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Why Cities Can't Afford to Lose Their Artists

A look at America's leading arts hubs and their roles in economic development.

Lincoln Center is arguably its very own "arts hub." (Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com)

The Art Basel Miami Beach art fair kicks off this week, an event that drew 75,000 people and 140 international museum and international groups in 2013. The art fair is widely credited with kick-starting the economic resurgence of the Miami area, so it seems like a good time to ask: What do we really know about the role of art in the city? Does it help to drive economic growth and development or does it contribute to gentrification? Are leading edge arts clusters found just in big cities, like New York and Los Angeles, or can they spread to smaller and medium sized ones as well?

(Grodach et al.)

A recent study published in the journal Urban Studies takes a close look at the connection between the arts and city building. The study, by Carl Grodach of the Queensland University of Technology, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett of the University of Southern California, and Nicole Foster and James Murdoch III of the University Texas at Arlington examines the economic and demographic factors most closely associated with arts clusters and the kinds of metros where arts hubs are found. The researchers scrutinize the concentration of arts clusters (using the standard location quotient measure) across all 366 U.S. metros areas and nearly 14,000 ZIP codes, which account for nearly 90 percent of all arts employment. Grodach et al. also look at the relationships between the arts clusters and a series of 33 social, economic and demographic factors across four types of metro areas: large metros with over 1,000,000 people, mid-sized ones with 500,000 to 1,000,000 people, small metros home to 250,000 to 500,000 people, and the smallest ones with less than 250,000 people. The researchers define arts clusters as comprised of 22 key industries that produce artistic content, spanning arts, music, theater and design, but excluding industries like radio or TV broadcasting (see chart, left) .

The researchers use a series of statistical techniques, including correlations and regression models, to identify the types of places that are home to arts clusters and the key locational factors that are associated with them.

They find that arts hubs are considerably concentrated, taking the form of a “winner-take-all geography.” Just 28 out of 366 U.S. metros, less than one in ten, have substantial arts hubs with LQ’s of 1.2 or higher. The chart below shows how metros stack up in terms of the total arts employment (along the Y axis) versus their relative concentration of arts industries based on their LQ (across the X-axis).

(Grodach et al.)

Metros to the upper right, like L.A., have high levels of highly concentrated arts employment. Metros to the lower right have high concentration but less arts employment overall (notice smaller Santa Fe way out on the lower left). New York City and San Francisco have high arts employment that is relatively concentrated. Smaller metros like Asheville, Boulder and Ann Arbor register as significant arts hubs for their size, while Nashville, Honolulu, and Seattle also punch above their weight. But many metros, including large metros like Chicago and Boston, have smaller arts clusters (based on their LQs) than their levels of arts employment suggest.

Overall, the study finds that arts clusters occur in "urbanized, relatively diverse regions," and that arts hubs are indeed associated with strong economies.

But the factors that are associated with arts hubs vary considerably between large, medium-size and smaller metros. And things get even more complex when the researchers take the analysis down to the neighborhood, rather than metro, level. First off, the results of their statistical analysis get considerably weaker: Their neighborhood level analysis explains just 14 percent of the variance in where arts hubs are located, compared to 59 percent for the metro models. In particular, the associations between arts clusters and urbanization, density, highly educated populations and diversity are much weaker or disappear entirely at the neighborhood level.

While much has been made of the connection between arts and gentrification, the researchers find little evidence of it, noting that “art clusters are tied less to conventional signs of gentrification and ‘urban’ characteristics but rather they may be found where other related industries that rely on specialized expertise and knowledge abound.” They find a negative correlation between arts clusters and poverty.

Two important implications flow from the study’s key findings. For one, mayors, arts and cultural policy-makers and economic developers would be better served by taking a more localized, place-specific approach to arts initiatives and creative placemaking.  As they put it:

[A] comprehension of arts clusters requires specificity and particular attention to the uniqueness of the type of art and place itself. Targeted local development may be the most important means by which to support the arts, rather than broader federal, state or regional efforts. Distinctions between arts clusters occur at localized level and thus ought to be supported as such.

Second, the study notes the benefits that flow from better connected arts and innovation clusters. “While many of the variables linked to arts clusters are incredibly place specific,” they write, ”the arts are linked to broad measures of innovation and development … suggesting the arts can play a larger role in economic development irrespective of metro size or geographic boundaries of city and neighborhood.“

Ultimately, the study notes that while arts are not a silver bullet for cities, their role in urban economic development is, in the authors’ words, “highly underestimated.”

Top image: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

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