I’ve mentioned previously in this space that I was working on a policy memo for the Arts Council of Greater New Haven as part of my independent study this spring on public policy and the arts. Today, I turned in the final version. I won’t bore you with the details, but here are the highlights of what I wrote.
In the late 1990s, the Wolf Organization (predecessor to the company now known as WolfBrown) completed a regional cultural plan for greater New Haven. The plan was extraordinarily ambitious, recommending a total of 27 strategies under ten general goal headings. While some of the recommendations were followed, including the completion of a cultural facilities feasibility study by a group including Duncan Webb, the establishment of more robust communication channels between different city agencies and entities, and the establishment of the Greater New Haven Arts Stabilization Project, the substantial cumulative investment required (totaling an incremental $2.2 million a year) proved too big a challenge for many of the biggest ideas. (The cultural facilities plan, meanwhile, called for an investment of $261 million, including the construction of a new 2300-seat performing arts center downtown.)
In my paper, I argued that three key factors held back the further development of New Haven’s arts resources in the decade since the completion of the plan, factors which are now exacerbated by the current recession. They are:
- Undercapitalization of philanthropic resources. Looking at Foundation Center data, I found that more than half of private foundation support for New Haven-area arts activities came from outside of Connecticut in 2007 and 2008 (mostly from New York). Furthermore, 88.5% of these grant funds were concentrated with just five institutions out of more than 100 arts and culture organizations I identified in the area: the Yale Repertory Theater, the Long Wharf Theater, the New Haven Arts & Ideas Festival, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, and the Neighborhood Music School. With no anchor private-sector employer to collect and distribute wealth to the local area, the mechanisms for increasing the level of local philanthropic support for the arts are limited.
- The Yale factor. New Haven is blessed with having one of the greatest research universities in the world in its midst, including its four professional arts schools, but the city’s arts community does not benefit from this resource nearly as much as it could, due to low visibility of non-Yale cultural events on campus. Furthermore, when graduates leave the area (as most do), New Haven loses the opportunity to benefit from their wealth-generating potential. In short, its best prospective engine for opportunity creation keeps leaving because of a lack of opportunity.
- Living in the shadow of New York. Having America’s largest city a commuter train ride away makes it hard for New Haven to compete on its own terms. This applies to artistic talent and audiences every bit as much as employers. Artist networks organize around star economies, which means that non-world-class cities find themselves at a disadvantage.
To address these issues, I recommended the following strategies:
- Conduct aggressive outreach to university communities. Two benefits to this: in the short term, it drives more ticket purchases and participation from the student community in local happenings; in the long term, it helps develop a cultural connection to New Haven that might be influential in convincing some of them to stick around after their studies are finished. For the universities (especially Yale), it makes sense to play along because of their interest in promoting New Haven to prospective and current students as a fun, attractive, interesting place to be.
- Work to build cultural capacity in underserved communities. Right now, most of the mainstream cultural activity going on in New Haven, as is true in many places, is concentrated downtown and in the affluent suburbs (but mostly downtown). New Haven has a very complicated history of class and race relations, and the arts are by no means separate from that legacy. There are, however, a few organizations in the area (such as our friends at Music Haven) that work to integrate town and gown in meaningful ways. By encouraging greater concentration of resources in such directions, the New Haven arts community could build a broader base of political support over the long term for public support of the arts, which at the moment stands at a meager $25,000 for the local office of cultural affairs. Not to mention that it’s a good thing to do in general.
- Partner with other creative economy initiatives in Southern Connecticut. Rather than trying to be in competition with NYC, I suggested that New Haven try to be in symbiosis with it – the northeastern anchor of the metropolis. I theorized that New Haven would benefit from the (meaningful) rebranding of the stretch of Connecticut shoreline from Greenwich to Union Station as a “cultural corridor,” due to the beneficial clustering effects of creative economies. Unlike in New Haven, there is a lot of private wealth concentrated in places like Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport, but unlike those places, New Haven has a head start on cultural infrastructure. Finding a way to combine forces, then, would probably help New Haven’s arts community more than hurt it.
- In the meantime, lower costs. Given that we’re in a recession and steps to increase the supply of resources available to the arts will all take time, the arts community should take a look at ways to increase efficiencies and thereby lower the costs of making or presenting art for everybody. The main techniques that have caught on in other areas include the creative use of tax incentives to drive clustering and innovation, reappropriation of unused space for temporary or permanent artistic use, and collaborations such as sharing mailing lists or office space (or back office functions altogether). I also suggested instituting a micro-granting program for individuals or very small organizations with the goal of encouraging continued activity in the sector during the recession.