Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Cultural Landscape at Risk

Durham’s cultural landscape is at risk, which reminds me about what an arts consultant said to me once after examining the communities in what we locally call the Triangle. She warned me that Durham should never take its indigenous cultural personality for granted and that it contrasts greatly with other cities that look more like they went shopping for culture one day and brought back one of everything.

Five years of meetings with cultural groups in the mid to late 1990s revealed to DCVB why Durham’s culture is at risk and led to advocacy for a Cultural Plan, which was funded by a tax on visitors. The meetings revealed that:
  • Community-committed corporate leaders, able to focus on Durham as a place, such as the likes of George Watts Hill or Bob Ingram, are more and more rare and not being replaced.
  • Many corporations based in Durham have moved to distribution of philanthropy based on where employees live, and since half of the people working in Durham live elsewhere, half of what would ordinarily fund cultural groups is flowing elsewhere. With isolated exceptions, corporations based in other communities are not following suit.
  • Because of the change in corporate philanthropy practices, more and more groups are turning to local government. Funds that are available in other communities are used for other things here, e.g., DCVB would ordinarily receive 70-100% of the occupancy tax with up to 1/3rd available for matching grants, but in Durham, DCVB receives only 1/2 the amount the state recommends be made available for marketing alone and none of the portion useable for matching grants to festivals, etc.
  • Cultural groups in many cases lack capacity (awareness, background, interest, resources) to fully leverage the marketing that an organization like DCVB does to drive cultural consumers to Durham.
  • The media market in the Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville DMA is both extremely expensive and inefficient. The TV viewing area alone may be one of the largest in the country, covering 23 counties and parts of two states. This is good for broadcast companies but costly and inefficient for groups targeting audiences.
  • There is no coherent process by which the community makes decisions or prioritizes cultural facility development. Facilities are often championed by enthusiasts or developers, and decisions are made at the political level. Needs and feasibility assessments are often done to justify a project rather than to determine impacts and what is needed. Energy goes into "offense" and "defense" way too early in the process. The result is that some very needed projects are leapfrogged and existing facilities left unsustainable. Decisions must be as much demand-side economics and supply-side.
  • Too often cultural groups are pitted against groups drawing audiences for the facilities and events. "Build it and they will come" is at worst a myth and at best "not for long." There is far too much competition for leisure time, and the role of marketing cannot be overestimated. Marketing to drive demand and audience is the lynchpin.

Not all is doom. There are many strengths to the Durham cultural landscape, e.g., nationally recognized but genuine, authentic and indigenous, well developed and consistent with Durham’s personality as a place to live and visit. More on solutions later.

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