Local arts funding and urban design

No servicesIn the United States, most public funding for the arts happens at the local, rather than the state or federal, government level. And there are good reasons for that; this is a big, diverse, dispersed country, and local arts councils are best placed to respond to residents’ tastes and cultural traditions.

What kind of city design best facilitates a lively cultural scene? I had always thought of density as key – lots of residents around a core give the opportunity for various amenities – culture, cuisine, shops – to generate income and interest, leading to pleasantly busy (and, in turn, safe) sidewalks and a happy citizenry. I still think that’s true, but two articles I read this week made me realize another factor: density also contributes to less expensive provision of government services. Low-density suburbs are costly to maintain, since they need lots of street and sidewalk repair, policing and fire services, and transportation. When such areas suffer falling incomes, and falling property values, local government is put in a fiscal bind. In that situation, it cannot afford to invest much, if anything, in cultural life.

In Slate, Reihan Salam looks at suburbs, and how low-income suburbs such as, for example, those surrounding St. Louis, have no good sources of local government revenue, and that this can lead to government finance by police forces and the court system. I don’t need to go over the possible outcomes here – we have all seen. Highly recommended article.

And Reuters has this sobering assessment of Detroit’s finances. Detroit is, as Salam notes, much like a giant suburb – lots and lots of square miles of detached single-family homes. But servicing all those square miles is very expensive, and when residents leave, when property values are in the basement (so to speak), city government is in a terrible financial situation even with the most competent administrators, not one that easily allows for the local support of major, or even minor, arts organizations.

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  1. says

    The idea that local arts organization need to ” respond to residents’ tastes and cultural traditions” is a recent neo-liberal construct and is rife with as many problems as your example of under funded local governments.
    Great art isn’t about following what people think they might want but rather leading people to experience things they never have thought of.

    • says

      If the idea that local governments ought to reflect local preferences is ‘neo-liberal’, then yes, I suppose that makes me a neo-liberal. In some communities, local preferences might be for an arts council that funds experimental art, or performances that bring to the city the new and the unexpected. In other communities tastes might be for a council that funds more traditional museums, theatre and music. I don’t see anything wrong with publicly funded local arts councils following either of these routes.

      • says

        Should “taste” be the deciding factor of who and what get’s funded in the arts? Shouldn’t governmental or even foundational funding sources take into consideration the minority voice just as our constitutional government is required to consider not just the voice (taste) of the majority?
        If not, how will anything new ever get developed under such a qualifier? Should we fund the arts that mimic established tastes or rather should we be funding the arts which lead us to experience new things?

        • says

          Nearly half of Detroit’s population is functionally illiterate. See:


          What is left of “taste” when people have trouble even reading, writing, and speaking? When I substitute taught in the ghetto schools of Philadelphia in the mid 70s, I saw things so horrific my life was changed forever – like an 8th grade pregnant heroin addict, fully armed policemen patrolling the halls of Jr. Highs, and children already so traumatized from abuse and neglect their lives would never be normal.

          I learned that art must derive from a sense of compassion for our fellow humans, even when it is experimental and exploratory. I don’t mean compassion as some sort of do-gooder condescension, but out of a reasonable care for the understanding and well-being of others.

          Below is a link to simple video made by someone who simply drove around Detroit and filmed its endless slums. The collapse of society on this scale goes far beyond economic problems It points to fundamental issues such as our philosophies of social responsibility, our ideas about the meaning of government, and the basic principles by which we create and maintain our communities. The arts play a fundamental role in how these views are shaped. Detroit is not just an economic failure, it is also a cultural failure of catastrophic proportions.


          What does one say to young arts administrators about social issues like these? What are their responsibilities when confronting these problems?

  2. says

    Germany has 85 million people in an area about the size of Montana. Almost all of densely populated Europe strictly controls sprawl with strong zoning laws. The people in cities, towns, and villages are tightly clustered together. As a result Europe has a lot of green spaces and forests in between urban areas in spite of being densely populated.

    During the dark ages and medieval times, urban areas had no choice but to cluster because they had to live behind walls for protection – or at least closely together for common defense. With brigands and bands of thieves roaming the countryside, a lone farm or “suburban” house out by itself would not have lasted long. This set a tradition of clustering in place that lasts to this day and serves other purposes such as sane zoning laws in a densely populated continent. The tacky and often trashy sprawl of American urban areas looks completely bizarre to European eyes.

    The spacial problems in Detroit did not stem solely from sprawl. Due to industrial expansion, the city’s population grew by1000 times between 1820 and 1930. The defense industry during WWII also caused massive expansion, but since 1950 the city has lost 60% of its population. Like most mid Western cities, Detroit had a lot of single family homes, but they were fairly densely packed on smallish lots. It was the massive loss of population that created the effects of a city with too much urban area. Now Detroit is in the process of bulldozing 40 square miles of the city to turn it back into farm and fallow land. Shrinking the city in this way will cost $1.7 billion in demolition and rebuilding infrastructure.

    Automation and the decline of the US auto industry due to free trade laws were major factors in the loss of population. We saw the destructive effects of economic policies on urban environments. There is no city in Europe, industrial or otherwise, that suffered in this way. National and local governments made sure that auto building cities like Munich, Stuttgart, and Turin would survive intact. And now, of course, their auto industries are far healthier than ours. And of course, they are able to pay for a lot more culture as a result.

    These problems were also compounded by our racially informed class system. The Detroit Symphony is 95% white in a city 83% black. Poverty is almost universal. White flight moved the patrons of the so-called high arts to Detroit’s suburbs. Some of these suburbs are among the most wealthy in the country, but their citizens no longer feel connections to Detroit as a city.

    Europeans view cities as the greatest and most complete expression of the human mind and spirit. Venice, Florence, Rome, Prague, Amsterdam, Dresden, Barcelona and Paris, just to name a few, are all imbued with this ideal. Americans, by contrast, behave almost as if they have lost hope in their cities, as if they were dangerous and inhuman urban wastelands to be abandoned for the suburbs. This tacit assumption has had a profound but largely unrecognized effect on American political and cultural discourse. Classical music is one of the most urban of art forms. Its status will always be measured by the health and vibrancy of our cities. Ultimately, questions of arts funding will only be fully resolved when we recognize that the well-being of our cultural and urban environments are deeply interdependent.

  3. says

    In the USA, the federal government, states, and localities appropriated a combined $1.14 billion to the arts in FY2013, for a total per capita investment of $3.60. See:


    About 60 cents comes from the Federal government and about $3.00 from states and local governments. These numbers are so small they are essentially insignificant and have very little effect on urban planning or urban environments.

    The average for Western European public spending on the arts is around $180 per capita per year – or about 75 times higher than in the USA. Some European countries spend over $400 per capitia. See:


    While the arts shape the urban environments of Europe, much of the thinking in the States is to let the arts follow white flight and move to the suburbs. Due to the spcial dissipation of suburbs, this idea has been unworkable.

    Thanks for bringing up these interesting topics.

    • says

      Excellent contribution as usual, William. I always find your posts illuminating.

      I hear you on this, I’ve worked both sides of the Atlantic, and it’s pretty clear to me that the way the arts are supported in Western Europe achieves superior results.

      However, I do wonder whether your direct comparison between government funding in the US and Western Europe tells the whole story.

      I’d be curious to see what the figures end up looking like when you factor in tax-deductible contributions from the private sector.

      Those contributions amount to indirect government subsidy, and they are of particular relevance to this article. The opportunity to make tax deductible contributions encourages arts funding on the local level in the most direct and personal way possible.

      Another thing is that this support doesn’t depend on taste, rather it ends up weaving a complex web of support that often defies categorization.

      Whether this is a better way of doing things is another story. For example, Western European countries seem to have done a better job of helping their arts organizations weather the economic downturn, since they were not so reliant on donations from private entities that suddenly had much less to give away (although I’m not so sure whether that holds true in the UK or Italy).

      In any event, it would be interesting to have a comparison between public AND private funding of the arts both sides of the Atlantic before moving on to consider the bigger picture.

      • says

        Sorry for the delayed response. I was traveling. Overall philanthropic giving for the arts, culture, and humanities is listed in the 2012 annual report of Giving USA compiled by the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University. Unfortunately the report has been deleted from their website, or I would list the URL. I haven’t checked for newer versions if they are available. (Perhaps someone can help. I’m pressed for time at the moment.)

        The report stated that that the arts, culture, and humanities receive 4% of total philanthropic giving for a sum of 13 billion. There was no further break down so we don’t know what went to “culture” (which can include zoos, parks, Boy Scouts, youth festivals, and even swimming pools) nor how much the “humanities” received which relates to education and research. What the arts actually ended up with is not specified, but I would estimate that roughly half went to the arts – or $21 per capita. Added to that would be spending for the arts from the Federal, State, and Municipal levels which totals $3.60 per capita. Total spending for the arts in the USA from both government and private sources is thus about $24.60 per capita.

        By comparison Austria spends $369 per capita, Denmark $474, Norway $590, Germany $136, Italy $194, and France $265. The average for these countries is $289 – well over ten times American spending, both public and private. The European data is published by The Council of Europe and is available here:


        Even if we add in a large margin of error for these numbers, the average would still be 8 to 10 times higher than in the USA. Some of the numbers are 5 or 6 years old, but they have not changed considerably except in Italy and Holland, where not surprisingly, conservative governments are pushing “the American model.” (If anyone tells you the numbers for Europe have changed significantly, demand documentation. You can rest assured that they will not be able to provide it except for a few exceptional cases.)

  4. says

    It happens I write about arts and urban revitalization a lot and urban design is a crucial element. This post is based on a presentation as part of a panel at a Literary Managers and Dramaturgs national conference in 2009:


    Among other citations are works by John Montgomery. For what it’s worth, and since expanded in his book _New Wealth of Cities_, Montgomery outlines virtually EVERY ELEMENT of what needs to be done in terms of creation and fostering of “culture districts.”

    His basic journal articles date to the mid and late 1990s. Sadly, this work doesn’t seem to percolate much in the US.

    More recently I wrote about this about 7 European cities as part of an EU project in the US.


    The piece on Bilbao discusses the broader approach, within which culture districts are but one element–although Bilbao is criticized for not focusing on creating a culture district as an element of having more impact on the local arts scene and the development of artists.



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