Creating a Cultural District: Not Just the Wedding or the Honeymoon - it's the Partnerships that Count
The talk that I gave at the recent Americans for the Arts national convention offered an intriguing title for the panel: “The Wedding of Public Art and Cultural Districts”. That title led me to think further about what makes a real marriage work. I resisted the urge to show in my PowerPoint presentation a photograph of me wearing my mother’s wedding gown at my own wedding 38 years ago as being too hokey. But I did appreciate the opportunity to reflect back on enduring partnerships and what makes them succeed.
We all know horror stories of bridezillas, conflicts in planning a wedding, and marriages that unfortunately don’t live up to the unrealistic romanticized notions played out in movies or idyllic honeymoon settings on a beach. What makes some relationships work and others fail? What traits do you need and what qualities should you run from screaming? Do beauty, power, money, and excitement matter? How do you make a long-term relationship keep its zest? Without pretending to be Ann Landers or Dr. Joyce Brothers, let me offer a few suggestions.
The most successful partnerships bring out the best in each other without trying to be competitive about who is on first or who has the most power. Each partner should feel like it is getting something important out of the relationship and has something to offer. Partners should be clear about their roles, responsibilities, and expectations. What tasks are easy for some and a burden to others? Parcel out the components so people are playing to their strengths.
Especially in cultural districts where there are multiple partners, people and organizations need to be able to compromise and adapt with the times. People should periodically assess what is working and what needs to change. Are there new players in town? Are new cultural, civic, or entrepreneurial opportunities emerging that should be tapped? What cultural activities can be partnered with business settings to bring more zest to both enterprises? Recreate the mystery and fun of those first few dates (as opposed to the disastrous ones you try hard to forget).
Be creative and wide-ranging in identifying potential partners. In addition to cultural organizations, the city, and downtown revitalization groups, consider other partners such as businesses (even laundromats have hosted poetry readings and theater productions), colleges, social service organizations, churches and other religious organizations, the YMCA and other athletic centers. All of these groups can offer a combination of space, dedicated members and visitors, ideas, shared resources, and energy.
Don’t go it alone. Reach out to others. With the preponderance of cultural districts emerging around the country, tap into the successes and missteps of others. What worked for them and how can you adapt their success for your own community? What did they learn from their mistakes (or have you learned from your own mistakes), and what should be done differently next time to convert a failure into a success story? What do you need to succeed and to strengthen your partnership? Remember to keep it lively, keep it stimulating, keep it friendly, keep it relevant, and keep it exciting.