $23 million investment in the construction of a theater and concert hall, along with classrooms and offices, served as a catalyst for further downtown development. Ciampini pointed out that private investment follows the arts. Between 1997 and 2010, more than $71 million was invested in new restaurants, cultural and entertainment facilities, and both public and private improvements to the city’s infrastructure.
Risk-taking can occur on a personal level. According to Renzulli, risk-taking and a willingness to push personal boundaries are some of the immeasurable assets that are typical of artists, particularly those who relocated to Paducah, KY. Other traits include a “deep trust in intuition and imagination and an openness and willingness to pursue new ideas and follow inspirations.” The city of Paducah, which has a population of 25,000, is the hub of a 15-county region in western Kentucky and southern Illinois that has a total population of over a quarter of a million people.
The first and foremost goal of Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program, the brainchild of a local artist, is to revitalize the blighted historic residential neighborhood known as Lower Town. The city advertises in national artists’ journals for artists to relocate to Paducah. The incentives are the opportunity to buy a severely deteriorated house for $1 and receive a cash award of $2,500. Paducah Bank provides loans to the artists for 100 percent of the rehabilitation costs, which are typically well above the appraised value.
“When artists are around, good things happen,” said Renzulli. “Artists get together, they get out and about, sit on boards, and can envision what doesn’t exist and how to make it.” According to studies produced for the city, the relocated artists invested an average of $345,000 in their properties, which were typically redeveloped as first floor studios and galleries with living quarters on the upper floors. The city estimates that its investment in the purchase and stabilization of properties, infrastructure improvements, and advertising leveraged $11 for every dollar it invested. In addition, the artists’ investments spurred new businesses, construction jobs, tax revenues, and a new tourism industry in Paducah.
Artist Liddia Stevens used rich colors to create this vibrant oil painting on canvas. The portrait, titled “Topsy Turvy: Megan Is Amiss,” was featured in ArtPrize 2012. (Photo credit: Liddia Stevens)
ArtPrize is an international art competition that “catalyzes creative expression and risk-taking in Grand Rapids, MI,” according to Creamer. The competition netted nearly half a million dollars and attracted more than 322,000 visitors to the city over a 19-day period in the fall of 2011, the third year the event was held. A study conducted for ArtPrize found that the event generated $50.4 million in economic impact and created 200 jobs. “We like to think of ourselves as the Super Bowl of Grand Rapids,” Creamer said. ArtPrize has successfully used Internet technology to organize a grand civic project that promotes civic engagement and stimulating conversation in a city that was not previously known for its vibrancy. According to Creamer, in a single day during the event last year, 229,000 people discussed ArtPrize on Facebook.
Artist Robin Protz used more than 40,000 golden buttons and beads suspended on over 4,000 fluorocarbon lines to create “The Dragon,” which is suspended from an 18-foot x 12-foot x 8-foot frame. The kinetic sculpture was an ArtPrize 2012 entry.
Artist Kirkland Smith used everyday household items to create this carefully crafted image of Marilyn Monroe. Smith’s assemblage of post-consumer materials, titled “Marilyn,” was an ArtPrize 2012 entry. (Photo credit: Kirkland Smith )
ArtPrize provides a very large catalyst in the form of a first place prize of $200,000, and the rules of this competition are very simple. According to Creamer, “Anyone can be an artist, any space can be a venue, and everyone has a voice.” The artists can work in any medium, but they can only participate by connecting with a public venue that will show their art. Bars, coffee shops, an auto mechanic’s shop, or more traditional venues, such as museums, churches, and universities, can sign up to work with and host artists. The event is organized with an online platform where artists and those with venues can connect, basically an online matching service, and where people can vote for their favorite exhibit. Unlike conventional art exhibits, the majority of the awards are determined by public votes. In order to vote, a person must visit the festival and obtain a number. The purpose of the competition is to stimulate ideas, debate, and action.
The event generates collaboration among the artists, the providers of the venues, and the visitors, and the success depends on the city; public, private, and philanthropic organizations; and corporate sponsors. According to Creamer, ArtPrize has transformed Grand Rapids, the region, and the state of Michigan, and she is eager to share her ideas with other communities that want to create opportunities for civic engagement through art.
All three speakers noted that artists typically have an innate ability to envision something that does not exist and the constitution to take the risks involved in making that vision a reality. These strengths can make artists a potent stimulus for economic development.
Amy Lempert can be contacted at 215-574-6570 or firstname.lastname@example.org.