Well, it turns out that Rocco did have a doozy of an announcement this morning: a new funding program called the NEA Mayors’ Institute on City Design 25th Anniversary Initiative. (The name is a doozy too, and makes me wonder whether there’s some kind of joint funding relationship going on – the 25th anniversary is MICD’s.) The grants, which will range from $25,000 to $250,000, will support “the planning of arts districts, the mapping of cultural assets along with their development potential, and the creation of innovative plans to maximize the creative sector” along with “design projects to enhance public spaces,” “the adaptive reuse of historic buildings into affordable housing for artists, studios, and work space,” and “innovative festivals, outdoor exhibitions, murals and sculptures, sculpture gardens, and waterfront art parks.” Any city that has participated in the MICD since 1986 (about 600 cities total) is eligible to apply, and the turnaround is quick: the initial statement of interest is due by March 15. Full guidelines are already available here.
I have to say, this is really progressive stuff coming out of the NEA. The targeted areas and activities represent a very high degree of responsiveness to cutting-edge thinking on the relationship between the arts and their communities. For the most part, these kinds of projects have been initiated and funded at the local level, by cities themselves, occasionally with help from some of the more forward-looking foundations such as Kresge or Ford. That means that the money available to achieve the kinds of transformations desired is often rather limited. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the NEA has gotten involved in this kind of work, and though it doesn’t sound like the budget is huge, it’s enough to make a difference in some of these places. (All grants will require a 1:1 match from non-federal sources, by the way.)
Rocco’s speech to the mayors is most definitely worth reading in full. It says to me, more than anything else I’ve seen to date, that he gets it. He name-drops all the right people, for example:
For now, my reference point is recent work by Mark Stern, Susan Seifert, and Jeremy Nowak based on a ten-year study at the University of Pennsylvania of the catalytic role of the arts in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Three general conclusions stand out:
- The arts are a force for social cohesion and civic engagement. In communities with a strong cultural presence, people are much more likely to engage in civic activities beyond the arts. Community participation increases measurably and the result is more stable neighborhoods.
- The arts make a major difference in child welfare. To quote, “Low income block groups with high cultural participation were more than twice as likely to have very low truancy and delinquency rates.”
- Art is a poverty fighter. In the cycle I have already described, artists form clusters, cultural institutions are built, people gravitate to them, and the businesses follow. The businesses hire and the virtuous cycle continues. And arts jobs leverage other jobs. Buy a ticket and see a play. You see the actors on a stage. But behind those actors are administrators, designers, ushers, stagehands, costume makers, and just outside the building are parking lot attendants, cooks, and waiters.
To make a real estate analogy, Stern and Seifert’s Social Impact of the Arts Project is one of the most undervalued properties in arts research today. Very little other work that I’ve seen is as consistently thorough, thoughtful, and far-reaching as theirs, yet I find that SIAP is still not all that well-known outside of specialist circles. Thus, it’s impressive to me that (a) Rocco saw fit to mention it at all and (b) spent more time on their civic engagement study than pretty much anything else in his speech. But he hits all the other high points as well, including MASS MoCA, Paducah, Kentucky, and Richard Florida among others. This is a guy who either has read his arts policy or has some smart people reading it for him. Either way, I like what I’m hearing.