Do cultural districts matter?

walkable?At the Art Newspaper, Adrian Ellis claims that they do:

Few cities command the accolade “great” or even “liveable” without a significant cultural presence. Today, whether the question is “Where is the best place to bring up your family?”, “Where do knowledge workers congregate?” or “What attracts inward investment?”, “Cities with a rich cultural life” is the most common answer, alongside those with good public education, low crime rates and decent transport. (They are usually the same places.)

In this context “culture” usually means museums and galleries, theatres and concert halls and the things that animate those buildings—exhibitions, festivals and performances. Liveable cities also have compelling public spaces (agorae) and architecture that draws people to them. They encourage visitors and residents, young and old, to intermingle in ways that destratify, desegregate and generally democratise.

Successful cultural districts are therefore powerful policy tools. For planners they can help build community and social capital; for sociologists they keep at bay the forces of anomie; for economists, they incubate and inculcate creativity, and draw those fickle high-net-worth tourists; and for the politicians and the semioticians alike, they signify and calibrate complex aspirations and identities.

I don’t dispute the importance of cultural amenities in making a city livable. The arts scene in my town of Bloomington, Indiana is certainly a major factor in making this a good place to live and raise a family.

But why cultural districts? Why is it important for cultural amenities to be clustered?

It certainly is the policy trend. Americans for the Arts tell us:

A cultural district or arts and entertainment district is a well-recognized, labeled, mixed-use area of a city in which a high concentration of cultural facilities serves as the anchor of attraction and robust economic activity.

And states that have adopted the policy of designating “official” cultural districts have tended to use almost identical (i.e. borrowed) language: see Indiana, Kentucky, and Massachusetts, for example.

But while I see the importance of local cultural support, and even state-level recognition of cities and towns that are noteworthy for their cultural offerings, it is less clear that districts are a good thing. Ellis writes:

The small-scale, flexible, experimental and funky need a place alongside the flagships of the cultural canon.

Why? What is the gain from having a funky gallery district alongside the opera house?

I don’t completely discount cultural districts, especially if they have developed over time such that various arts organizations are indeed clustered in a particular neighborhood. But I am less in favor of policies that actively encourage clustering rather than dispersion. A city with clustered arts organizations could well turn out to be one where the elite, living with easy access to the district, attend arts events and galleries and the residents of other neighborhoods have nothing close by, and do not feel particularly as if the cultural district is a place they are welcome. The “walkability” proclaimed for cultural districts is often meaningless, with galleries and restaurants closed by the time a live performance has released its audience.

The local arts scene matters for quality of life, absolutely. But dispersion of cultural assets is not such a bad thing.

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  1. MWnyc says

    I’m just speculating here, but I suspect that officials tend to think of cultural districts – development of new cultural activities in a single area, preferably not far from whatever established cultural activities exist already – as a default because concentrated districts would tend to make those officials’ lives easier.

    A single cultural district is easier to market to visitors and potential new residents, and a single district means that officials only have to worry about one neighborhood when arranging and funding whatever extra public services and transportation the new cultural activities require.

  2. says

    I’ve observed some of the issues you mention in my own city of Reno, NV. I agree that organic growth that creates an Arts District from cultural players who choose to locate in proximity to one another is good. We are currently experiencing this phenomenon in an area formerly infamous for its (now extinct) adult book stores. By contrast, we also have restrictive zoning laws that apply to areas outside of the officially sanctioned “cultural corridor.” These have the effect of prodding organizations to locate in a prescribed area or face overcoming challenging, sometimes impossible, legal barriers in order to obtain Certificates of Occupancy and licenses to operate a theatre or other public attraction. This seriously affects audience demographics. Additionally, your point about the businesses that provide amenities to the cultural areas closing before the shows are over is all too common, both here and in other areas I’ve visited.

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