40 Years Young: The Evolving Practice of Cultural Planning
I’m honored to be invited to contribute to this blog and to describe research released this month on cultural planning—research I had the pleasure to conduct with the help of the great staff at Americans for the Arts. Findings from this study, in comparison with a similar study by Dr. Craig Dreeszen from 1994, provide interesting contrasts over more than two decades in why and how cultural planning is conducted, expectations communities have when entering the planning process, and the kinds of outcomes communities experience as a result of planning.
Before jumping into describing the research, I want to share that I was afforded the opportunity to partner with Craig on more than half a dozen cultural planning projects in Michigan, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island between 2008 and 2012. I learned much from him and enjoyed every minute of the work. A few years later, after I read Craig’s 1994 dissertation on cultural planning, I scolded him for not publishing it. The practice of cultural planning, I told him, would be far more advanced had more people read his work. Craig’s research, and his help in fashioning my survey, provided the basis for comparison that helps illuminate the trends in cultural planning in the United States.
Among Craig’s significant findings that spanned the origins of cultural planning in the 1970s to 1994 were that the cultural planning process tends to produce a transition within local arts agencies. He observed:
The larger-than-the-arts community involvement in cultural planning accelerates what would otherwise be a gradual shift in emphasis from arts development to also embrace community development … It may be during cultural planning that the potential for reciprocity may be understood and the arts and larger communities appreciate what each may do for the other (p. 91).
He also concluded that,
with some notable exceptions, most cultural planning centers upon the interests of arts organizations, arts audiences, and artists. Some plans focus on the arts and assert no pretensions to transform communities. Others purport to plan for the entire community, but are concerned with that community mostly for its potential support of the arts (p. 243).
These thoughts formed the jumping-off point for the 2017 research.
Hundreds of cities and towns in the United States have carried out formal cultural planning over the past 40 years—from those as large as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston to some as small as 1,500 to 5,000 in population. Cultural plans provide local governments with a powerful tool for setting cultural policies on the municipal level, as well as a vehicle to organize the capacities of arts and culture organizations, their supporters, and artists to make a difference in their communities.
Research released this week by Americans for the Arts sheds light on the aspirations, accomplishments, shortcomings, and methods used in cultural planning over the past decade and compares findings with Craig Dreeszen’s similar—although more extensive—study from 1994. Data for the 2017 study come from a survey completed by 50 local arts agencies that had completed a cultural plan within the most recent decade.
The data reveal that expectations of cultural planning have increased significantly over these 20-plus years, and that the greatest change is in the emphasis on serving community interests rather than a focus on the arts and cultural sector’s own needs.
While community-wide cultural planning helps formulate aspirations and action strategies, it doesn’t ensure results. Among the highest expectations reported were to make greater community impact, to apply cultural assets to civic priorities, and to learn new ways to add value to the community. What this study shows is that cultural planning has helped local cultural sectors broaden their roles in their communities especially in areas such as tourism promotion, local economic development, use of public space, and others. Where cultural plans also set their sights, but where outcomes fell short, is in the area of cultural equity—expanding resources for under-represented groups including immigrant populations, removing barriers to participation, and bolstering education and youth development. Fewer than half of cultural plans included specific actions to address diversity, equity, and inclusion—a surprising finding in 2017.
Definitions of “culture” as expressed by the range of community resources included in plans also expanded, but not as inclusively as the general public has come to understand culture, according to outside marketing research.
During the nearly 25 years between the two studies, cultural planning has become more professionalized and employs more sophisticated data gathering and community engagement techniques. While more city governments have made larger investments in cultural planning, there was no significant increase in the percentage of cities that formally adopt cultural plans into their general or comprehensive plans, another surprising outcome.
Cultural planning is an evolving field, yet one for which there is virtually no professional training, no trade associations or journals, and little academic study in the United States. The research shows that more communities (80 percent in 2017) engaged consultants for their cultural plans, yet only 41 percent of those consultants specialize in cultural planning. Cultural planning is growing in both the numbers of cities engaging in it and, perhaps more importantly, the significance it has for those cities—in light of increasingly diverse populations and the elevated roles arts and culture has taken on in the economic, community development, health, education, shared sense of identity, and other important elements of successful communities.