Arts spending alone can’t stimulate economic growth. But a city’s architecture, public spaces, and artistic institutions are among its most priceless resources.

Arts spending alone can’t stimulate economic growth. But a community’s aesthetic assets — its architecture and public spaces, its musical, theatrical, and artistic communities and institutions — are among its most priceless resources.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival last Saturday, I had the opportunity to talk with Rocco Landesman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dennis Scholl of the Knight Foundation, and Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation about the linkage between artistic and cultural funding, place-making, and economic vibrancy -- the very elements that make a city "sing."

"Cities have organically, authentically sang without a lot of intervention from the Ford Foundation," Walker noted. "What we are now thinking about is how to channel and support the local, authentic leadership……I don’t want to give the impression that there is a top down way for cities to sing.”

As Jane Jacobs used to say, government and foundations can and should provide infrastructure and support, but the inspiration must come from the citizens.

Scholl spoke to the importance of public spaces that help to knit communities together. "There’s a confluence of circumstances that finally makes it the arts' turn," he said. "Maybe because of the financial crisis, people have stopped dropping multi-billion dollar stadiums in places and chasing companies to bring them in and are looking instead at the organic bubbling that goes on in communities." Social offerings, he added, are the most important things that people care about in their communities, according to the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community study.

A high point of the panel was a spectacular Random Act of Culture from Wu Tong, who later surprised the crowd at the Benedict Music Tent.

Pundits will never stop arguing about whether the arts stimulate economic growth or merely benefit from it, but there’s no question that aesthetics are a vital ingredient of a city’s quality of place.

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