The Connection Between the Arts and Neighborhood Diversity

A new study zeroes in on the relationship between arts organizations and the economic and cultural diversity of New York City neighborhoods.

Image REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
People walk past the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. (REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)

The role of the arts in city life is a hot-button issue among urbanists. I have long argued that street-level arts and cultural scenes signal the diversity and economic vibrancy of cities. My own Bohemian Index has linked artists, musicians, writers, designers, and entertainers to innovation and high tech industries, and I have often highlighted the connection between vibrant music scenes and startup cultures in cities and urban neighborhoods. But others disagree, arguing that arts and culture simply flourish in already wealthy places. Still others contend that arts have an even more perverse effect, ultimately leading to higher real estate prices, gentrification, and the displacement of working class and lower income residents from their neighborhoods.

A new study from Nicole Foster and James Murdoch III at the University of Texas at Arlington and Carl Grodach at Queensland University of Technology adds to our understanding of the role of arts in cities. The study conducts a detailed empirical examination of the connection between arts organizations and key measures of neighborhood diversity and economic advantage or disadvantage. To get at this, the authors use extensive data on nonprofit arts organizations collected by DataArts*, which they compare to data on neighborhood diversity (by race, income, and industry) and indicators of neighborhood disadvantage (based on unemployment and the share of people below the poverty line and on public assistance) from the U.S. Census.

Where the arts concentrate in New York

Have a look at the map below, which charts the location of over 250 new nonprofit arts organizations established in New York City between 2000 and 2010. The concentration of these organizations in Manhattan is overwhelming: The borough is covered in black, indicating a higher presence of neighborhoods with 6-10 or even 11-20 organizations.

The map is in line with existing research that says that the arts tend to cluster in wealthy neighborhoods—in this case, those predominately located in Manhattan. The borough is, after all, the economic and financial center of one of the world’s most powerful cities and houses a preponderance of the city’s creative industries. It’s also home to New York’s most affluent residents and highest housing prices, stretching in some places into the tens of millions of dollars.

Some argue that Manhattan has become so expensive that artists, galleries, and arts organizations are being priced out. Meanwhile, Queens and Brooklyn have a mixture of 1-2 or 3-5 organizations per neighborhood. That’s less than Manhattan, but far more than the Bronx or Staten Island, which have only a small group of neighborhoods with a select few organizations.

Characterizing the New York arts scene

The figure below depicts the location of new nonprofit arts organizations based on economic advantage or disadvantage, as well as neighborhood diversity along race, income, and industry lines. As the chart shows, the majority of these organizations are located in neighborhoods with relatively low levels of disadvantage, moderate racial diversity, high diversity of income, and a high diversity of industries.

Two thirds of new nonprofit arts organizations are located in neighborhoods with moderate to high levels of racial and income diversity, according to the study. Interestingly enough, although more of these organizations prefer neighborhoods with lower levels of disadvantage, the preference for disadvantage was fairly evenly distributed from “least” to “high.” Furthermore, roughly three quarters of new nonprofit arts organizations are located in neighborhoods with a diverse industry mix alongside urban amenities.

Overall, the study finds a positive correlation between new nonprofit arts organizations and the diversity of industry (.43). There is a much more modest correlation between new nonprofit arts organizations and income, while the association between these organizations and neighborhood disadvantage is not statistically significant. Ultimately, the study finds that new nonprofit arts organizations in New York City are attracted to and located in neighborhoods with a mix of finance, creative, tech, and media industries. While these arts organizations can be found in neighborhoods with various levels of diversity, they are less likely to be located in disadvantaged or struggling neighborhoods.

This again helps to explain the large concentration of non-profit arts organizations in Manhattan. In addition to being the most affluent borough and the metro’s economic hub, Manhattan offers the easiest access to cultural amenities like museums, theaters, and performances. It makes sense that nonprofit arts organizations would want to locate there.

The importance of local-serving organizations

Next, the study considers the effects of these non-profit arts organizations on their immediate neighborhoods. How do arts organizations ultimately affect the diversity or economic conditions of the neighborhoods they are located in, if at all?

To get at this, the study conducts a regression analysis of the connections between arts organizations, neighborhood diversity, and the change in the economic conditions of neighborhoods. This analysis also includes measures of talent, concentrated poverty, levels of immigration, and types and conditions of housing. Finally, the study looks at how two types of nonprofit arts organizations—those that are locally-focused and those that engage a broad national or international audience—are connected to neighborhood diversity and economic conditions.

The study finds that these two types of arts organizations have different effects on their neighborhoods. On the one hand, arts organizations that serve broad audiences are associated with lower levels of economic disadvantage over time, but only in neighborhoods that are already racially diverse. On the other hand, when the authors factor in income, they find that local-serving organizations help to reduce economic disadvantage in neighborhoods with the least diverse incomes (which also number among the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods).

Here the authors note that the presence of local-serving organizations may help to create neighborhood identity, attract the creative or high-tech industries and amenities that spur development, and ultimately counter neighborhood disadvantage. They also suggest that such organizations can play an important role in improving economic conditions without displacing current residents. Although the arts are often said to spur gentrification, local-serving organizations are more likely to enhance an existing community rather than price out longtime businesses and residents.  

More importantly, the study finds that local-serving organizations can be particularly beneficial in areas of concentrated poverty. From 2000 to 2010, over 75 percent of diverse, low-income, highly disadvantaged neighborhoods with new local-serving organizations saw reductions in their levels of disadvantage.

A focus on diverse, disadvantaged neighborhoods

Ultimately, the study finds that nonprofit arts organizations are attracted to relatively advantaged neighborhoods with a mix of creative, finance, tech, and media industries and moderate levels of racial diversity. And yet these organizations do the most good in disadvantaged, even more diverse neighborhoods that lack this kind of industry mix.

Here the study suggests that New York may benefit from creating incentives for nonprofit arts organizations to locate outside the core of Manhattan into these kinds of neighborhoods. In fact, it’s precisely these diverse, disadvantaged communities where art and artists contribute the most to the city’s economic and social fabric by building community, bolstering neighborhood identity, and spurring innovation and economic development.

*UPDATE: Formerly the New York Cultural Data Project, the organization recently changed its name to DataArts.

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