Assessing Cultural Infrastructure

Posted by Scott Kratz, G. Martin Moeller, Jr., Apr 02, 2013 0 comments

Most of the world’s great cultural capitals emerged organically through a virtuous cycle in which creative people flocked to prosperous cities, where they helped to create or expand prominent cultural institutions, which in turn attracted more creative people, and so on.

During the modern era, however, the historically strong correlation between economic vitality and cultural resources diminished somewhat. In some cases, new centers of economic activity developed with unprecedented speed, making it difficult for cultural institutions—which tend to have long gestation periods—to keep up. In the U.S. in particular, the migration of substantial wealth to the suburbs often left venerable urban institutions impoverished, while depriving nascent cultural organizations of the critical mass necessary for success.

The past couple of decades have been marked by a revival of interest in cultural infrastructure and a growing belief that museums, performing arts centers, libraries, programmed civic spaces and other cultural facilities can themselves foster social and economic progress.

The poster child of this trend is the Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry, which has been credited with the revival of a small, rather run-down industrial city in Spain. Careful analysis of economic and other data suggests that the influence of this one project is often overstated, but there can be no doubt that it was a significant catalyst for urban revival, not only because of the museum’s mission and content, but also because of its exhilarating architectural form.

Various other cities around the world—some inspired by Bilbao, others acting purely on their own initiative—have recently sought to transform themselves through ambitious cultural building programs.

Abu Dhabi, a constituent of the United Arab Emirates that is often overshadowed by its showy neighbor Dubai, is seeking to become the primary cultural center of the Middle East. The emirate has commissioned a branch of the Louvre designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and another Guggenheim outpost by Gehry, among other high-profile projects. Meanwhile, Medellín, Colombia, a city long plagued by crushing poverty and rampant violent crime, has been reinvigorated by a series of “library parks” notable for their cutting-edge design and their great popularity with the public.

While initiatives such as those in Bilbao and Medellín have been hailed as great successes, many cultural projects have been thwarted by the recent global economic upheaval. Some buildings that were completed have drawn criticism for dramatic cost overruns. Given the likelihood of continuing reductions in government funding for such projects, many journalists, civic leaders, and scholars have publicly questioned whether eSxpensive cultural facilities are worth the money and effort required to build them.

With these questions in mind, the National Building Museum has organized a series of public programs examining “Culture as Catalyst.” The series began in February with panelists from across the United States exploring the link between culture and a region’s economy.

Phoenix’s Director of Public Art Ed Lebow explained that “there was a direct economic factor involved in improving the face of Phoenix” by engaging artists to improve pedestrian bridges, add public art, and create new performance venues. Mary Margaret Jones, principal at the landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates, described Houston’s new 12-acre Discovery Green Park, which helped stitch together the downtown area. Subsequent economic analysis demonstrated that this new civic amenity attracted nearly $1 billion in adjacent development. Victoria Rogers, COO of Miami’s New World Symphony, provided another case study in describing the institution’s free “Wallcast” performances featuring outdoor live simulcast concerts attracting up to 3,000 attendees and greatly expanding their audiences:

The program series continued in March with a panel of art advocates, researchers, and cultural leaders offering examples of how arts institutions can ensure long-term sustainable success:

Randy Cohen, vice president for policy and research at Americans for the Arts, noted that the share of Americans attending live performances is declining, yet personal art creation is on the increase (he noted that there is a quilter in 14% of American homes today). Cohen used such data to argue that traditional cultural institutions would be wise to engage their audiences deeply in the artistic experience.

Joanna Woronkowicz, author of the University of Chicago’s instructive “Set in Stone” report, described an analysis of cultural capital campaigns for new buildings or renovations from 1994–2008, with particular attention to the building boom that took place from 1998–2001. The team of researchers found that the supply of cultural facilities appears to have exceeded the demand for them during that period, which may help account for the financial struggles that some of those institutions faced subsequently.

Karen Christiansen, Chief Operating Officer of Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum, addressed the importance of engaging new audiences as she described the internal decision to waive general admission. Staff at the Nelson-Atkins found that the institution actually increased income by charging only for special exhibitions and through a well-placed donation box.

The series concludes on April 10 with a panel of representatives from rust-belt cities that are transforming aging factories into art galleries, creating large inter-disciplinary cultural districts, taking over abandoned lots or homes for art creation, and producing annual cultural events to draw outside visitors.

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