I went to a talk by my visiting colleague Nan Ellin recently. Nan is an urbanist and visionary, as well as well-respected scholar. She was talking about her new book, “Good Urbanism.” Her thesis is a simple one: in order to improve cities, we shouldn’t build toward sustainability by identifying problems and finding solutions but instead build toward prosperity by mining (or “prospecting,” to use her term) the assets that already exist in a place and spiralling upward from there. Coming from her background in urban design, she understandably focuses on physical assets, in the case study she discusses, the canals of Phoenix. (Did you know Phoenix has more miles of canals than Venice and Amsterdam combined? See the Canalscape project for more info). As I mentioned in my previous post, Stern and Seifert take an analogous approach – make best use of existing assets — but focus more on human capital in their conception of “natural cultural districts.”
Can we apply this concept to the arts sector? Of course. And when we do, in a concerted way, the sector as a whole can prosper. One example of doing so in a small way was explained in James Carter’s recent post on the ArtsForward blog. His suggestion is to build up from the administrative capacity of artists by employing them in hybrid administrative/creative positions. Doing so would support both artists and organizations while, and here’s what I like most about the idea, supporting the creation of new art. There are other means too, including the “never be dark” concept of making maximum use of unused performance spaces. This concept hit home to me as I was out walking this morning (it’s a weekend). I passed the sprawling campus of an elementary and middle school. Nobody will be in those buildings from Friday at 3pm to Monday at 7am. That’s 64 hours during which a theatre company might be able to use the stage or gym for rehearsals. The asset exists, but we (the arts sector) are not making use of it. For fundraisers, this concept means shifting away from the “my cup is empty, please fill it or I will go thirsty” approach, to a “look at the fertile seeds we have, if you provide some water, the world will enjoy the flowers” approach.
Nan suggests starting the process of spiraling up with an inventory of assets rather than problem identification. Look at what you have, what is good, and what can be built upon as you spiral up toward prosperity and more creative places.*
* For more on Creative Placemaking, consider attending the Pave program’s third biennial symposium, “Entrepreneurship, the Arts, and Creative Placemaking,” April 12-13, 2013.