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Arts-Based Development

By William Hatcher

It is often said that the soul of a community is its art— music, festivals, paintings, literature and other forms of creative expression. These activities and artisans certainly have a significant impact on the quality of life in communities. However, there is also economic value produced by art talent and resources—a community’s cultural capital. In recent decades, community development scholars and practitioners have come to appreciate the economic impact of the arts and advocate for arts-based development. Fostering the arts can have a positive effect on not only the local economy, but also on the social bonds and political structures in a community.

Creativity and the Economy

A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) provides empirical evidence for just how much influence the arts have on our economy. In 2011, the arts contributed $504 billion to the overall economy, which is about 3.2% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to the report, the production of arts and cultural goods provides approximately 2 million jobs to the overall economy with close to $290 billion in wages. These figures represent mostly the direct impact of the arts on the economy. Cultural capital also provides indirect employment, pleasure for patrons and creativity for innovation. For instance, a 2008 survey, conducted by the NEA, found that 36.2% of Americans claim to have attended at least one arts-related event over the past year.

arts 1The popularity of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class has helped make the case for the importance of the arts in development policies.  According to Florida and other creative class scholars, the creativity associated with the arts will be the fuel of the modern economy. This growth can be attributed to the actual work of artisans. Yet a vital part of cultural capital also involves the types of professionals that support the arts. These are professionals that are involved in so-called “idea occupations,” such as professors, writers and architects. Certain cities, like San Francisco and Washington D.C., function as economic magnets pulling these professionals toward them. Furthermore, research has also shown that there are psychological influences, such as the desire to be around other creative types, causing creativity to cluster in particular communities.

Creative professionals want cultural amenities in their communities, such as a diversity of festivals to book readings, and they cluster around areas that offer a robust collection of cultural amenities. In a 2007 article in Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, Timothy R. Wojan and David A. McGranahan report empirical evidence that communities with high levels of amenities attract entrepreneurial manufacturing, and the jobs that come along with innovative industry. Cultural offerings are a key component of a modern community’s amenities, but the arts can help communities develop social bonds and political relationships.

Social Capital and Political Capital

The arts also have the potential to increase social capital—the amount of positive and trusting relationships in communities—and the level of civil participation in communities. In 2009, the NEA found that over half of adults that attend art events also volunteered at least once over the past year. By increasing social capital in communities, the arts may help produce improvements of trust in government. Many of our communities struggle with a lack of social connections and political trust. This has a negative effect on the quality of political institutions in these communities. As I’ve discussed in a previous PA Times column, increased social connections may produce political institutions that function and help communities address their economic needs and develop their assets.

A Role for Public Administration

Public administration can help communities better appreciate the importance of the arts. First, public administration can help educate future practitioners about the potential of the arts to develop communities. Some MPA programs have taken this a step further by including arts management concentrations in their curriculum offerings. For example, the College of Charleston’s MPA program offers an arts management graduate certificate that educates future managers to run cultural institutions and use those organizations for the betterment of their communities.

In a number of communities, public managers are harnessing the arts for development. In Kentucky, the cities of Paducah and Covington have revitalized areas of their communities by offering artisans affordable housing with the requirement that they beautify the town and practice their art. But with many of our communities, budgets for the arts are often the first to be cut during an economic downturn. The previously mentioned BEA and NEA report found that the contribution of the arts to the economy declined during the 2008 recession, when compared to other industries.

Instead of investing in proven arts-based policies at the local level, many communities are continuing dated tax incentive packages, which subsidize highly profitable companies and professional sport teams. With its cross disciplinary approach, public administration is an ideal scholarly field to help educate future community developers about cost of focusing on need and attraction policies and the benefits of arts-based policies. Public administration can help communities realize the importance of the arts to not only the economy, but also social bonds, political institutions, and overall quality of life.


Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the department of government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be reached at [email protected]. (His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.)

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