Art and Culture Districts Can Be the New Incubators of Innovation

Posted by John Eger, Jul 22, 2013 0 comments

John Eger John Eger

President Obama has said repeatedly that "We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world." According to Forbes Magazine, "If there was a central theme to the president's remarks, it was innovation."

Yet, although everybody is talking about how innovation is what we need and will solve our jobless dilemma, few people know what innovation is or how we get it, or critically, what our communities must do to meet the challenges of the new age.

It is becoming clear that art and culture districts are vital to ensuring vibrant economic activity in our cities. They are foreshadowing a whole new economy based upon creativity and innovation.

Fortunately, Americans for the Arts (AFTA), who as early as 1998 researched the emergence of such districts in which the arts were used as part of a strategy for revitalizing cities, has now launched an even more ambitious effort:

A plan to produce an update of the earlier report, and more importantly, a three year effort - inviting mayors and other city executives, architects, city planners, and experts in the field to “blog”, and to participate in webinars and conferences to help cities and towns across America to reinvent their community for the new age, this rapidly emerging age of  "creativity and innovation.”

Theresa Cameron, Local Arts Agency Services Program Manager of AFTA, will head this effort.

It seems every city is talking about becoming an innovation city, an innovation region, and an innovation community. But you can't have innovation without creativity. How do you make someone creative and what can communities do to develop, nurture, and sustain creativity and innovation?

Recently, The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced 59 new grants that will help American communities prepare themselves for the new economy. Together with ArtPlace, a non-profit composed of the NEA and major philanthropic institutions that have traditionally funded the Arts, the nation's largest banks and eight federal agencies are helping communities reinvent their downtown and neighborhoods.

NEA's grants have supported 190 projects totaling more than $16 million in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. ArtPlace has been even more aggressive, awarding a total of $42.1 million in 134 grants to 124 organizations in 79 communities across the U.S. (and a statewide project in Connecticut).

These grants, important as they are, are only part of the picture. What each state, each community - city or town - does to bring differing interests, differing people together is essential.

For example, in just the last few years, more State Executives with responsibilities for art and culture have championed "cultural districts" to "revitalize" communities. But not clearly enough.

Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky and Massachusetts are the most recent state agencies to establish such an initiative. Eight other states recognized such districts as tax free enterprises and have adopted similar efforts. The appointees, usually loyal friends of the elected Governor, don't often take on issues of local economic development. But this seems to be changing, as many appointees are visionary leaders, action oriented, and making their voices heard.

States use a variety of tax incentives to encourage business development within local cultural districts. Examples of state incentives include sales, income, or property tax credits or exemptions for goods produced or sold within the district; or preservation tax credits for historic property renovations and rehabilitation. Maybe a state will offer an amusement or admission tax waiver for events within the district. All the plans vary.

Just the "State Cultural District" designation from the state seems to be enough for cities to apply, but you have to wonder what cities could do, and whether smaller cities might apply, if a little financial help were forthcoming. You have to wonder too, what might be possible if more organizations and institutions in a region joined forces.

All these projects are, in a sense, the new incubators of creativity, by both luring the creative class to such places and by adding significantly to the establishment of a thriving creative sector, increasingly seen as a powerful economic development asset.

At a time when creativity and innovation have become key indicators of success in the new knowledge based economy, the look and feel of our cities is a vitally important measure of how a city sees itself, and how well it is meeting the challenges of a very new age. These are the essential ingredients to nurturing, retaining, and attracting the creative workforce America needs.

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