How Arts and Culture can Advance a Neighborhood Agenda

Caron Atlas
June 6, 2013

Arts Policy Nexus

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

For the first time since 2001, and only the second time since 1977, the mayor of New York City is an open seat without an incumbent running for re-election. What’s more, the entire city council is also up for election with nearly half of its seats open. This precise political moment provides us with an ideal opportunity to articulate a progressive vision and agenda for the city in which we want to live.

In response, the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center set up a citywide initiative called,“Toward a 21st Century City for All,” that brought together a number of stakeholders to outline an agenda for this collective vision.

Cultural change precedes and embodies political change.  Thus, fostering arts and culture in the community needs to be an essential part of a progressive agenda for empowerment and change. Drawing upon the ingenuity in our neighborhoods and how stories and relationships give meaning to peoples’ lives will help the city re-imagine itself from the grassroots . Change is about engaging hearts as well as minds. An agenda that doesn’t recognize these stakes  early will certainly fail.

APN18- Red-Blue Expression

Why Do Arts and Culture Matter?

In continually rediscovering and recovering the humanity of human beings, art is crucial to the democratic vision. – Adrienne Rich

Arts and culture engage our humanity helping us to create the character and climate of the city we live in.. They are sources of empathy and connection, allowing us to see ourselves as part of a shared experience. Poetry, music, images, and stories speak to our deepest values, strengthen community identity, and support critical thinking and problem solving. We become the authors of our histories, unlocking civic energy. This is critically important during hard times when people can become isolated and disenfranchised.

Creation is inherently liberating. It posits that something else is possible. For architect Teddy Cruz, “the future of cities is less about buildings and more about the reconfiguring of social and economic relationships. Artists can really contribute to that.” Milly Hawk Daniel of Policy Link, a national economic and social justice institute, recognizes the challenge of arguing for arts and culture when resources are limited. But it is precisely those times when they play a key role. “The propensity to see art and cultural expression as ancillary to survival makes us forget how essential art and culture are to sustaining community, history, and livelihood,” Daniel asserts..

Arts and culture contribute to the dynamism of our neighborhoods making them “full of character, vitality, open to others and otherness, pulsating with poetry,” as photographer Jaime Permuth puts it. However on occasion, the arts  can also contribute to a city for the few, furthering a commercial culture of consumption, increasing inequality, reinforcing civic elites, and helping drive displacement.

A Progressive Cultural Policy

Cultural policy is connected to such issues as economic stratification, racial segregation, immigration, education, and community development. A progressive cultural policy should protect what is of value and what is in danger of being lost  (such as public ownership of airwaves or traditional cultures). It should also focus on engaging new opportunities (such as place-based cultural economies or rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy). Changing demographics, gentrifying communities, and income inequality are just a few of the broader forces that inform cultural policy.

Like our country as a whole, New York City has a policy of not having a cultural policy. It is implicit rather than explicit and frequently invisible. This disconnects culture from social change and prevents us from having a conversation about the value of arts and culture in our city and our communities. It prevents us from knowing, as cultural agency director, Roberto Bedoya asks, “Who speaks, who’s heard, what is being asked for, what views are being presented, what cultural ‘we’ are we talking about?” A progressive agenda should articulate a clear, pluralistic, and equitable vision for cultural policymaking that puts neighborhoods at the center. This vision will be realized through long-term strategies to shift power, not short-term tactics to manipulate it.

A progressive cultural policy:

•     Is grounded and self determined, valuing neighborhood-based cultural assets, traditions, and local leadership, recognizing diverse models of organizations and networks, and being accountable to those in whose name those networks are carried out.

•     Reflects and engages the changing demographics of the city – what the city is now and what it is becoming. As the Social Impact of the Arts Project concludes, “an ecological model of community culture may be a better guide to policymaking than an orthodox focus on organizations.”

•     Promotes cultural and racial equity and cultural rights, supporting “the core cultural right of each person to participate fully in cultural life.” This policy ascribes value, and increases access and equity to diverse communities and cultures through its grant making, capital allocations, definitions of excellence, design aesthetics, composition of commissions and peer panels, and the choice of where to site cultural resources and amenities. This may include for example, “fair share” responses to the historical undercapitalization of community-based cultural centers in communities of color and in low-income communities.

•     Protects public space for free speech and creative expression—including access to the Internet, the airwaves, public streets, and plazas. It values and supports neighborhood libraries, community centers, and community radio as civic spaces where the public comes together.

•     Invests in artists, protects their rights as labor, and improves their working conditions. This does not mean considering artists as a special group of individuals, but rather considering artists’ issues as allied to those of other workers and individuals in our society. Many artists are freelance and independent workers, sharing with this growing workforce a need for a living wage, fair benefits, a social safety net, affordable workspace, protection against occupational hazards, and the abolishment of unfair labor practices.

•     Is integrated into various policymaking contexts—engaging in community development, health, criminal justice, disaster planning, and education reform, for example. It would consider cultural impacts to a neighborhood along with economic and environmental impacts. City Council members would have cultural liaisons, community boards would have cultural committees, and inter-agency working groups would benefit from including the arts.

•     Invests one percent of the city’s expense budget in arts and culture, as recommended by the citywide One Percent for Culture campaign (current support is less than one-fourth of one percent).

Three programs at the intersection of arts and culture, equitable development, civic engagement, and public space put these values into action:

Cultivating Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts (NOCDs)

While some cultural districts are planned and developed as part of institutional initiatives, Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts spring up more organically in their neighborhoods, tapping into local creative clusters. We refer to them as “naturally occurring”, to emphasize that they are self-organized through community action, have local leadership, are cultivated by a diverse range of community participants, and operate from the neighborhood up.  They include cultural centers, arts organizations, artists, community groups, small businesses, creative manufacturers, and schools. As illustrated after Hurricane Sandy, the creative hubs and networks of these districts play a critical role in community resiliency and civic engagement.

The Green Light District, for example, is a 10-year effort to transform the Southside of Williamsburg “from a past as one of the most environmentally and economically-challenged neighborhoods in New York City into a 2020 future as a healthy, safe, culturally rich, and civically engaged community.” The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center provides an affordable space to over 100 small manufacturers with over 500 employees, many of whom are involved in creative economies. The Fourth Arts Block draws on the rich organizing and cultural history of the Lower East Side to bring together small theaters and businesses, housing, and civic organizations as part of the East 4th Street Cultural District.

This program would support naturally occurring cultural districts by providing equitable funding and financing, recognition and promotion, access to city-wide programs and public spaces, support for cultural incubators and creative manufacturers, and reduction of bureaucratic barriers.

Supporting Cultural Citizenship and Community Partnerships

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, more than 100 artists volunteered at the Park Slope Armory special needs shelters, providing inspiring performances and workshops and organizing the wellness center infrastructure that made these programs possible. Emergency workers were grateful that these efforts at the Amory kept the residents engaged, and a doctor credited them for helping prevent a riot. Above all, they helped return dignity to the residents, shifting them from victims to creators with stories and histories.

The arts played an important role in the aftermath of 9/11 as well. Embracing his “critical citizenship,” writer and theater artist Sekou Sundiata launched the Americas Project to inspire people to imagine what else could be possible through poetry circles, community sings, potluck dinners, forums, and the theater piece, 51st (dream) state.

Yet the value of cultural citizenship isn’t limited to disasters and economic crises. The program created by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) in the 1970s provided their first paid jobs to many low-income community artists and formed an enduring infrastructure for neighborhood cultural programs. While a large-scale public jobs program is politically unlikely, we can still provide meaningful opportunities for artists to volunteer and do socially beneficial work that pays a living wage including:

•      A pilot Arts & Wellness Recovery Corp that provides an infrastructure for artists to bring their creativity and leadership skills to recovery and disaster planning.

•      An artist in residence program that offers new perspectives and resources to community organizations, unions, schools, and city agencies and rewarding work to artists.

•      Sustained partnerships that build the civic capacities of artists and the cultural capacities of community groups.

Animating Public Space

Interactive community-based public arts and cultural programs create civic dialogue in a time of polarized debates and restricted public assembly. Incorporating neighborhood priorities and diverse cultural practices, this program would increase access to public space and reduce the city barriers that limit its use. Arts and culture would animate streets, buildings, gardens, plazas, and parks to:

•     Reinforce community identity by strengthening neighborhoods

•     Build community and offer employment and alternatives to incarceration for youth

•     Provide opportunities to share grief and learn from experience through community-based memorials

•     Assert collective ownership of the street

•     Celebrate cultural traditions

•     Express free speech

•     Reclaim public space

•     Reframe history and identify absent narratives

Public art gives a public face to neighborhood social networks, “providing an enduring visual reminder of the community relationships that made it possible,” says Anusha Venkataraman of El Puente. It can expose the systemic inequities that live below the surface in communities and the competing claims for neighborhood identity and narrative. A progressive arts and culture agenda would engage these tensions to create positive change.

We need to work together and harness every resource that we have at hand—data, policy, community knowledge, civic energy, and creativity—to achieve a fair, equitable, and sustainable city. Arts and culture, strengthened by a progressive cultural policy and practice, can help us imagine a city where we can live meaningful lives in thriving communities; they can help us build the relationships we need to take us further in our collective goals.


Caron Atlas is director of the Arts & Democracy Project, which connects arts and culture, participatory democracy, and social justice. This blog post is adapted from her essay, “How Arts and Culture Can Advance A Neighborhood-Centered Progressive Agenda.” Atlas’ essay was commissioned as part of the “Toward a 21st Century City for All” initiative of the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.

[Photo courtesy of carnagenyc]

Caron Atlas

Caron Atlas is director of the Arts & Democracy Project, which connects arts and culture, participatory democracy, and social justice. 

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