The role of arts in building community

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August 31, 2009 // UPDATED 9:06 am - August 31, 2009
By: Tom Hoch
Tom Hoch
In a recent New York Times interview, incoming National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chairman Rocco Landesman, a successful Broadway producer, observed what he sees as part of the reason for opposition to federal funding for the arts. “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay,” he said.

I think I’m going to like this guy at the NEA.

Contrary to what some elected officials in Washington believe (our Senators, fortunately, are excluded), I think that the arts enable children to develop high level literacy skills such as reading, writing, speaking and listening. I believe that the arts promote divergent and creative thinking and problem-solving skills. I buy the argument that, when available, arts education can play a critical role in a young person’s social development and confidence. Study after study has revealed that well-designed and well-executed school arts programs lead to better academic performance and can contribute positively to students’ well-being. Why, I even embrace evidence that participation in the arts helps reduce antisocial behavior by kids who are considered to be at-risk. Somehow, none of this sounds elitist, left wing or gay to me! I’m glad Landesman is ready to set the record straight.

He also suggested the “radical” notion that the arts aren’t solely magnets for our discretionary dollars and largesse. Landesman contends that art and artists have an important role in our economy, saying that “Art should be part of the plans to come out of this recession,” because “arts activities and artists attract economic development to the places they locate.” He even suggested home equity loans and rent subsidies to artists to attract them to particular locations to ignite that economic development.

“When you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town,” the NEA Chairman elaborated. “There are ways to draw artists into the center of things that will attract other people.”

Of course, in Minneapolis we understand what artists and arts facilities can do for a city.  Years ago, artists revitalized our Warehouse District and the Hennepin Avenue theatres led the way in revitalizing a substantial portion of our Downtown. Open Book on Washington Avenue, in part, spurred an intense level of real estate development in that area.

As I said, I’m going to like having this guy at the NEA.

What does this mean for us locally? First, Landesman’s comments about the relationship between the arts and economic development are a lesson we know well in the Twin Cities. We already have organizations and areas, the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, the Guthrie Theatre and Downtown Minneapolis, for example, that have been successful.  Second, the city and state should track the NEA more closely, not just for short term “Stimulus Funds,” but to watch for longer term programming trends and be ready to work quickly and coordinate with arts organizations to access those funds to benefit artists, organizations and the public.

Locally, we know where the Arts Endowment appears to be heading. With greater resources and a focus on arts and economic development, Minnesota and the Twin Cities could lead the way nationally.

Tom Hoch is president and CEO of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, owner of the historic State, Orpheum and Pantages Theatres, a nonprofit organization devoted to enriching the vibrant cultural atmosphere of the Twin Cities. Please visit Hennepin for more information.