Success Looks Different Now
The International Significance of America’s Current Preoccupation with Placemaking
Success Looks Different Now: Design and Cultural Vitality in Lower Manhattan is a fluently argued report published in June 2013 by the Architectural League of New York about cultural infrastructure needs in Lower Manhattan. It concludes that the city “is in the midst of a generational shift in the definition, experience, and location of cultural vitality” and that, as a result, new types of spaces are required to support cultural activities — more informal, more flexible, and more accessible than the larger cultural infrastructure projects that have tended to preoccupy politicians and policymakers around the world over the past few decades.
This rejection of the “icon as policy” alluded to in the title of the report was not its premise; the starting point was, on the contrary, that New York needs a big new theater complex on the waterfront, a stirring presence like the opera houses of Sydney, Oslo, Copenhagen, Reykjavik, or Cardiff, a proposition initially suggested by one of the authors of the report, Paula Deitz, in an article in the New York Sun in 2008. Following publication of that article, she and her collaborators secured a grant to explore the proposition and, in the process, unearthed the can of worms with which GIA readers are familiar: the unforgiving economics of big arts buildings; the systemic overoptimism that often informs their planning, most recently cataloged in the Harris School’s Set in Stone: Building America’s New Generation of Arts Facilities; the challenging trends in audience size and composition experienced by traditional art forms; the desire by younger audiences for greater interactivity and better hang spaces than are provided by the traditional performing arts venues; and the merits of spaces and cost structures that foster the colocation of production and consumption.
The report is interesting for what it says, but it is also interesting for the way it honestly and openly captures a paradigmatic shift in thinking about the relationship between artistic production and consumption, community and urban design. It links the conversations that are now well developed in the arts community to parallel debates in the design community, and to the rekindled interest of both groups in imaginative, smaller-scale interventions that encourage informal public assembly and performance. It underscores that even larger formal performing arts centers work for their communities only when they also serve as informal gathering spaces.
This is, of course, the territory that was prioritized by the NEA under Rocco Landesman, and by the broad coalition of funders that have renewed their investment in ArtPlace America, which recently appointed Jamie Bennett, Landesman’s chief of staff, as its executive director. (Before the NEA, he had fulfilled a similar role for Kate Levin in New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs.) These initiatives have recombined and reinvigorated threads of thinking about urban planning and civic life first articulated by Jane Jacobs and William Whyte and have in the process given new agency to “old” thinking.
An agenda that was marginal to political decisions and resource allocation was given new financial and political clout and legitimacy as Landesman energetically stitched together federal, state, and local coalitions, and as ArtPlace secured an extensive network of high-profile funders and stakeholders. Whether the next chair of the NEA pursues this agenda or not, it now probably has enough momentum and buy-in elsewhere in government for the NEA’s shoulder to no longer be critical. HUD’s current high-profile Rebuild by Design competition, for example, looking at urban planning strategies to deal with another Hurricane Sandy, has the contribution of culture and cultural organizations to resilience as an element in the brief.
The agenda has also stimulated some new critical thinking: about vibrancy, for example, and how to nail down a little more precisely what it means; about the relationship between planned and “naturally occurring” cultural districts; and about the neglected place of social equity in effective placemaking. Much of it is refreshingly free of the advocacy bias that has stymied so much writing about arts policy in the past few decades — that is, arguments and data developed and mined solely in the context of persuading potential funders to support the arts, with little interest in the complex causal relations between collective action and social, economic, and cultural impact. Culture is still an anemic and neglected area of public policy, compared with, say, health, transport, economics, or the environment, but there is currently more sustained thought given to cause and effect and less of an emphasis on just counting things and declaring them good.
This evolving direction in public policy – a deeper understanding of what cultural vitality and vibrancy mean when unpacked; of how it is developed and sustained; and of the reality that capital investment per se is ineffective unless informed by a broader conceptual framework — is also important from an international perspective. The emphasis on investment in large-scale capital projects that we have witnessed in the cultural sector in the United States and much of Europe over the past twenty years continues unabated: some $200 billion has been committed to investment in arts districts around the world in the next fifteen years — in Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America, Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Behind the better-publicized projects like the West Kowloon Cultural District and Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi are planned cultural districts in Beijing’s Olympic Green and Kiev, Kuwait City, Hangzhou, São Paulo, Taipei, Seoul, and over fifty others.
Cultural districts have the potential to be powerful policy tools: they can encourage visitors and residents, young and old, to intermingle in ways that destratify, desegregate, and generally democratize; they can help build community and social capital; they can, in principle, incubate and inculcate creativity, and draw fickle high-net-worth tourists; and they signify and calibrate complex aspirations and identities. These projects are difficult to get right, and expensive and politically embarrassing to get wrong — often conceived and executed at speed, top down, and with a strong emphasis on architectural symbolism.
Many of them would benefit enormously, as those at the sharp end of their conception and execution are often aware, from more nuanced thinking about exactly the sorts of issues that are the preoccupation of ArtPlace America and its informed critics; of Success and its many kindred reports, like Susan Silberberg’s Places in the Making, which is concerned about relationships between the hardware and the software; between considerations of equity and economic development; and the changes in the character of arts participation to which designs should be open. Grantmakers in the United States have a notoriously limited appetite for excursions into cultural diplomacy, but here, at least, there is an opportunity to make an invaluable international contribution simply by continuing to make available information and lessons about the fascinating petri dish that is America’s current preoccupation with effective placemaking and its relationship to the changing dynamics of cultural production and consumption.