By N. David Milder
Across the nation over the past decade or so, the idea of using the arts as an engine for downtown and Main Street economic growth has attracted a growing number of adherents. One outcome of this advocacy is that arts districts, a.k.a. creative districts, are appearing across the nation. Colorado, for example has at least 26 of them, all formed under a state statute. These districts either cover a designated part of a downtown district or all of it.
However, very often, arts event venues and/or artisan work spaces in a small town or big city are mostly dispersed beyond the downtown’s borders. The town’s arts/creative assets then are much like an archipelago where the arts islands may have some smaller clusters, but overall there is a good deal of separation among them — as well as from the downtown’s businesses. Some of these arts assets can be 3+ miles from the downtown. In these communities, the downtown district only occupies a portion of the islands in the complete arts archipelago.
The notion of a geographically bounded arts district that only includes the downtown, or just a portion of it, consequently may not appear to make much sense in communities with arts archipelagoes. The objectives of this article are to:1) provide examples of such archipelagoes and 2) try to stretch the arts district concept to fit arts archipelago situations. The keys to achieving the needed conceptual stretch will be the presence of mutual interests and complementary assets among downtown arts and business stakeholders and the arts venues in the rest of the archipelago.
Reasons for the Dispersion
Since about 2010, our field observations in many smaller communities revealed that the dispersion of their economic and arts assets into numerous commercial nodes and individual locations started when they were even smaller and much younger. Consequently, it should not have been surprising that when we started working on a project in some of these archipelago communities, we found a high degree of long standing dispersion of economic and arts assets. In many small towns, for example, the former homes of illustrious people that were located in the residential part of town have been turned into museums. Many art and entertainment venues, such as museums, concert halls, PACs, casinos, stadiums, arenas, etc. did not locate in downtowns because they were so large and required so much parking that they did not easily fit into available downtown development sites. Downtown sites were also often much more expensive to develop because of land acquisition and demolition costs. Sometimes, too, community leaders wanted their prestige arts venues placed in park-like settings that could only be provided away from the downtown.
Individual creatives often find that downtown rents for residential and work spaces are too expensive or soon became so after they have pioneered improvements in the district. As a result, they frequently take cheaper places beyond the district, and in smaller towns, even in rural settings. Often, too, these creatives simply prefer working and living in a rustic rural setting.
Some Examples of Arts Archipelagoes
1. Manhattan, in NYC. Downtowns are one contiguous area, without any separations. For example, the Midtown CBD in Manhattan runs east -west from the East River to the Hudson River, and north south from about 30th Street to 59th Street. In contrast, Manhattan’s arts, cultural and entertainment institutions are more like an archipelago running from the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan to the Cloisters near its northern edge. Yes, Midtown has the theater district, MoMA, the Morgan Museum, Radio City Music Hall, City Center, Town Hall and lots of movie theaters. But:
- The large and powerful Lincoln Center is just north of the Midtown CBD
- The Museum Mile – the Met, Guggenheim, Neue, Jewish Museum, Museum of the City of NY, Cooper Hewitt, and El Museo Del Barrio — runs along Fifth Avenue from about 82nd street to 104th street. The Breuer annex of the Met is on Madison at 75th St.
- Chelsea to the south of the Midtown CBD has tons of art galleries, the Joyce Theater (a favored venue for dance companies), the DIA Museum and the Rubin Museum.
- Further south are the new Whitney Museum, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the National Museum of the American Indian. There are several smaller museums in this area, too.
- There reportedly are a total of 32 Museums in Manhattan and vying counts of 83 and 100 for all five boroughs.
Many, if not most, of Manhattan’s strongest and most important arts and cultural venues are not located in either the Midtown CBD or the Downtown Financial District CBD. Some of them are in clusters that might merit the term arts district being used to describe them (like the theater district).
2. . Cleveland, OH. Downtown Cleveland has some venerable and wonderful cultural institutions. Save for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the most important ones are in two clusters about one-mile from the downtown core (Playhouse Square) and about three miles away (Severance Hall. the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Arboretum) near University Circle.
3. Auburn, NY (population around 26,704). This town in Central New York has an impressive number of arts-cultural-entertainment venues. The table above shows their annual attendance. They are sorted into three groups. At the bottom are those located in the downtown: the 16 restaurants and bars that have live music, the Auburn Public Theater, the new NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center and the Seward House Museum. Together, they have an estimate annual audience of 110,484. Above it is a cluster of venues that are about 0.5 miles from the downtown, containing the Schweinfurth Arts Center, The Pitch Theater and the Cayuga Museum. It has a total annual attendance of around 23,688.
At the top are three venues that are farther away from the downtown. The Harriet Tubman National Historic Park is about 1.3 miles away. On a different road, the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse and the nearby Ward O’Hara Museum are about 3 miles from the downtown. These three venues account for about 47% of the arts-cultural-entrainment audience in Auburn. It’s downtown business operators, especially those in the hospitality and entertainment industries, would be foolish to not try to capture the expenditures of the audiences of those three “distant” arts-cultural venues.
4. Cortland, NY (population 18,698). In Cortland, a relatively small college town, a very interesting, if complicated situation exists. First, the downtown lacks a strong formal arts/cultural/entertainments venue as can be seen in the above table. The Cortland Repertory Theater has a branch there, but only attracts 2,000 to 4,000 patrons annually, mainly in non-summer months. Its main theater is in Preble, a 17 minute drive away, and it attracts 18,000 to 20,000 annually. The venues that draw the largest audience are the cluster of six restaurants/bars that have live music, though the Courthouse Park with events there run through the Youth Bureau may have an unreported significant audience. Other downtown arts entertainment venues report annual attendances of 3,500 or less.
The town’s movie theater has the largest audience and it’s a 5 minute drive from the downtown. The other venues with relatively large audiences are not even in the city – they are in nearby Homer, a 7 minute drive, or a more distant Preble, a 17 minute drive.
The Importance of Nearby Areas
It is critical to recognize that the downtown arts district concept ignores the fact that the people and firms who are most likely to visit and use the downtown and companies who are likely to have business transactions with downtown firms are usually located not only in the downtown, but also nearby. They are the real core of the downtown’s traditional trade area.
How Near is Near? In dense urban areas, “near” usually means within about one mile of a downtown. But in less urbanized areas, where walking is less important, and autos are a necessity, the area within about a five-minute drive can be considered “near” – but what is considered an easy drive varies considerably geographically. In parts of Wyoming and Montana, for example, residents will drive for two hours to get to a major retail center.
Create an Organized Arts/Entertainment Community Instead of a Downtown Arts District
Basically, it is an arts district with flexible geographic boundaries that are defined by local economic, and sometimes political, realities. It is focused on and around a downtown district and combines in a formal organization:
- The downtown’s EDO
- Major downtown non-arts/entertainment stakeholders.
- Representation from the local government.
- Major arts/entertainment venues within an area that includes the downtown, but extends beyond it, much as the downtown’s residential trade area does (but the two will not be congruent). That extended territory might be called the Area of Mutual Interest (AMI). The extent of the AMI will vary by community and be determined by the existing and/or potential relationships between the downtown and the arts venues in the AMI. The AMI in most instances probably will extend one to two miles from the downtown, but in other, rarer, instances it could extend five miles, or even more.
- Broadly defined creative micro and small businesses within the AMI: e.g., visual artists, crafters, tattoo artists, entertainers, chefs, brewers, makers, etc.
The objectives of the Organized Arts Entertainment Community are:
- For the arts and downtown business communities, aware of how each can help the well-being of the other, the prime directive is to formally work together in planned endeavors for their mutual benefits. These benefits for the downtown might include: more downtown residents; more people employed downtown; more people visiting the downtown; higher property values and rents, and higher sales revenues for downtown businesses. For the arts organizations the benefits may be: better marketing; increased revenues, higher attendance; greater availability of technical assistance, and stronger cooperative advocacy programs.
- For the creatives, the Community would aim to help increase their incomes by facilitating the more effective marketing of their products and helping their business operation become more productive. It would help these businesses grow to the level of the owners aspirations. The downtown would provide for the creatives physical places where their wares can be marketed or where they can perform, as well as places for social interaction like a White Horse Tavern or Cedar Tavern. It also would be the place where they are connected to technical and financial assistance providers. It also can be the place where their creative supplies are purchased, and their wares are fabricated.
What such an Organized Arts Entertainment Community might do:
- Create a very place-centered marketing campaign focused on attracting more visitors to the AMI. It would feature multi-faceted opportunities to have rewarding and entertaining experiences not only in arts and entertainment establishments, but also in dining, drinking and pampering establishments.
- For arts organizations, it would, for
example, also provide:
- A marketing campaign that “tells the stories” of the arts at the overall AMI area level as well as at the level of the individual art organizations.
- Links for arts organizations to funders and assistance to improve grant proposal development
- Information about best practices, especially re marketing and how to increase earned incomes.
- For the creatives, it would, for example, also develop
and maintain a downtown entrepreneurial environment that will:
- Enable them to have their products more effectively marketed
- Help their business operations become more efficiently executed
- Provide social spaces that can stimulate social and business networking.
Why Members of an Arts Archipelago May Want to Work Together
Shared Common Interests. All benefit from:
- Attracting more people to live and work in the AMI.
- Attracting more people to visit the AMI, including trade area residents, day trippers, and overnight tourists.
Complementary Assets. Working together they become stronger attractions:
- Every downtown and non-downtown organization that can offer enjoyable experiences adds to making the area of mutual concern more magnetic to residents, workers and visitors.
- Non-downtown arts venues often lack nearby hospitality establishments for their audiences who travel significant distances, while the downtown may have a relatively large cluster of hospitality venues. Conversely, the non-downtown arts venues might bring in large audiences from distant places that the downtown hospitality venues could not by themselves attract.
The Downtown Benefits as It Meets Arts Community Needs. By doing the things that downtowns have long done, but with notable focus on the arts, downtown businesses can become more prosperous:
- Assets of the community’s entrepreneurial environment that are located in the downtown
- Social meeting places for artists and artisans – e.g., bars, restaurants, libraries, co-working spaces. This can create magnets drawing non-artists.
- Offices and meeting rooms for arts organizations
- Technical assistance providers officed in downtown
- Financial services and assistance providers officed in downtown
- Affordable workspaces for artists and artisans – studios, rehearsal spaces
- Affordable downtown living spaces for artist and artisans
- Retail channels for artists and artisans; retailers have unique ,local products to sell, some new arts businesses may be started.
- Incubation spaces for arts related start-ups and micro businesses.
- Marketing and promotional opportunities
- Arts presented/exhibited in public spaces such as parks and gov’t office buildings; this helps activate those spaces.
- Arts presented/exhibited in private sector spaces such as restaurants, retail shops, office building lobbies; this makes them more physically attractive with more magnetic pull on potential users.
- Arts presented /exhibited at arts shows, crafts shows, festivals; this increases their magnetism