Friday, November 09, 2012

The Fragile Roots of Unique Sense of Place

Public funding of arts agencies as a part of community and economic development began long before the WPA program during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the origin of today’s 5,000 local arts organizations in the U.S. traces back to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in America.

This is when American cities began to launch umbrella arts organizations or commissions as part of the urban planning and improvement movement that emerged as part of the Progressive Movement to reform the ills laid bare during the previous 16 years, an era of hording and exploitation known as the Gilded Age.

The emergence of local arts organizations to help make communities more attractive and livable coincided with the emergence in 1895 of community-destination marketing organizations (DMOs) designed to fuel visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

The resulting visitation and visitor spending has been a means to generate external audiences and local tax revenue, which would, in part, make arts organizations viable while at the same time protecting and safeguarding the unique sense of place they help create.

The somewhat parallel evolution of these two types of community organizations also coincided with the emergence of the City Beautiful Movement, the Conservation Movement, including the advent of the first forestry conservation school, as well as the national roadside movement which viewed visual blight such as outdoor billboards as symbolic of moral decline in this world.

In the mid-1800s it was believed that immorality created slums but, as these movements were emerging at the turn of the century, “most believed that the contrary was true: crowded, unsanitary conditions bred social disorder, unrest and, as a consequence, immorality” according to Dr. Catherine Gudis, author of Buyways – Billboards, Automobiles, And The American Landscape.

No matter how much that linkage has been scientifically validated over the years, organizations that blight America’s cities and roadways continue to wreak havoc through intense political rent-seeking, the seeking of privilege and wealth via lobbying and campaign donations.Funding for Performing Arts and Museums

These movements took time to surface in acclaimed mid-sized, creative class centers such as Durham, North Carolina, where I live and where the arts organization didn’t fully coalesce until 1954.

Billboards were banned here in 1984 at the same time that groundwork was being laid for the community’s first destination marketing organization which launched in 1989.

For much of a century now, Durham residents have exhibited a level of passion and community pride that transcend many more overtly boosterish and some say pretentious communities.  This is something that manifests itself in an organic, carefully tended, very genuine, authentic and unique sense of place.

However, this sense of place has always been extremely fragile and sensitive.  Even among some who herald it, are many who seem to take it for granted.  They unwittingly champion additions that put Durham’s sense of place under stress when there is a failure to grasp the intricate relationships of cause and effect that insulate it from development churn.

Here are two Durham illustrations.

Duke University has done much to foster Durham’s unique sense of place.  It is a global powerhouse not only for academics, research and development, innovation, sustainability and healthcare, but it is one of the few in this echelon to sustain success in college athletics as well, none more so than in basketball.

The university is also very careful to protect its architectural presence in the community.  While many other universities have and continue to succumb to the lure of shiny new look-alike arenas and stadiums, Duke is seeking instead to upgrade and adapt its historic facilities such as the 80-year old Wallace Wade Stadium and the 72-year-old Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke understands the value and character of sense of place in the university and to Durham at-large.  Another illustration serves warning to “be careful what you ask for.”

Durham officials are basking in the success of a new performing arts theater, one of a dozen here and one of well more than 300 nationwide now that host touring Broadway shows.  Even disregarding hyperbole the facility is an unqualified success across many metrics.

The number of similar facilities nationwide has more than doubled since the mid-1990s even though overall attendance nationwide is flat.  This may be due to what economists call “access to opportunity,” a condition where it becomes more and more difficult to generate attendance for something as it becomes more and more readily accessible.

Nationwide, theaters such as this rely on visitors to supply more than 60% of attendance.  Overall Durham’s arts and leisure events and facilities rely on visitors for nearly 70% of attendance.

Unfortunately the success of the Durham theater undermined one to the southeast in Raleigh but it is inspiring yet another theater to the west in Greensboro.  However, one unfortunate by-product of the Durham theater’s success may come at a cost that won’t be visible for many years or decades.

Arts organizations and facilities within a community especially festivals all compete at some level for attendance, especially if there isn’t a community calendar such as Durham’s or if schedulers fail to consult it or respect one another.  The level of public interest in the arts doesn’t rise or fall with the number of facilities and events.

But a far more significant way that arts organizations and facilities compete is for sponsors, donors and to a lesser extent for volunteers.  Here is where they are especially vulnerable to any increase in the supply of events and facilities, not just for the arts but all leisure activities or facilities.

Organic events and facilities, the ones that make a community distinct and unique and genuine are many times more vulnerable to competition for sponsors and donors, especially if shielded by locally-based corporations from poaching of donors and sponsors by events and facilities located in other communities.

Developers in general are often dismissive, but the churn to which many are accustomed is anathema to fostering and sustaining unique sense of place.  If and when a community seeks to add to its inventory of cultural or leisure facilities and events, officials are well advised to not only look at feasibility but even more carefully at the unintended consequences such as dislocation of donors and sponsors.

It is also important for communities to develop metrics that ensure an orderly evolution of arts and leisure events and facilities that contribute to unique sense of place and to give weighted importance when considering the addition of events or facilities that may be generic to many communities.

A community’s arts and leisure landscape is a very fragile ecosystem.

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