Cultural Economy letter

Eric Carle Museum
Eric Carle Museum, photo from

I just submitted a letter to the Editor to Pioneer Magazine. There was an article in the May edition decrying the focus on arts & culture in economic development, and below is my response. I’d link to the piece, but it’s not online.

More Art = More $? Here’s the Problem by Brian Snell

A spectre is haunting the Valley – the spectre of vibrancy. We want vibrant communities and vibrant downtowns. We want a vibrant arts scene and a vibrant bar culture. If we are vibrant then perhaps we shall also be attractive, vital, captivating, even fun. Every major town planning document in this valley is riddled with mention of the term, and it remains on the lips of Americans participating in a national conversation about what our workers will do with themselves in the post-industrial, post-dotcom era economy. Admittedly, the inclusion of ‘vibrancy’ in this conversation is a welcome, positively-inflected change from previous refrains like “they stole our jobs.”

But does anyone know what this word means?

When the Northampton Planning Board and the City Council convened a meeting to develop a new comprehensive plan for the city in 2007, the resulting strategy, dubbed “Sustainable Northampton,” listed a commitment to “vibrancy” (along with leadership and inclusiveness) as one of the “overarching themes influencing all aspects of Northampton’s future.”

When the city outlines its plan to “promote arts and culture,” a quantified logic of the vibrancy project is made explicit: “Metric: Number of performance and rehearsal spaces and galleries in the City. Target: Maintain or increase the number of venues.” Essentially, if art leads to revenue, more art equals more revenue, as if art were a natural resource or a manufactured good to be exploited.

The Northampton Chamber of Commerce outlines its tourism agenda on its website, noting that it “worked with a regional committee to create a strategy for cultural tourism that will attract more visitors to the county’s cultural, educational, and agricultural attractions,” and also that it “created a new marketing strategy focusing on lifestyle market niches rather than geographic markets.” Tourism is here being deterritorialized from geography into the space of identity; where a tourist goes is becoming incidental to the “kind of place” they go to. Reshape your city into a heterotopia for a given ethos and set of lifestyle-signifying activities, and an influx of tourism revenue will soon follow.

Easthampton City Arts+, similarly, lists first its goals, “to create a nurturing environment in which all cultural activities may flourish, thus strengthening the image of the City as a community with a rich and diverse cultural life.” The key is the image of the city, the perception that Easthampton is a destination for “Arts and Culture,” (these organizations never seem particularly discerning about the quality or content of the art produced, simply that it exist en masse) in order to “expand opportunities of local artists to market their work and to provide the public the opportunity to discover emerging and established artists by increasing the numbers of visitors, both tourists and local residents, to cultural programs, individual artists studios, galleries, special events and other retail businesses and restaurants.”

Thomas Frank’s article in The Baffler makes a good case for why this trend toward “Art and Culture” districting is not a long-term sustainable economic plan, mostly because it does nothing to solve the underlying causes of economic trouble in regions struggling to make the transition to a service economy. I’d like to further argue that it is not especially good for art, either. On the surface it might seem like a win-win scenario; cities and towns get increased tourism and artists get increased opportunities to make their work visible to visitors. But the increased visibility threatens to result in an embarrassment of riches that is intended only for the audience already interested in it. Art simply becomes the stuff that “artsy people” go to “artsy places” to see. Saying that you are interested in theater or painting becomes the equivalent to wearing a Batman t-shirt – not an engagement with broader sociopolitical or humanistic ideas, but an outward signifier of identity. In short, one becomes unable to see the trees through the forest; the idea of art, as a lifestyle choice, comes to replace art itself.

In a sense, this problem speaks to a crisis of identity for museums and galleries. In a time when the MoMa and the Met have their collections catalogued online (not to mention sites like Google Art Project, which already contains images of the collections of over 150 museums), it gets harder to make a case why art should continue to take up space. Works of art spanning genre and period have become overwhelmingly accessible to someone who never sets foot in a museum. One possible trajectory for museums, then, is to become a pilgrimage site for art devotees, a kind of postmodern Graceland for “art people.” Taking trips to museums becomes a way of signaling legitimacy within art-oriented social groups (“Oh, you went to the Guggenheim? We’ve been three times, and we just love it!”). Does the vibrancy agenda risk turning our town centers into Instagram-ready, sterile museums?

Undoubtedly, few acts are more human or humanizing than making and engaging with art. Great communities demand it. But when we talk about art in the context of vibrancy metrics, we need to realize that our artists might as well be producing the bolts of silk our working class forbears wove in the factory spaces we now repurpose. There’s art which reveals the human soul, and then there is art which increases the tax base. It’s time we recognize the distinction between the two.

Here’s my response:

I care a lot about the Valley, and I want it to be full of places people enjoy being. To me, that’s what “vibrancy” means, and what the “cultural economy” is about: bringing the sort of arts & culture people enjoy to the places we care about. I’m not sure what’s so complicated about that. In the last issue, it seemed that Brian Snell was grumping all over this notion of creating environments where there’s stuff for people to do. I guess when profit is involved, fun things become bad? Being able to pay the bills because of greater institutional investment is “bad for art”? Or maybe “deterritorialized” “heterotopias” are at fault? In my work, we’re clear that we don’t want downtown Amherst to be “Disneyland” but we do want it to be clean, and we do want it to have things for people to do. People and places don’t have to “engage with broader sociopolitical or humanistic ideas” to be worthwhile.

I’m uninterested in over-intellectualizing this. Let’s make places that people enjoy, where there are things going on that people enjoy doing. History shows that the resulting pride of place is the root of sustainable placemaking.

Alex Krogh-Grabbe
Amherst Business Improvement District