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Arts and Culture as Catalysts for Renewal:
From Cultural Districts to ‘Creative Placemaking’

By Carrie Blake

Editor’s note:  The concept of concentrating arts and cultural activities within a specific area – such as downtown Fort Lauderdale’s successful Arts and Entertainment District – has taken hold across the country.  The benefits are far-reaching and highly meaningful, as Carrie Blake, Consultant, Webb Management Services, explains below. 

ArtsPark at Young Circle: photo © Robin-Hill Photagraphy

In recent years, much discussion and research has focused on the ever-shifting cultural climate.  Audience behavior has evolved as our leisure time is increasingly spare, new technology affects how and when we choose to spend arts and entertainment dollars, and our desire for more social experiences inspires demand for more hands-on and interactive arts participation. Large-scale, multi-venue cultural facilities are not as viable as they once were given all of these changes as well as the significant costs required to construct and sustain them.

At the same time, broad economic and technological factors have inspired varying degrees of migration in communities of all different shapes and sizes.  Resulting civic challenges include “brain drain,” suburban sprawl and others that significantly affect levels of diversity and resources. 

All of these issues have inspired public, private, and cultural sectors to come together to work to change their communities, revitalize challenged areas and animate public and private spaces in ways that create a sense of place, augment quality of life, improve business sustainability and bring diverse communities together.


View Riverwalk A&E District

In many places, the results of these efforts include newly established or newly branded cultural districts.  The districts decentralize activity that is often found at a single arts center or number of adjacent cultural institutions and integrate with private sector business, restaurants and mixed-income housing in such a way that arts and culture function as an integral element of the life and future of a place. 

In basic terms, an arts district includes a critical mass of cultural activity taking place in a defined geographic area.  From there, the definition varies widely.  Arts districts are located in urban, suburban or rural areas.  They can include the traditional performing and visual arts as well as other cultural activity such as culinary arts, fashion and creative industries.  Sometimes one or more cultural facilities or attractions serves as an anchor for the district.  Other districts are made up of small galleries, studios or public areas that host live performance or artists. They can be simple branding tools or formal, publicly designated funding mechanisms. 

In Florida there are many successful arts districts of various makeup and focus.  In South Florida, the Riverwalk Arts and Entertainment District is an area of Fort Lauderdale that includes five distinct cultural institutions:  the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, Florida Grand Opera, Fort Lauderdale History Center, and Historic Stranahan House Museum.  The primary goal of their partnership is to promote cultural tourism in downtown Fort Lauderdale with support from the Broward County Board of County Commissioners and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.  The partners work together to develop collaborative marketing materials and brand their district as a destination, in turn supporting the area’s other arts and entertainment attractions, festivals, restaurants, retail establishments and more.  Public events, such as a Sunday jazz brunch on the Riverwalk draw visitors to experience the area’s cultural life.  Others include Hollywood’s Harrison Street, the ArtsPark at Young Circle and F.A.T. Village.

In Miami, a number of arts and cultural districts have developed in an effort to revitalize and activate particular areas of the city.  For example, Miami’s Design District, also known as the Buena Vista neighborhood, includes more than 100 galleries, showrooms, creative services, stores, antiques dealers, eateries and bars.  Its establishment is attributed to a local developer who purchased blighted warehouses and buildings and then convinced designers to move into them.  South of the Design District, the Wynwood Art District is home to galleries, studios, rehearsal, performance and recording spaces that now exist within a formerly struggling industrial zone.  

And in 2008, the Miami City Commission voted unanimously to create the Lemon City/Little Haiti French Creole Cultural Arts and Entertainment District.  This legislation was meant to inspire new development within the designated area.  Among other incentives, the first 20 establishments to open along the corridor were protected from a law that usually prevents businesses with full liquor licenses from operating within 1,500 feet of one another.  All three of these districts, as well as many others, have inspired important economic development and helped to develop Miami’s reputation as an arts destination.

In East Florida, Melbourne’s Eau Gallie Arts District (EGAD) includes the Brevard Art Museum and Museum School, Historic Rossetter House Museum, Eau Gallie Riverfront Library, Eau Gallie Civic Center, two public parks, a band shell and fishing pier.  To help spur its development, the City of Melbourne rezoned a portion of the district to accommodate live/work space for artists. The district now includes a large concentration of artist studios, galleries, an art supply store, a bed and breakfast, retailers and restaurants.  A number of regular public events, including a gallery hop, farmers market and annual art festival bring attention and visitation to the area.

Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale Nova Southeastern UniversityThe benefits and impacts of cultural districts in Florida and around the country are clear.  The presence of arts and cultural activity has helped communities achieve economic development through increased local spending (in terms of both construction and ongoing expenditures), develop positive community identity and connection for residents and visitors, improve livability and quality of life, attract new business and residents and restore blighted or challenged areas. 

Artists and arts organizations benefit as well.  They often enter into partnerships that cross all sectors and result in innovation.  Their elevated presence helps to communicate their value and credibility.  The partnerships and efficiencies that result from their participation in districts allow for them to more successfully respond to changes in arts participation, and to compete for audiences and funding in an increasingly competitive environment.

In fact, the benefits and impact are so apparent that cultural districts have inspired broader and more formalized planning principles now known as ”creative placemaking.“  This concept goes beyond cultural districts and revitalization goals to more directly address larger community issues such as workforce development, transportation, education and more.

In 2010, the National Endowment for the Arts published a white paper for the Mayors Institute on City Design, a leadership initiative in partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors and American Architectural Foundation.  The paper and accompanying research explain that, “through creative placemaking, arts and culture make substantial contributions to local economic development, livability and cultural industry competitiveness...  At local, state and federal levels, politicians, policymakers and agency heads have a better understanding of the potential for arts and cultural activities to improve the effectiveness of their missions in transportation, housing, workforce development, health care, environmental remediation and education.”  

Tax credits and zoning changes are being used to build vibrant communities of working artists.  Art and art therapy are inspiring communities to seek health care, heal faster and improve attitude and outlook.  Artists and technology professionals are coming together to begin innovative projects that will become creative businesses.  Public art projects are creating a greater connectivity to community and encourage neighborhood and youth development programs.

In Florida and across the country, cultural districts and creative placemaking are taking hold.  More can and will be done, as public, private and cultural sector leadership continue to work together to use arts and culture to strengthen the fabric of their communities.

Carrie Blake is a senior consultant at Webb Management Services (www.webbmgmt.org), a management consulting practice dedicated to the development and operation of cultural facilities and districts.  The firm's projects include feasibility studies, business planning and strategic planning for cultural organizations, communities, facilities and districts throughout the U.S. and Canada.  Carrie has practical experience in the arts as a producer, presenter, marketer and fundraiser with various types of visual and performing arts organizations.  A native of Cleveland Ohio, her commitment to the arts began at the age of 9, when she picked up a clarinet after becoming frustrated with her creatively destructive brothers. 

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