Op-Ed: Successful Arts Districts Can Invigorate Neighborhoods, Towns in NJ

Lawrence E. McCullough | September 15, 2015 | Opinion
Bill would clear way for special designations that can foster creativity, boost education, benefit local economies

Lawrence E. McCullough
This past spring, New Jersey Assembly bill A-4202 was adopted by the Assembly’s Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee. If passed and enacted during the 2016 legislative session, the bill would enable the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to bestow an “Artist District” designation upon municipalities or areas within municipalities.

The council would establish criteria for the designation and work with the state Division of Travel and Tourism to promote the districts as destinations for artists to live and work and visitors to shop and spend.

How does a municipality go about creating such a district, or determining if it already has one? What criteria distinguish a successful Artist District?

Arts districts (their typical appellation, also “cultural districts”) are found in growing numbers across the U.S. as hundreds of municipalities employ cultural tourism initiatives to boost their local economy.

Whether defined by a specific neighborhood, centered around major cultural institutions or focused on a particular type of arts production or commerce, an arts district’s most public components are general entertainment and festival events, galleries and museums, restaurants and nightclubs, arts-oriented retail shops, and tours and attractions geared toward outsiders.

Not so visible, but vitally important for the district’s ongoing success, is a foundational infrastructure that incorporates three core activities: teaching, developing, showcasing the arts.

Teaching the arts: The district nurtures a network of the area’s diverse arts education providers — commercial schools and individual teachers of traditional music, dance, theatre, visual, and literary arts along with new programs in digital arts technology (audiovideo production, web design/content, animation/multimedia creation) that emphasize applied skills for the future workscape.

This network has links to local private and public schools, colleges, tech and trade schools and is an active partner in numerous public art projects highlighting the community’s reputation as a creativity and knowledge center.

Developing the arts: The district houses a nucleus of businesses that develop and deliver arts-related merchandise and services, ranging from musical-instrument makers, graphic designers, dance-supply stores, and craft artisans to sound and light engineers, stage construction firms, intellectual-property attorneys, arts publicists, rehearsal-room rentals, and nonprofit support groups. A special effort should be made to recruit arts technology businesses (both established entrepreneurs and startups) seeking research, testing, and manufacturing space for their new designs and products.

Frequently, these businesses are concentrated at a specific incubator site offering low-cost space and shared administrative services; they can also be placed throughout the district in commercial buildings whose owners offer reduced rental rates to encourage occupancy and foot traffic.

Showcasing the arts: Most current and potential New Jersey arts districts already have at least one major venue — a concert hall, theatre, or museum — that presents well-known touring performers or artists. This revenue stream can be supplemented by organizing smaller satellite venues that present programming by lesser-known and local performers and artists emphasizing experimental, low-cost entertainment appealing to a wide audience spectrum.

In addition to its larger venues, the district should actively promote showcase spaces that draw new artists and new audiences to the community and enhance the ripple effect of entertainment spending through the community’s economy. The smaller spaces will be used extensively by local arts educators for student presentations and exhibits; by local nonprofits for meetings, seminars and training sessions; by local arts developers and entrepreneurs for R&D demonstrations, product unveilings, trade expositions.

The teaching-developing-showcasing matrix allows the district to rely more on assets created, nurtured, and sustained within the community and be less dependent on volatile social and economic trends engendered by fluctuating gas prices, recessions, seasonal travel, and so on.

Preparing a solid arts-district foundation requires careful planning and continuing guidance, best achieved by a unified stakeholder alliance of civic and government groups working together to achieve specific goals that shape and sustain the district’s marketing, operational, and long-term growth needs:

  • municipal officials at all levels willing to offer support, direction, funding, and personnel resources;
  • a formal, full-time economic development agency that solicits capital and investment for the district and recruits arts businesses, arts producers, and individual artists;
  • a 501(c)(3) local arts council that vigorously markets the district (its
  • artists, arts businesses, arts events, living amenities) while serving as an
    information clearinghouse for local artists, residents, and visitors and a conduit for obtaining grants and tax-exempt donations;

  • a coalition of local artists and arts organizations able to extend their usual arts activity to a more public, more collaborative level.
  • The benefits an arts district delivers to a local economy and the community’s overall quality of life are well-documented in hundreds of studies.

    As reported by the National Endowment for the Arts, cultural activities annually add more than $700 billion to the American economy (surpassing the construction industry’s $586 billion and transportation/warehousing industry’s $461 billion), while contributing nearly 4.5 percent toward the nation’s total gross domestic product.

    In New Jersey, arts and cultural enterprises generate over $2 billion a year in economic activity, while providing more than 100,000 jobs across all 21 counties, according to advocacy group ArtPride New Jersey.

    Assembly Bill A-4202 will provide an important marketing tool to help the state’s municipalities reshape their downtowns, neighborhoods and commercial districts into attractive, prosperous, people-friendly places for residents and visitors alike.