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Engaging the Public in Art-Based Development

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Will Hatcher
February 7, 2017

In past columns, I’ve discussed the efficacy of art-based development and how to solicit public input to ensure community development outcomes are meaningful and representative. With so many communities throughout our nation using the arts as part of their community development strategies, in this month’s column, I would like to discuss how it is important to engage the public in art-based projects to build local cultural capital.

Cultural capital is a community’s historic heritage, art, music and other aspects that make the community unique. In the creative economy, arts and cultural capital are important assets for our communities to attract and retain creative class workers. Artisans contribute to local economies by making their art, and offering cultural capital which attracts professionals, who work with ideas, such as professors, doctors, engineers, etc., and enjoyDSC00004 patronizing the arts. And today the arts are positively affecting local economies in measureable ways.

According the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), 71 percent of U.S. adults enjoy the arts through electronic media. Arts based business are important players in local economic development. The businesses produce approximately $135.2 billion annual in local economic activity and create around 4.13 million direct jobs. This economic impact does not measure the role of the arts in attracting and retaining creative class workers. Research by Richard Florida and other scholars shows how communities with active art and music scenes are often successful as magnets for the creative class.

Given the importance of the arts in local community and economic development, governments at all levels are attempting to cultivate cultural capital in a participatory manner.

As William Cleveland argues, arts based development has been around for years, going back to the city beautiful movement of the Progressives. However, in recent years, the type of development has expanded to mean many things for many cities. Linda Frye Burnham details how art based development touches many other areas of local community and economic development. It is an all-encompassing strategy for communities.

Since the arts are so vital to communities, it is important for local officials to design public participation mechanisms which help solicit effective public input which is both meaningful and representative. Such participation produces transparency of local decision-making and better policies to cultivate local cultural capital. Artisans and people who enjoy their art must be included in the design of effective arts-based strategies.

The Iron Triangle Legacy Project in Richmond, CA is an excellent example of effective participation in developing and implementing arts based ideas for community development and empowerment. According to Linda Frye Burnham, the project is helping artists in the Iron Triangle neighborhood, which has one of the highest crime rates in a city that is one of the most dangerous in the nation. Over 250 residents worked with the East Bay Center for Performing Arts to design programs to help improve the neighborhood and decrease the crime rate.

Clearly, arts-based strategies help local communities, but what can public administration contribute to help communities design and implement these programs? Our field can help by giving advice on administrative frameworks, in particular how to craft public input and then use the information to create programs and performance measures.

Public administration can advise communities how interactive public participation, such as public meetings where citizens can help draft ideas, are more effective than top-down input methods, where citizens are informed but not included in decision-making. Our field can then provide advice of how officials, artisans and community activities can translate the public’s input into action through the following steps:

  • Building a vision for a project
  • Identifying goals to achieve this vision
  • Drafting strategies to achieve the goals
  • Designing inputs (i.e., resources that are needed)
  • Monitoring outputs (i.e., activities that are accomplished)
  • Tracking results to make decisions of achieving outcomes

Public administration as a field can help community development and artisans put these steps into action to cultivate local cultural capital.


Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor and director of the master of public administration program at Augusta 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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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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