Arts and culture are fundamental to a city’s civic brand and indispensable for signaling a city’s quality of life and attracting new talent. The presence of cultural amenities tells current and potential residents they’re dealing with a thoughtful, educated city interested in offering a variety of activities to engage mind and spirit, not just the body. Man does not live by bread alone. Most importantly, top talent won’t gravitate to cultural wastelands.
Great cities, places that are attractive to the educated, that are coveted by the best and brightest, are places where there is a robust intellectual and cultural life. This is where the city is positioned to shine. Nationally and locally, the central city is the natural home to intellectual, artistic, and cultural pursuits. It is where the universities and research facilities are located, where the top high arts institutions are based, and where most practicing arts and culture people live.
But you can’t just view arts and culture as the accouterments of a big league city, not as important in their own right. In too many cities arts and culture are viewed as civic decoration, bling if you will, not as a vital part of a living city. Hence the low quality of much of the public art in too many places and similar manifestations. That idea is that we need to have this stuff, that it is a checklist item, hence we have it. But there is often little concern about whether or not it is good. Or a truly passionate and robustly engaged population around it.
Look at all the cities we remember from history. They stand out for two reasons: they were imperial centers of great military conquests or great events, or they where centers of cultural and intellectual happenings. That is why we look even today to Athens and Jerusalem as the twin wellsprings of western culture. It is because of the important intellectuals and intellectual things that happened there.
It’s not just enough to have art. Every city has art. That provides no distinction. Rather, the city needs to carve out its niche for where it can be truly world leading in selected aspects of intellectual and cultural affairs. It isn’t just about having cultural happenings or things to do. Pretty much every city has plenty of that. Rather, the city needs to be seen as a place where important intellectual and cultural achievements can take place.
While I do not believe public money should be the prime mover for the arts in America, too often municipal arts budgets are seen as expendable luxuries. And even today civic leaders bow to censorship pressures from the prudish.
Instead, municipalities and the arts institutions within them should work towards making art “indispensable to the life of the city“, aiming to engage residents in dialogues about art, and should be mindful foremost of the product, not funding buildings for the arts that arebetter than the arts programs to be housed there.
But, innovative architecture – not “starchitecture” – can be used to update legacy art institutions, art that clearly signals civic aspirations should be well-integrated into the overall design of public facilities, and a culture of transparency for the buying and selling of art should be fostered by the public and private sectors.
And above all, never underestimate the power of a truly great work of art.