Seven Key Principles for Curating a Cultural District

Posted by J. Kevin McMahon, Feb 04, 2015 0 comments

Numerous editorials have covered the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s work in overseeing Pittsburgh’s most historic transformations—turning a seedy red-light district into a magnet destination for arts lovers, residents, visitors, and business owners. Founded in 1984, the Trust is a non-profit arts organization whose mission is the cultural and economic revitalization of the 14-block arts and entertainment/residential neighborhood called Pittsburgh’s Cultural District, which attracts over two million visitors annually. The organization has grown from a $170k budget in 1984 to a $53M budget today. Most importantly, 90% of the annual budget is allocated to the mission and programs and the organization has maintained a balanced budget year to year.

Below are seven key principles that informed the development of Pittsburgh’s Cultural District.

1. You May Have to Build Before You Have Buy-In

When H.J. “Jack” Heinz II and his “band of dreamers” along with Carol R. Brown—founding Pittsburgh Cultural Trust President—began revitalizing Pittsburgh’s Cultural District, there was a high level of outward migration following the end of industry. Commercial building spaces were redeveloped, repurposed and transformed into art galleries, offices, a coffee shop, small theaters, and housing. The Encore on 7th, an apartment building, was one of the first projects of my tenure. At the onset, few people thought the complex would draw residents. Today, the Encore on 7th is just steps away from Broadway-style theaters, fine dining and shopping with views alongside the Allegheny River and the North Shore with PNC Park and Heinz Field. In the years since, its development it has remained fully leased and offers a variety of price points. As we have all experienced, there are some who will never believe in transformation until they see it with their own eyes. Sometimes you just have to do it.

2. Maintain a “Mix”: Build New and Keep Old

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust did not demolish old buildings and start building new iconic structures in the District. Certainly there is nothing wrong with building new, as the Trust’s O’Reilly Theater would attest to. However, the Benedum and the Byham and Heinz Hall and the Harris Theater—as well as other buildings in the Cultural District—were all saved. Pittsburgh and the Cultural District are more interesting because of these edifices. Another example of the success of maintaining a “mix” is downtown Pittsburgh’s Century Building. Built in 1907 by the Century Land Company, TREK Development Group restored this century old structure, transforming the once commercial office building into 60 residential lofts, in addition to commercial, retail and amenity spaces.

3. Keep in Mind, High Quality Design

While building new and keeping old, it is vital that you engage high quality designers who can make sure that the projects compliment the District as a whole.

4. Look at the Whole Picture of the District

Americans for the Arts has been doing tremendous work in the area of Cultural District planning. The National Cultural Districts Exchange, as well as various pre-conference sessions held as part of annual Conference activities, has provided invaluable insight into undertaking the planning of a cultural district. It is imperative to look at the entire picture of the potential district and consider how all of the parts function as a whole.

5. You Cannot Do it Alone

Public & Private Partnerships should be a priority. These partnerships can reinvent a city with authenticity, innovation and creativity. The work of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust was made possible through the unprecedented support of foundations such as The Heinz Endowments, Richard King Mellon Foundation, Benedum Foundation; PNC Corporation and other corporate sponsors; government agencies and thousands of individuals. Organizations like the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, Riverlife, Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Bike Pittsburgh, Venture Outdoors, Vibrant Pittsburgh, VisitPITTSBURGH and the business leaders of Allegheny Conference ensure that other aspects of residential life are developed with equal vigor. What would the Cultural District be without beautiful riverfronts, three major sports arenas located downtown, and a transportation system that aims to provide easy access to neighborhoods? Collaborating with the Cultural District’s artistic resident companies is necessary as well. Through the Trust’s Shared Services department, Pittsburgh Cultural District member organizations increase efficiencies and decrease costs.

Great video on Collaboration at the Trust:

6. Consider the Climate

It is important to study and understand local, national, and international trends.

Urbanization is taking off throughout the nation Pittsburgh is also undergoing a demographic shift. The steel mills of Pittsburgh’s past are being replaced with new businesses and a younger population. The Trust is opening its doors as wide as possible, to more arts and culture and entertainment with an even broader appeal. Cultural tourists who visit Pittsburgh from outside the region spend 111% more per event than area residents. This is imperative as more people mark Pittsburgh as a travel destination.

7. Remain on Mission

As you grow and your plans begin to successfully manifest, you may be asked to partner and extend beyond the purview of your mission. Your organization may be approached with wonderful and worthy projects that would enable you to venture out into new forms of business. While you have to be optimistic, be certain to identify and master what you do, and continue to stay focused on that which you do well.

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