Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rahm Emanuel inadvertently gives Portland some good advice

Mayor Rahm Emanuel scores one point.
By Barry Johnson

One thing we are always arguing here at Arts Dispatch is that the arts have a social component, that they are more than a matter of an artist wrestling with the muses and then the rest of us contemplating the artist's creation. 

For example, many cities, including Portland, have discovered that a scruffy little arts district can gentrify into something far grander. People like to be around the arts for some reason -- the energy, the creativity, the "hipster quotient," whatever -- and they eagerly attempt to integrate themselves around concentrations of artists.

It's difficult to create an "arts district" out of whole cloth, and even when you do, it quickly evolves into restaurants, boutiques, a few galleries and high-end condos, which is fine and even pleasant, but the benefits to the city, aside from the boost to the tax base, are confined and "decorative." That's why we've argued for a broader approach to thinking about using the arts for development purposes.  The distribution of the arts and the development they bring should not be confined to the downtown core.

We have an ally in this -- the new mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel.

Here's what Emanuel said about the arts as development tool before his election:
Just as the theater district revitalized the Loop into a thriving entertainment area, I would like to see that same energy invested in neighborhoods around the city. Pilsen has become a hub for independent artists and small galleries. Ravenswood’s old industrial buildings are quickly being converted to artist workspaces and administrative offices for some of the city’s small theater companies. I would like to see these neighborhood-based artistic communities grow across the city by prioritizing zoning and development funding for arts and cultural hubs.
And then he reiterated the point after he was elected in an interview with the Chicago Tribune: “We have great theater in this town,” he said, perhaps suggesting a change from the mostly downtown emphasis of the previous administration, “because we have great neighborhood theater.” He also cited the importance of having a great opera to the recruitment of Boeing's headquarters to Chicago, how Old Town School of Folk Music, located on Chicago's North Side, showed how “one neighborhood cultural entity can be powerful enough to flip a whole neighborhood,” and talked about the role of the arts in education. "Emanuel also said that he plans to focus on the role of the arts in after-school programs, saying that he firmly believed the arts would best help him reach 'the souls of those children who seem to be left out of our civic and cultural life.'"

This all sounds great, but before we start to unpack those statements, a few caveats for those of us in Portland, Oregon (where the mayor also frequently talks about the importance of the arts):

1. Chicago (city and metro) is a lot larger than Portland -- around 9.5 million metro to around 2.2 million. Its cultural institutions are far older and richer than Portland's.  Most Chicago mayors have understood this legacy, though perhaps Emanuel is distinctive in thinking of the arts at the neighborhood level. Politicians have boilerplate on various issues.

2. We all know that these various discrete issues and positions rub against each other and always find themselves in competition with each other for resources and time. Will Emanuel's ideas about neighborhood-based arts investment survive the press of Big City problems? We have no idea.

3. I'm not making any sort of general argument about Emanuel's election in Chicago. I don't know much of anything about local politics there.

In Portland, since the late 1960s, a consensus has emerged that the First Law of development should be "Do No Harm to the Neighborhoods." That law has gradually become more positive: We should be actively pursuing policies that benefit the city's dozens of neighborhoods. The latest articulation of this is the 20-minute neighborhood idea that Mayor Sam Adams has made policy here. A Portland resident should be a 20-minute walk from what she or he needs to function, from mass transit to a grocery. In the Atlantic magazine interview (which we linked to above), Adams says that only 11 percent of Portlanders actually live in 20-minute neighborhoods now, and that the problem is how to create them.

That's where Emanuel's "cultural hubs" come in. Arts centers of various sorts can start to generate communities around themselves. Even better, when they are linked to schools or the kernel of a shopping district, they encourage even faster development. Remember, we want our lives to be colorful, exciting, creative and we understand how important being around the arts can be to us, whether we are artists or not. And like Emanuel, we understand how important the arts can be to our children, even though our school systems have stripped arts education from their curricula (in part, because we don't fund them properly, but that's another topic for another time). Our neighborhoods are better if they offer 20-minute arts instruction and experiences.

Why bring this up now? In Portland the arts community is poised to launch a tax initiative that hopes to raise up to $20 million per year for arts and arts education in the Portland metropolitan area. This is not a huge amount of money -- we'd still be contributing less per capita than Denver, say, though perhaps more than Seattle -- but I don't know anyone who thinks passage of the initiative is inevitable. Far from it.

But the arguments that the arts community make in favor of the proposal are more convincing if they are linked to this "social" component of the arts. Our private production and appreciation of art-making is at the heart of the arts, but those are interior matters. The arts help us build communities, and I'd go even further -- they are crucial to building communities. And Portland is all about building livable communities. The logic is elementary, inescapable. So, I vote for the initiative because I want to build a better community, not because I want to give money to the symphony or the theater or the museum. As important as I think they are, I can already give to them on my own.

What Emanuel understands is the politics of the arts, that we are served both by having strong "downtown" institutions and strong neighborhood cultural hubs, and that the latter are critical to developing the political will to pass $20 million initiatives.  In Portland, where the investment has mostly gone downtown, that means kindling activity in the neighborhoods in various ways.

I'm not sure we have developed that argument sufficiently, generated policies and subsequent actions clear-cut enough, to create a reasonable expectation that cultural opportunities will be more broadly available if the tax initiative passes.  And that would be a critical mistake, by the arts community and the City, one maybe Mayor Emanuel can help us avoid.


MightyToyCannon said...

Sounds like Emanuel is sticking with the playbook of his predecessor. At the 2010 Theatre Communications Group conference in Chicago last summer, Mayor Daley spoke about the value of the arts, and theater in particular, including such statements as:

"The way to change a city is through the arts. Artists will tell the story of your city,"

"Government can't bring people together; theatre brings people together."

"Artists bring more to a city than its sports figures."

He went on to say that if he were the mayor of Detroit, the first thing he would do to revitalize that declining city is encourage the establishment of many small, storefront theaters distributed throughout its neighborhoods.

Barry Johnson said...

I'm not sure a theater on every corner would do it for Detroit -- I might throw in a bunch of artist workshops, too!

I'm not sure to what extent Daley's rhetoric and his actual investments overlapped, but I certainly like the sound of it...

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