(For a much briefer version of this analysis, please see the Executive Summary.)


The Social Impact of the Arts Project, based at the University of Pennsylvania, was founded in 1994 with the intent of studying the connection between the arts and community life. After all, “if the arts and culture do, in fact, have an important role in improving the lives of ordinary people, we should be able to measure it.” SIAP has completed 13 projects and dozens of related publications since its founding in 1994 and in recent years has frequently partnered with The Reinvestment Fund on its research.

From 2006 to 2008 SIAP’s Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert researched and compiled a set of documents that sought to investigate the real impact of the “creative economy” on community and economic development. The Rockefeller Foundation funded SIAP and The Reinvestment Fund to partner and “merge cultural data with other types of information on urban revitalization.” The project’s publications included a literature review, three policy briefs, and a community investment prospectus in addition to a range of summary materials. This project led SIAP to frame its subsequent work around the concept of “natural” cultural districts, or specific geographic areas dense with cultural assets that have evolved in grassroots fashion.

Literature Review

The centerpiece of Culture and Community Revitalization is an expansive literature review covering three main areas related to the creative sector: culture in the current context, current theories about culture-based revitalization, and the neighborhood-based creative economy. Stern and Seifert argue that, in contrast to the wealth of literature on quantifying the impact of the creative economy, a nuanced approach to the social and community benefits of developing creative sectors has yet to be fully explored. In the end, it may be the community-building influence of the creative sector that will prove the most impactful.

Culture in the Current Context

Stern and Seifert begin the literature review with a tour of various longitudinal shifts that they see as critical to understanding the context in which the creative sector now operates. They begin by analyzing what they call the “new urban reality,” characterized by a few specific factors: increasing social diversity, expanding economic inequality, and the physical reshaping of the city’s industry hubs.

Whereas the middle of the 20th century was characterized by the exodus of middle and upper class citizens fleeing the urban core for suburbs, the last three to four decades have seen this trend dramatically reverse. An influx of new residents has shifted the types of diversity in urban neighborhoods, especially in the makeup of households (more unmarried households) and the age of inhabitants (more young adults). Additionally, immigrants from Latin America and Asia are increasing the ethnic diversity of urban centers and introducing new forms of artistic engagement into the mix. Meanwhile, income inequality in cities has been exacerbated—as the urban core becomes more attractive, the cost of living has also increased accordingly, pushing out low-income residents. The authors note that the cultural economy is specifically susceptible to the plight of “winner-take-all” markets, a theory promoted by Robert Frank and Phillip Cook that “changes in the American labor market have expanded the number of job categories in which the most skilled members reap a disproportionate share of rewards.”

These demographic and economic changes in cities have also contributed to changes in cities’ physical and geographic structure. Buoyed by the resurgence of cities in general, rehabilitated downtown areas began to serve increasingly important business, entertainment and recreational functions. Production clusters, or decentralized collections of small firms operating in related industries in close proximity, have emerged as a “new kind of spatial organizational form” that is particularly relevant to creative occupations.

Meanwhile, a significant reshaping of the nonprofit cultural sector has been taking place. The authors suggest that “the marketization of the nonprofit cultural sector—the increased stress placed on earned income and financial performance—has been the dominant policy of the cultural sector for the past 15 years.” Over the years these financial pressures, exacerbated by expectations placed on nonprofits by their funders, have put pressure on mid-sized organizations and further stratified the field. The number of small cultural organizations has exploded, but cooperation between community-based groups and large cultural institutions has proven challenging. In the context of this shifting landscape, the dominant paradigm of the cultural sector has changed from high culture vs. mass entertainment to large and broad vs. small and niche.

Given the changes noted above, the notion of a centralized “cultural policy” in the U.S. is essentially obsolete. The arts have never had much of a stronghold in the policy arena, but the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965 was born out of a time when top-down, ambitious social and cultural policy goals were the norm. With the subsequent rise in power of global corporations and special interest groups however, government is now “more likely to find itself brokering transactions between contending interests than setting its own agenda.” Nevertheless, the lack of an entrenched cultural bureaucracy and special interests has its advantages. As Stern and Seifert see it, their absence may make it easier for the cultural sector to innovate and be integrated into other areas of policymaking.

The Current State of the Literature

Stern and Seifert divide current research on the economic and social value of the arts into two main categories: creative economy literature and community-building literature. In addition, there is an emerging third category that looks at the negative effects of culture-based revitalization; however, this literature has largely been ignored by researchers who tend to focus on the first two categories.

The first wave of interest in economic development and the arts began with a 1983 study by the Port Authority of NY and NJ that calculated the economic impact of the arts based on nonprofit expenditures and cultural consumption. Similar studies soon followed and contributed to the formation of the first “cultural districts.” A second strand of creative economy literature focuses on creativity’s role in an area’s overall economic productivity. Over time creative economy scholars have expanded the definition of the cultural sector to include both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors; the oft-cited Richard Florida has a particularly broad definition.  Stern and Seifert choose two bodies of research for more in-depth examination: the Center for an Urban Future’s economic impact study of New York City creative industries and Ann Markusen’s work on the economic role of artists. The Center for an Urban Future suggested that policymakers should begin to look at the arts as an economic sector and take bold steps to help neighborhoods working toward permanent cultural development. Markusen focused on the “hidden contributions artists make to regional economies,” concluding that the unique contribution of artists provides an “artistic dividend” to economic development.

Geography is another important factor in the economic development of the arts.  A 1996 study of the Los Angeles design industry by Allen J. Scott suggested that firms choose to be in close geographic proximity to one another because doing so encourages efficiency, innovation, and process improvements. Stern and Seifert’s Social Impact of the Arts Project applied these ideas to Philadelphia, eventually leading them to the concept of “cultural clusters” or “natural cultural districts” that take into account both production and consumption and both economic and social lenses of impact, all at the neighborhood scale.

In contrast to the research on the economic benefits of the cultural sector, studies focused on community building and culture tend to focus on grassroots and community engagement practices. The bodies of work Stern and Seifert examine in depth are Maria Rosario Jackson’s work with the Urban Institute’s Arts and Culture Indicators Project, Alaka Wali’s studies of informal arts in Chicago, the Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley studies of immigrant and participatory arts, and SIAP’s own work on metropolitan Philadelphia. The Urban Institute’s initial study made suggestions for a “conceptual framework” for research and measurement in the field that would include a broad definition of culture. A later report catalogued “initiatives to integrate culture into broader indicators of metropolitan well-being.”

These studies also began to define the “unincorporated,” “participatory,” or “informal arts” to describe cultural activities that take place outside of traditional institutions. Alaka Wali’s Informal Arts project assembled 12 ethnographic case studies of informal arts activities in the Chicago metro area. The report concluded that informal arts strengthen the entire arts sector, bridge social boundaries that sustain inequality, and build community assets.  Wali followed up on Informal Arts with a study for the Field Museum that looked at cultural, social and artistic practices in the Chicago-area Mexican immigrant community, concluding that “through engaging in informal arts…, Mexican immigrants are creating significant social resources, promoting economic participation, developing civic skills, and reaching out to non-immigrants.”

The Silicon Valley studies, by Pia Moriarty and Maribel Alvarez, sought to place the informal arts into local community context and existing models of cultural production. They introduced the concept of “bonded-bridging” (in-group bonding that supports out-group connections) to the literature, and found that despite informal arts practitioners’ “modest and concrete” goals, a “facture [between formal and informal arts contexts] runs through the Valley’s self-identified ‘cultural community.’”

Despite the considerable volume of research on the cultural sector, Stern and Seifert still feel that the potential negative effects of urban revitalization represent a significant gap in the literature. Without closing the door to new evidence, they argue that the “empirical documentation of art-based gentrification is not particularly strong” and suggest the connection between arts-based urban revitalization and gentrification has been overhyped to date. By contrast, Stern and Seifert maintain that economic inequality in the creative sector is a much more pressing, and well-documented, issue. In fact, their study of artists in six American cities “between 1980 and 2000 found that artists were consistently among the individual occupations with the highest degree of income inequality.” Many of the high-paying jobs in the creative sector require advanced schooling, creating a lack of opportunity for residents who have education equivalent to a high school degree or less.

An Ecosystem-Based Approach

SIAP proposes a new way of thinking about community-based revitalization in the creative sector that integrates both economic and social perspectives on the arts which they term the “neighborhood-based creative economy.”  Stern and Seifert see this framework as providing a potential path toward activating the cultural economy of urban neighborhoods, further integrating local residents with the regional economy and civil society.

In SIAP’s conception of the community cultural ecosystem, nonprofit arts organizations must share the “cultural opportunity provider” role with other entities including street festivals and performances, for-profit cultural firms like dance academies or movie theaters, and non-arts community-based organizations. This is not to say that nonprofits cannot still play an important role beyond serving as direct-service providers. They are also fiscal sponsors and networking agents between regional entities and creative sources; additionally, they often open their physical space to smaller groups. Overall the community cultural ecosystem is interdependent, no matter if the arts organization is a for-profit, nonprofit or “informal” artistic entity.

To provide a quantitative counterpart to this theoretical notion of the community cultural ecosystem, Stern and Seifert constructed a matrix for Culture and Community Revitalization called the Cultural Asset Index. SIAP identified four cultural asset measures–nonprofit cultural organizations, commercial cultural firms, individual artists, and regional participation rates–and localized each of these measures to block groups within the Philadelphia region. Using a factor analysis, Stern and Seifert were able to reduce these four measures to a single variable (a “cultural asset score”) that explained 81% of the variance in the four measures. Then, through regression analysis, they developed an equation to model predicted cultural asset concentrations in Philadelphia based on per capita income, % non-family households, and distance from the city center. Finally, they identified neighborhoods that had higher-than-expected cultural asset scores based on those inputs. One of the purposes of this analysis was to integrate SIAP’s work with the Market Value Analysis methodology of their project partner, The Reinvestment Fund, which resulted in some of the findings reported elsewhere in this summary. Stern and Seifert suggest using this information in various other ways, such as classifying areas strong in cultural assets as cultural districts; targeting workforce development efforts towards low-income, culturally rich areas; and targeting social inclusion interventions towards low-income, culture-poor neighborhoods.

There is a natural tension between the creative economy and community-oriented ideas of cultural revitalization: whereas the latter seeks to lift up currently marginalized elements of the population, the economic approach tends to concentrate resources on “the most visible and profitable aspects of the creative sector.” Unfortunately, the bulk of the discussion and research on the value of culture to society seeks to justify investment solely through an economic lens and valorizes “creative” workers at the expense of everyone else, potentially exacerbating economic inequality. Due to the substantial support labor required by creative occupations, Stern and Seifert encourage policymakers to explore untapped workforce development opportunities that may be lurking within the creative economy.

Despite some promising findings from the research overview, Stern and Seifert end on a pessimistic note, cautioning that more research is needed before policy decisions can be based off of SIAP’s linkage of cultural engagement to community revitalization. They do argue forcefully that in a rational world, policymakers would limit their investments in large-scale cultural projects whose primary purpose is to serve tourists, given the lack of evidence to suggest how low- and moderate-income individuals can benefit from such initiatives. Nevertheless, the authors acknowledge that a number of factors play into policymaking decisions regarding culture and revitalization, and admit that even the promising evidence of social benefits SIAP documented likely isn’t compelling enough or on a large enough scale to garner the support to push through substantive policy changes. 

Policy Briefs and Community Prospectus

While the literature review forms the center of the Culture and Community Revitalization project, SIAP bolsters it with a set of policy briefs to highlight practical applications of its findings. The first policy brief, “From Creative Economy to Creative Society: A social policy paradigm for the creative sector has the potential to address urban poverty as well as urban vitality,” synthesizes much of the literature review and makes a full-throated case for a neighborhood-based approach to cultural development focused on social inclusion rather than economic prosperity. Stern and Seifert advocate for a revitalization strategy that is “both place- and people-based—that is, it should be grounded in a given locale but have active connections with other neighborhoods and economies throughout the city and region.”

The policy brief recommends that policymakers move away from the centralized planned cultural district model that has been in vogue for some time and instead “identify grassroots nodes as leverage points for public, private, and philanthropic investment” to create sustainable, multi-faceted forms of culturally based redevelopment opportunities.  Focusing on smaller-scale cultural clusters and resources would better address the concerns of “winner-take-all markets,” the relegation of much creative activity to the informal economy, and displacement as a result of gentrification.

In their second policy brief “Migrants, Communities and Cultures,” coauthored by Domenic Vitello, Stern and Seifert use immigrant communities in Philadelphia as a case study for the ways in which the informal arts sector can help build important community ties.  Philadelphia’s rapidly growing, ethnically and economically diverse immigrant populations are also home to diverse forms of cultural expression, but they don’t tend to generate relationships with established cultural organizations. In spite of this, the arts can serve as a connective force that can help immigrants adapt to their new surroundings and form social connections in their new communities.  Due to a stronger immigrant presence in the informal arts sector, cities will need to better research how these newer forms of cultural expression can be better utilized to improve the lives of immigrant communities.

Cultivating ‘Natural’ Cultural Districts,” the  third and final policy brief, introduces the concept of “natural” cultural districts, which are neighborhoods or areas in a city that have “spawned a density of assets— organizations, businesses, participants, and artists— that sets [them] apart from other neighborhoods.” Because these hubs are naturally occurring and build on pre-existing assets, they  offer advantages over cultural districts planned entirely by the city. Stern and Seifert write that the latter “only occasionally are economic successes; most require high, on-going subsidies and effectively feed contemporary cities’ growth of economic inequality.” Stern and Seifert suggest that cities can encourage the development of “natural” cultural districts by attracting private investment; focusing on “quality of life investments” such as regular trash pick-ups, and more green space; pursuing workforce development policies that help young people gain entry into the creative sector; and gathering more data and background information about how these cultural clusters work.

Finally, the community investment prospectus provides a framework for the for-profit and nonprofit sectors to consider modes of investment in arts and culture to facilitate the establishment of vibrant communities. Authored by The Reinvestment Fund’s CEO Jeremy Nowak, “Creativity and Neighborhood Development: Strategies for Community Investment” calls for broadening  “the notion of who…should be part of planning, policy, decision-making and financing related to this field” as well as “top-down and bottom-up strategies that will expand the resources available.” The investment prospectus is accompanied by a case study detailing how a mixture of private and public investment transformed the Crane Arts Plumbing Company’ building in Old Kensington Philadelphia from an industrial space to a true arts hub in the neighborhood. The building now houses “37 studios for different artistic mediums, rooms for three arts organizations, and space for community events.”


Overall, Stern and Seifert present a comprehensive scan of the current state of the work on urban revitalization and the creative economy. Unlike many other studies on the subject, Stern and Seifert have created a quantitative methodology that allows users to quantify cultural activity in specific locations. Their research highlights some areas that need further study and emphasizes some theories that have the potential to truly change the way policymakers and practitioners view the relationship between culture and economy and even how the cultural sector can be organized and operationalized.

That said, there are some weaker points of the study that need more clarification or further research to drive home the ideas Stern and Seifert really want to promote. One of the main themes of SIAP’s work is the positive social impact of cultural activity, but Stern and Seifert seem to waver between emphatically making this point and stressing the need for further study. In addition, the authors don’t fully weigh the meaning of gentrification and related negative impacts of culture-based revitalization, and neglect to make constructive suggestions for further inquiry.

Does culture truly contribute to local economies?

One of the main highlights of the Culture and Community Revitalization project is the Cultural Asset Index. Most research on the arts’ economic and social effects hasn’t attempted nearly as much depth or specificity in showing the relationship between cultural density and other indicators. Stern and Seifert were able to build upon The Reinvestment Fund’s Market Value Analysis methodology to demonstrate that a concentration of cultural assets can be connected to a rise in real estate value. SIAP’s methods to identify rich concentrations of cultural assets in unexpected places could potentially be really empowering for neighborhoods and residents. By uplifting the cultural value in diverse areas, the Cultural Asset Index and its associated correlations can help people within and outside these areas to understand how culture shapes their communities for the better. However, it is unclear exactly how SIAP calculates the index, which could hamper efforts for those unfamiliar with the concepts to understand how it works.

Stern and Seifert conclude that the benefits of creative clusters are not only about economics but also creating and strengthening social bonds across different types of networks. Through its work in Philadelphia and beyond, SIAP is attempting to create empirical methods that show how community arts and the informal arts contribute to the social and economic landscape of cities. A significant weakness of the community-building research cited in the literature review is that the studies take practitioners’ subjective impressions of neighborhood impacts at their word without trying to measure them quantitatively. An example of a more quantitative approach is SIAP’s earlier work establishing a connection between community culture and child welfare in Philadelphia—low-income block groups with high cultural participation were more than twice as likely as comparable block groups to have low truancy and delinquency. More importantly, in original research completed for the Culture and Community Revitalization project, Stern and Seifert found that block groups with high participation rates were twice as likely to undergo economic revitalization, defined as “above average poverty decline and population gain,” a finding supported by further analysis using real estate market classifications from The Reinvestment Fund.  SIAP posits that the correlation between cultural engagement and poverty decline is connected to the cross-geographical/class/ethnic pollination that occurs in cultural hubs. However, Stern and Seifert have not yet been able to clearly attribute these changes to cultural engagement or identify the specific mechanism that causes that change. One possible explanation, supported by the research in the literature review, is the increase of a neighborhood’s “collective efficacy” – its residents’ ability to imagine and work towards positive change.

The authors also postulate that cultural engagement leads to broader civic engagement, but admit that there is little data that can provide linkage between the two.  Part of the “social role” of cultural engagement is defined as the ability of formal and informal arts organizations to attract attendees from outside the local community, helping urban residents experience different parts of their city. Unfortunately, a “lack of comparable data on other forms of community engagement”  to back up the claim that the arts serve as a connective tissue for the social improvement of communities  weakens the case that the benefits of cultural clusters can be seen in social outcomes as opposed to economic outcomes. In spite of this, the original research SIAP has done thus far has uncovered some promising indicators that deserve further exploration.

Much of the data collected is specifically tied to place—namely Philadelphia—making it hard to extrapolate the findings to the nation as a whole. In their analysis of cultural clusters, Stern and Seifert speak to the way that neighborhood-based cultural ecosystems localize the production and consumption of their products and how that contributes to economic stabilization and revitalization. Since much of their reporting focuses on Philadelphia at the turn of the millennium, it is difficult to know whether there were conditions specific to the Philadelphia economy that contributed to their findings or if these were more universal trends. That said, since Culture and Community Revitalization was completed in 2008 SIAP has undertaken studies of other cities, namely Baltimore and Seattle.

Does the idea of “natural cultural districts” resonate with grassroots arts organizations?

Stern and Seifert do a great job of cataloguing the benefits of “informal” cultural participation. For example, they dedicate one of the policy briefs entirely to exploring how the informal arts help connect immigrant communities to services and networks in their new environments. Depending on the intended audience is for this set of research, Seifert and Stern could be providing a great amount of assistance not only for interested researchers who are not specialists in the field, but for advocates and staff of community-based organizations as well. However, the way the report is organized makes it difficult for me to envision the same community-based organizations they uplift in the reports being able to effectively use the research in their work. However, if this is not their intended audience, who are they trying to influence? Do they see this report as a way to help practitioners advocate for the importance of their contributions to their local landscapes?

What role does gentrification play?

Although rising real estate values are a positive outcome on the surface, especially in economically depressed or distressed areas, they do not necessarily bring rising income levels or job prospects to neighborhood residents. While these changes can benefit longtime residents of a developing creative cluster, it is only a benefit to those who actually own property and can manage the subsequent rise in property taxes. Many times, the smartest option for these types of residents is to sell their property (if they even own it in the first place), which could disrupt the neighborhood’s population dynamics and character—low-income residents are not going to sell property with an increased value to other low-income individuals who simply cannot afford the rising price of their real estate. If SIAP’s “natural” cultural districts do not create jobs that are widely accessible to existing residents of the area but eventually drive up the cost of real estate, the question emerges: how truly beneficial are these creative clusters to the average person? Moreover, how do the economic and demographic shifts in these clusters change the nature of the cultural assets that are produced?

Overall, the authors were largely dismissive of the effects of gentrification and its relationship to the arts in their literature review. However, Stern and Seifert do not provide a clear understanding of how they are defining gentrification for the purposes of that assessment, or specific examples of research that failed to show a displacement effect. Instead, they assert that there is not enough clear information about gentrification for them to truly consider it as a factor in their research. This struck me as an odd claim, especially given Stern’s background in U.S. social history and his research on racial inequality. This is a disconnect that continues throughout their body of work.

Stern and Seifert draw a connection between cultural clusters and both economic inequality and rising real estate costs, yet they treat these shifts as wholly separate from the broader issue of gentrification. My personal understanding is that economic inequality and expensive real estate are considered prime contributing factors to gentrification. Since Stern and Seifert do not acknowledge the relationship between these phenomena, it would have been helpful for them to provide the reader with a clearer understanding of what they mean using terms like gentrification or neighborhood stabilization instead of assuming universal understanding of these terms.


Regardless of whether or not the strategies SIAP promotes are the best ones to employ, they are definitely some of the most influential theories out there. Joan Shigekawa, the Acting Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Jeremy Nowak, the Interim Director of ArtPlace, were both involved with the organizational entities that funded and collaborated in the Culture and Community Revitalization project. Prior to her term at the NEA, Shigekawa was the Associate Director for Foundation Initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded the study. Nowak is the co-founder and former CEO of The Reinvestment Fund, one of the lead partners in this work. As a result, they’ve begun to explore some of the ideas SIAP has developed about the creative economy into the institutions they now run.

How has work on culture and urban revitalization progressed since the study was published?

In my research, it has been difficult to find models of community revitalization using cultural clusters that do not tie into some, if not all of the theories that are covered in this series of research studies.  Stern and Seifert’s research on local production and consumption, as well as their emphasis on the social benefits of creative placemaking, are deserving of policymakers and advocates’ attentions.   Curiously, at the end of Culture and Community Revitalization’s literature review the authors seem to downplay the role of natural cultural clusters in enhancing urban revitalization, stating that in spite of the correlations between culture, social engagement, and economic improvement, these correlations “do not produce direct-enough benefits to generate enthusiasm among those who actually determine the fate of cities.”

Yet, as previously mentioned, two large philanthropic entities are in the midst of executing their own round of funding based on the idea that cultural assets can improve communities socially and economically. Nowak’s ArtPlace is a collaboration between foundations to put “art at the heart of a portfolio of strategies designed to revitalize communities.” Prior to heading up ArtPlace, Nowak helped it get off the ground as president of one of its original funding partners, the William Penn Foundation.  ArtPlace makes grants in all 50 states and has awarded over $42 million to different organizations thus far. The NEA’s Our Town program, begun under Shigekawa’s tenure as Senior Deputy Chairman of the agency, explains its grantmaking objective as providing funding for “creative placemaking projects that contribute toward the livability of communities and help transform them into lively, beautiful, and sustainable places with the arts at their core.” Notably, both funding entities have supported SIAP and TRF’s latest collaboration in partnership with the City of Philadelphia, an interactive data portal called CultureBlocks, specifically designed to bridge the gap between cultural assets and City Hall in the name of community revitalization.

All of this philanthropic activity does beg the question: if natural cultural clusters already exist and are improving their communities, is it really necessary for the public and private sector to get involved? Observing the trajectory of the ArtPlace and Our Town initiatives will help bear this question out.

Are there better models out there?

As pointed out in a previous Createquity piece on the arts and gentrification, there are some really innovative artist and community-driven projects focused on neighborhood revitalization and stabilization across the country. These projects include Project Row Houses in Houston, the work of Theaster Gates Rebuild Foundation on the South Side of Chicago, and the Watts House Project in Watts, CA. Though these projects have been subject to their own criticisms, they do seem to provide an alternative to both completely “natural” cultural cluster development and the completely government-initiated cultural district approach. That said, the aforementioned projects have all been implemented within the past decade—it is still too early to truly determine how deep of an impact they will make, both locally and nationally. Will another innovator be able to combine the work of the artist/community developers and the theories promoted by Stern and Seifert? Is that even the path that should be taken or is it best to leave “natural” cultural clusters alone to develop according to their own ethos?


Additional Reading:

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