Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Anchors Aweigh for a New Tool to Describe the Work of Community Arts Organizations

Back in April, the National Endowment for the Arts co-hosted two research events devoted to the expansive theme of “the arts, creativity, cultural capital, and economic dynamism.” The events consisted of research talks at the Arts Endowment’s headquarters, and at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Washington, DC. The speakers included Kim Zeuli, who, along with her team at the Initiative for a Competitive City (ICIC), was fresh from drafting a report for The Kresge Foundation. Titled The Overlooked Anchors: Advancing a New Standard of Practice for Arts and Culture Organizations to Create Equitable Opportunity in America’s Cities, the report was released this week.

ICIC’s main contention (see “overlooked” in the report’s title) is that large arts organizations are often unaware they can be “anchors” in their communities, promoting economic development and, with it, greater economic opportunity for low-income groups. According to ICIC, anchor institutions are “large organizations that have a significant impact on their local economy due to purchasing, employment, or real estate holdings.” They have a vested interest in the economic vitality of their communities because it “affects demand for their goods and services, employee attraction and retention, business operations and overall competitiveness.”

Traditionally, hospitals, universities, and businesses have been viewed as anchor institutions. A 2017 report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) notes that while “museums and libraries are not anchor institutions in a strict sense (because, for example, they do not employ as many people as universities and hospitals), they do have some traits in common.” For example, museums and libraries are place-based and they have a public service mission. But the ICIC report emphasizes the economic role of anchor institutions, and not so much their cultural or social assets.

Specifically, ICIC’s “strategic anchor framework” stresses “economic growth in disinvested communities, primarily through job creation.” Anchor institutions serve in many functions: as real estate developers, as purchasers of locally produced goods and services, as employers of local talent, and as “clusters” that can “stimulate growth of related businesses and institutions.”

The idea that arts organizations can be proactive agents of local economic development has not gained currency in many places, ICIC asserts. “The intentionality and defined strategies of this type of approach to community revitalization is relatively new to the arts and culture sector,” the report states. “The focus on leveraging an organization’s operations, instead of programming, is also unfamiliar to the arts world.” Meanwhile, city leaders and more traditional anchor institutions “overlook arts and culture organizations as anchors and typically do not consider their contribution to community revitalization beyond the provision of arts and culture.”

To get a better sense of what arts organizations look like when they also are anchor institutions, ICIC examined a sample of 125 arts and cultural groups across 57 cities nationwide. To identify potential anchors, ICIC set a threshold of $10 million in total expenses and at least 50 employees. The researchers figured that those assets were large enough to generate “substantial economic impact” in the organization’s host city. ICIC then homed in on a diverse sub-sample of 14 potential anchors and four smaller organizations.

After conducting a literature review, analyzing secondary datasets, and interviewing 133 experts and key stakeholders, ICIC identified “anchor strategies” that some organizations were taking. At least one exemplar, the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), has benefited from National Endowment for the Arts grant support. Using those funds, ICIC explains, “MICA partnered with [Baltimore’s] Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc. (a nonprofit development organization) and other community organizations to develop the North Avenue Knowledge Exchange,” a program giving “a range of classes and trainings, extending from art-focused courses to financial literacy and job preparation.”

ICIC also looked at six different cities to understand the different kinds of impact that may result from arts organizations’ anchor strategies. In this category, a noteworthy finding is that “cities with a higher degree of civic engagement but struggling neighborhoods…may create greater expectations for all organizations to act as agents of change and invest in their communities.” By contrast, “being located in a city with a strong arts and culture orientation…does not seem to drive more arts and culture anchor engagement,” ICIC reports. The researchers conjecture that these groups’ “strongly defined role in the city as cultural institutions and drivers of the tourist economy [may] make it harder for them, and others, to see beyond these roles.”

For this reason, perhaps, general “awareness and self-identification as a change agent” tops the bill of ICIC’s “drivers of anchor engagement by arts and culture organizations.” Similarly, the first action item among the report’s recommendations is targeted awareness-building among arts and cultural organizations of their ability to serve as anchors. Small and mid-sized arts groups can lead in this space. The report cites four such groups for special mention as “anchor catalysts” in their communities. One senses there are many, many more small and mid-sized arts groups that would fit ICIC’s description.

How do anchor strategies correspond with creative placemaking? The report offers this distinction: “Where creative placemaking lifts up arts and culture as forces of community and economic prosperity, primarily through programmatic channels, [ICIC’s] anchor framework provides specific operational strategies by which arts and culture organizations can explicitly drive local economic growth.” Even so, the authors are sensitive to the risk that “without proper planning and intention,” anchor strategies such as real estate development can yield unintended effects such as displacement of low-income residents because of gentrification. Once again, high levels of awareness and intentionality would seem necessary for arts organizations wishing to flex their anchor status.


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