Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Living and Working Near Arts and Cultural Venues

In late 2017, the National Endowment for the Arts published results from an analysis of business establishments in rural areas hosting performing arts centers. The report, which agency research staff co-authored with an economist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), concluded that rural businesses clustering near performing arts centers were more likely than businesses in other rural areas to be innovative in their practices, and to use fully integrated design processes. These findings stood out even when the researchers controlled for numerous other factors.

The report stopped short of identifying a definite reason for this affinity, but one popular hypothesis is that creative talent often migrates to places with arts “hot spots”—a dynamic not lost on corporate recruiters. In the title of his research paper, coauthored with the Arts Endowment’s Bonnie Nichols, USDA economist Tim Wojan put it this way: “Design, innovation, and rural places: Are the arts the cherry on top or the secret sauce?” (Drawing from this paper and the 2017 NEA report, Richard Florida slightly amended the title of his famous 2002 book for use in a February 2018 article: “The Rise of the Rural Creative Class.”)

On April 6, Wojan and I get to host two panel sessions at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Washington, DC. Featuring researchers from various organizations (including NEA Research Labs at the University of Iowa and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis), the sessions will explore geospatial, social, and economic bonds between arts and cultural assets and other sites of creativity and innovation.

Another way of understanding the value of arts and cultural spaces to a neighborhood is by surveying its residents. Working with researchers at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, our research staff did just that. In 2015, for the first time, the American Housing Survey (fielded by the U.S. Census Bureau) asked householders across the country about the role of arts and culture in their choice of neighborhood.

According to the survey results, which Mousumi Sarkar of Well World Solutions analyzed for the Arts Endowment, 38 percent of householders (representing 50.7 million households) affirmed the importance of living “conveniently near” arts and cultural events. (For the purpose of the survey, such events may have included musical, theatrical, and dance performances, literary events, film screenings, museum and gallery exhibits, and crafts and performing arts festivals.) Fifteen percent of all householders (representing 20.4 million households) reported that convenient access to arts and cultural events actually had played a role in neighborhood choice.

Among the 38 percent who valued living near arts and cultural events, the majority (88 present of that group) reported being satisfied with their own access to such events. In her report, however, Sarkar shows that the demographic and household characteristics of those most likely to voice satisfaction are markedly different from those most likely to have affirmed the importance of living near such events in the first place. This discrepancy seems to highlight broader disparities in access to arts and cultural facilities across the nation. It also appears that the farther out one lives from arts centers (according to a spatial analysis done by Sarkar, combining the survey responses with data from nonprofit arts organizations), the less likely are householders to report the importance of living near arts and cultural events. (Out of sight, out of mind?)

The 38 percent who affirmed the importance of living near such events are also highly likely to report social and economic benefits deriving from the presence of arts venues in their neighborhoods. Of the 38 percent, for example, 88 percent agreed that arts and cultural events improved the overall quality of the neighborhood, 83 percent agreed that the events provided opportunities for greater social interaction and/or greater awareness of other people or cultures, 81 percent agreed that the events improve neighborhood identity, and 77 percent saw the events as improving the local economy as a whole.

Ultimately, Sarkar’s report raises many questions about who has access to arts and cultural venues (formal or informal spaces) in their neighborhoods and how these resources are variously perceived. That these factors are malleable should give hope to community arts organizations and policymakers who want to boost the number of U.S. householders who recognize and esteem cultural offerings in their neighborhoods.

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