From SoHo to Yolo: Community Arts Grants Encourage Placemaking

 

Forget about setbacks, traffic counts, and environmental impact reports. A new nationwide initiative suggests that planners and community development officials should be focusing as much on canvases, scripts, and jam sessions—especially if those planners are in California. 

Last month, 11 national foundations plus the National Endowment for the Arts announced the founding of ArtPlace America, a nationwide initiative to drive revitalization in cities and towns with a new investment model that puts the arts at the center of economic development. The launch of Artplace, based in Chicago, coincided with the awarding of $11.5 million in grants to community-oriented arts organizations nationwide. 

ArtplaceOf the 34 grants, eight of them went to organizations in California; no other state received more than three. These ranged from a project in San Francisco – not a surprise – to an “Art and Ag” project in Yolo County. They reinforce the widely held belief that in a down economy, the arts – and the foundations that support them – can play a critical role in stimulating urban revitalization.

The aim of the grants is not only to support individual organizations but also to promote economic development and even revitalization of the respective urban fabrics where the organizations are located. Artplace operates on the principal that the arts, though they often lack the monumental physical presence of factories and office buildings, can contribute just as much to a local economy as can conventional businesses and housing programs.  

“We are acting very deliberately to affect place and we believe vibrancy is the best proxy for quality of place, and quality of place is of course essential to attracting and retaining talent,” said Carol Coletta, executive director of ArtPlace. “And attracting and retaining talent is essential to economic success in places.” 

According to research by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, planning professor at the University of Southern California, and others, artists are not mere gentrifiers, spiffing up a neighborhood and kicking out longtime residents only to commute to work elsewhere. Rather, they keep their activities local and create economic multipliers in relatively small radii, especially when artists’ residences, studios, galleries, and watering holes arise next door to each other. This pattern, according to Currid-Halkett, dates back at least to the revitalization of New York’s SoHo in the 1970s.  

“The arts have been thought of as icing on the cake,” said Currid-Halkett. “But if you look at the cases of some of the most successful neighborhoods in the world, there’s a real presence of the arts and cultural industries.”

Among the eight grant recipients in California, some have direct connections to the built environment, whereas others are more ephemeral (see sidebar). The preponderance of grants in California suggests that the state’s creative economy—at least that which does not involve the mass-market entertainment industry—is getting its due. 

“I think California's reputation has not been as big as the actual art that exists here,” said Currid-Halkett. “Los Angeles and San Francisco have huge concentrations of artists doing incredibly interesting work and I don’t think it has the global reputation it ought to….Hopefully, for California's sake, the NEA's investment will have the spillover effect of actually creating the California art brand that it should have had years ago.” 

Artplace officials hope that these projects will catalyze local development in a way that traditional local government programs could not. 

“If you think about the trajectory of community development, in the beginning, it was thought of as investments in housing,” said Coletta. “Over time, it became clear that that’s not enough. We need to have more complete communities.”

The grants, though small in the scheme of the California economy, come at an opportune moment in light of the state’s budget crisis and especially the woes of its redevelopment agencies. 

“It could help our redevelopment problems,” said Currid-Halkett. “If there’s one thing that artists tend to do historically, it is act as change agents in neighborhoods. They seem to set off a series of other kinds of activities, whether it’s galleries, coffee shops, or restaurants, and those draw other residents.” 

Crucially, the arts generally require physical places, including neighborhoods where artists interact and buildings where they produce and display their work. That is a crucial distinction from those types of commerce that can take place online or that can be outsourced. 

“Everybody’s on Facebook and cell phones and everybody feels massively connected through the Internet, and yet the arts still continue to be one of the places where we connect,” said Dani Thomas, executive director of grant recipient YoloArts. “And then you keep the money local.”

Representatives of the Berkeley Repertory Theater say that this process has already occurred in downtown Berkeley and that the Artplace grant may enable it to happen again in west Berkeley. The theater is establishing its Ground Floor incubator on Harrison street in a forlorn industrial district. The company expects to attract as many as 50 visiting dramatists, in addition to dozens of staff that will occupy offices there. 

“It’s an opportunity to do to a new neighborhood what (we did) in downtown Berkeley,” said Meghan Pressman, managing directof of the Berkeley Rep. “Harrison Street is definitely a neighborhood in need of revitalization.  We’re hoping to turn it into an incubator home that attracts new businesses.”

But the Artplace philosophy does not apply only to urban areas. One of its grants is helping to fund the Arts & Ag Project of YoloArts, which serves largely rural Yolo County. The project is intended to bring “artists out from their studios and farmers off of their farms,” said Thomas. It is also promoting the display of art in unconventional places, such as gallery spaces in corner drug stores. The idea, says Thomas, is to demonstrate that art does not need to be the sole provenance of cosmopolitan elites. 

“We’re not Carmel, so we don’t have a gallery every other building,” said Thomas. “It’s opened up the opportunity to start working with general businesses.”

The fact that Yolo County is not Carmel – and that Watts isn’t SoHo – is central to the mission of Artplace’s grants. Coletta said that Artplace is deliberately giving grants to organizations that it believes can be catalytic in communities. But it is not choosing communities prima facie, either because they have thriving arts scenes or because they might seem like fertile ground. 

“We believe that investments in artists and arts organizations who have a passion for this work and for their community are the ones where we want to make investments,” said Coletta. 

"That is," said Currid-Halkett, "a sound strategy." 

“I don’t think with the arts it’s, ‘if you build it they will come.’ I think it’s ‘build around what’s already there,’” said Currid-Halkett. 

Building, however, may be only half the battle. The other part lies in the permission to build environments that complement the work that arts organizations are attempting to do. Currid-Halkett noted that the typical arts neighborhood includes large spaces, live-work spaces, and often requires inexpensive real estate that fits artists’ budgets. In the past, zoning and other regulations have all but forbidden such neighborhoods in cities nationwide. Halkett said that planners deserve credit for letting artists colonize SoHo. 

“There was this choice to root them out and what they actually did was rezone for the artists to live and work there,” said Currid-Halkett. “That is an absolute planners decision.”

Many Artplace grant recipients are hoping for similar cooperation from the public sector in their respective jurisdictions. 

“There are certain factors that enable vibrancy, and planners know very well what those factors are: Create a better public realm, and tend to buildings where they hit the streets,” said Coletta. 

In some places, public sector officials are cooperating enthusiastically. Thomas, of YoloArts, said that she initially drew incredulous reactions from county officials who did not think that the arts had a place in either agriculture or economic development. Those attitudes appear to have changed. 

“The health and the dynamism of an arts program in a jurisdiction is a key indicator of quality of life,” said Ervin. Ervin noted that quality of life is almost impossible to measure – and, therefore, may not get much attention from public officials – but that it can be worthwhile. 

“I’m not sure how much economic activity arts generates directly or whether that could be measured easily,” said Yolo County Economic Development Director Wes Ervin. “It certainly enhances the experience of the visitor and…makes the place more attractive and, therefore, encourages placemaking.” 

Ultimately, Coletta said that the Artplace movement should extend beyond just the 34 recipients of the initial grants and even beyond future recipients. Instead, she hopes that other communities and organizations, in California and elsewhere, will cultivate their own arts communities and creative industries.   

 “We hope to invest not only in projects that will move the needle on vibrancy in their communities but also those projects that we can learn from and that others can learn from,” said Coletta.

ArtPlace America Grant Recipients in California:

  • Bay Area (14 Counties): The Creative Work Fund provides grants and other means of support so that artists can collaborate with community-based nonprofits.  
  • Berkeley: The Berkeley Repertory Theater's Ground Floor is an innovative incubator for new dramatic works. It is being established on a campus in an industrial area of west Berkeley. 
  • Los Angeles: The Watts House Project enlists artists, designers, and architects to work on a range of community revitalization projects and programs around the Watts Towers. 
  • Los Angeles: Good Magazine Ideas for Cities describes itself as a “continuing brainstorm” on the future of cities, in collaboration with CEOs for Cities.  
  • San Francisco: Intersection for the Arts is partnering with developer Forest City on the "5M Project," which involves the redevelopment of four downtown acres near 5th Street and Mission. The property includes the old San Francisco Chronicle building, empty parking lots and vacant warehouses into space for film and digital-media businesses, artists’ workshops, social-entrepreneur offices and cultural events.
  • San Jose: 1st ACT Silicon Valley s a network of business, civic and arts leaders working to foster cultural engagement and help create an authentic sense of place and cultural identity for Silicon Valley.
  • San Jose: Zero1 commissions local artists to create works that explore the relationship between culture and technology. 
  • Yolo County: YoloArts Arts & Ag Project cultivates a dialogue between artists, farmers, and the community to raise awareness of the importance of preserving working landscapes, to promote sustainable agriculture and visual arts in Yolo County. 

Contacts: 

Artplace America 

Carol Coletta, Executive Director, ArtPlace America, 901.233.8496

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, University of Southern California School of Planning, Policy, and Development, 213.740.4012

Wes Ervin, Economic Development Manager, Yolo County, 530.666.8066

Meghan Pressman, Managing Director, Berkeley Repertory Theater, 510.647.2949