My final day in Seattle began with a “peer group” session called Meet the NEA that was really another panel. I wasn’t able to catch the entirety of it, but the panelists did say that the agency would take a “hard look” at the policy around individual artists (it should be noted that the Endowment is currently prohibited by law from doing so, due to the 1996 kerfuffle in Congress that also resulted in the agency’s budget being cut by 40%). Nevertheless, I didn’t get the sense that this is a front-burner issue for them (and frankly, I don’t think it should be). We also heard from NEA Communications Director Yosi Sergant (check him out, he’s the guy who got Shepard Fairey to do the “Hope” poster for the Obama campaign and ran the Artists for Obama initiative), who is on a mission to get artists to participate in the President’s national community service initiatives. Specifically, Yosi wants artists who are already doing work in the community, whether it be in the form of using art to raise money for charitable causes or incorporating art into the charitable work itself, to register their projects to the new serve.gov website. By highlighting the service that is already taking place or ready to go, whether it gets funding from the NEA (or anyone else) or not, Yosi says the case for public funding of art will be immensely strengthened. I defer to Yosi’s expertise about what the people holding the pursestrings want to hear, so I suggest that if you have or know of projects that fit the description, you follow his advice. (Note: this is not about devaluing art that is not explicitly service-oriented in nature—the point is rather to make sure that artists are given proper acknowledgment for the role they can and will play in a major national priority of the President’s.)
After skipping the closing plenary to post the previous day’s convention wrap (ah, the tyranny of the blog) and a lovely lunch with several of my fellow Emerging Leaders, I attended a fantastic session on Building Affordable and Sustainable Spaces. Rather than the traditional panel Q&A format, four presenters gave information about their activities in turn. The action kicked off with Philip Morris (no, not THAT Philip Morris) of Proctors in Schenectady, NY. Schenectady was once a booming regional industrial center, but as anchor business GE laid off some 45,000 employees over the course of decades, the area became extraordinarily depressed, to the point that in 2002, the downtown area suffered from an 85% vacancy rate. Proctors, a historic vaudeville theater, was the only institution left standing. Since previous attempts to revitalize downtown had failed and Proctors was the sole survivor in both instances, Morris suggested to city leadership that Proctors lead the revitalization effort this time. Expertly building political consensus around his agenda, Morris and his team succeeded in getting a Metropolitan Development Fund established, to be capitalized with a .5% increase in the sales tax. These resources were used to renovate Proctors itself, begin a 10-year, $2 million effort to restore building facades, institute a sidewalk snowmelt program for the block (to ensure that downtown events would be accessible during the wintertime), and deploy a wide range of financial incentives to attract arts and entertainment investment in the area. In seven years, this effort has yielded a new movie complex, five architects, 30 artists, eight restaurants, and three media companies; downtown now has an 85% occupancy rate instead of an 85% vacancy rate. During this time, attendance at Proctors has almost quadrupled, and the six new movie screens draw an additional 200,000 visitors a year. It gets better, though. Morris, who it seems is something of an expert on green building, accessed state funds to build a $10 million district energy system that now provides green power to five institutional customers in the neighborhood as well as Proctors itself. He is currently partnering with a private company to build a 5-megawatt co-generating wind turbine to sell power wholesale, with the profits accruing back to Proctors. Morris now runs a total of five corporations, three for-profit and two nonprofit (including Proctors). This is a crazy story and definitely worth further investigation. In the meantime, Proctors’ website is here.
Nancy Duxbury followed with a presentation on cultural economic development in “edge cities” — smaller satellite cities or suburbs that cluster around a major metropolitan center. Nancy went through her slides rather quickly so I wasn’t able to take as detailed notes as I would have liked, but the presentation was quite interesting and alerted to me to the good work being done at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. Many edge cities are experiencing rapid growth, including some migration of creative types from center cities due mostly to high costs of living downtown and the availability of affordable spaces farther away (this is by no means a universal phenomenon, however). As a result, there is a potential in such cities for cultural economic development; however, any efforts in that direction must successfully differentiate the city to help it escape from the core metropolis’s gravitational pull. Duxbury also recommended regional partnership with neighboring edge cities to promote clustering. Challenges for edge cities include managing rapid growth and development; the “head start” core cities have in infrastructure, established support, and activity; the tendency of edge cities to draw local and amateur participation, leaving higher-profile, professional artists to the core; and insufficient parks and recreation framework. There are lots more resources available at www.cultureandcommunities.ca.
We next heard from Cathryn Vandenbrink of Artspace Seattle. Artspace is a remarkable Minneapolis-based nonprofit real estate developer that sources potential live/work spaces for artists and actually takes them from the design phase all the way through to completion. Vandenbrink mentioned that whereas Artspace used to be invited into communities by artists, more and more it’s local governments who are doing the inviting, due to the positive track record of the organization for creating community catalysts. She also noted that 25 years ago, when Artspace first began identifying unused warehouses and factories for repurposing into artists’ housing, the luxury condo loft movement had not yet begun; the commercial sector caught on to the possibilities because of artists’ investment. Artspace developments (of which Vandenbrink highlighted two in Seattle) require a substantial dialogue and negotiation with the community. When commercial storefront tenants are brought in to the development, Artspace tries to avoid chains like Quiznos, FedEx, and so forth, going for local differentiation instead. Projects receive only 5-10% of their funding from private sources (such as foundations); over half of the money comes from federal and state low income housing tax credits, with another 10% from federal historic tax credits.
Finally, Matthew Kwatinetz of Heartland LLC, who organized the panel, gave a presentation on cultural economic development. Matthew framed economic development as an intervention within markets to correct market failures and reconcile profits with community values, increasing economic activity while maximizing public benefit. Cultural economic development fits this framework because the nature of artistic work has both economic value and public benefit. Artists build social capital through the relationships they create, as freelancers, with a wide variety of organizations and individuals, and of course the power of artists to create real estate value is well-known to readers of this blog. The Philanthropic Collaborative even did a social return on investment (SROI) comparison for different kinds of philanthropic causes and found that arts and culture had one of the highest ROIs, double that of science and technology. (I haven’t had a chance to review this study’s methodology, so don’t take this as gospel, but it’s good to know about nonetheless.) But how can the arts create economic value when they have to be subsidized in order to survive, one might ask? Well, the dirty secret of “for-profit” enterprises is that they often rely on direct and indirect subsidization too. Did you know that “anchor” tenants in a mall, such as Macy’s, often don’t pay a thing for their space because the mall developer counts on them to bring foot traffic to the rest of the mall? Could Macy’s be as successful, as “profitable,” without the developers subsidizing their cost structure? Did you know that movie theaters are often given their land, building, and rent for free because of the people they bring to the immediate area? Artists clearly provide this same service, but do you see them getting free rent? Nope, you see condo developers advertising the same arts organizations that they’re forcing out of the neighborhood.
Letting my Gemini nature get the better of me, I spent the last session hopping between a conversation with economic development innovator John Hawkes and a panel on public-private partnerships with organizations from Seattle and Portland. Then it was off to the closing reception for some Martinelli’s and last-minute schmoozing, and with that, it was over. Thanks to everyone at Americans for the Arts and the various Seattle hosting organizations for making this event possible—it was very well done and I will definitely be attending in the future.