I had the privilege of moderating a panel on these topics recently and I’d like to share some highlights with you. The Grantmakers Concerned with Poverty and Arts & Culture Funders Group of the Donors Forum hosted the panel in Chicago on June 15.


Ra Joy, Director of Arts Alliance Illinois, shared a new report entitled Arts & Economic Prosperity IV: The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations and Their Audiences in the City of Chicago. Using data collected through the Illinois Cultural Data Project, the report shows that, in addition to improving quality of life, Chicago nonprofit arts and culture groups and their audiences generated $2.2 billion in economic impact in Chicago in fiscal year 2010, which supported over 60,000 full-time equivalent jobs, paid $1.3 billion in income to local residents, and delivered $214 million in local and state government revenue. Joy cited the Old Town School of Folk Music and Steppenwolf Theatre as examples of arts-based anchor institutions that have catalyzed enormous neighborhood transformations and improvements. Some key challenges are how to prevent or reduce gentrification and community displacement that sometimes accompany such arts developments, and how to avoid using the wrong metrics to measure success. Cultural projects that promote and reflect community heroes, values and stories, such as the Bronzeville Wall of Respect in the 1960s, help people in disadvantaged areas create a stronger sense of identity, pride, and connection to their community that can have other positive ripple effects.

Carol Coletta, President of ArtPlace, described a theory of change in which economic success is achieved through creative placemaking because vibrant and diverse communities create a quality of life that attracts talent. ArtPlace strives for economic integration and measures success through a diversity index that tracks income and racial/ethnic mix, and through a vibrancy index that tracks changes in value created at the neighborhood level over time. Recent ArtPlace investments (which are privately funded) include two projects with Theaster Gates in Chicago: Black Cinema House and the Washington Park Arts Incubator.


Suzanne Connor, Senior Program Officer at The Chicago Community Trust, emphasized the importance of using an asset-based approach to underserved communities. For example, Connorco noted that 20 percent of music copyrights in Chicago come from four low-wealth communities on Chicago’s West Side where over one third of residents are under the age of 18. For many youth in these areas, arts entrepreneurship and business training are viable paths to careers that do not require college degrees or bar admission based on criminal records. Community members are currently engaged in creating local music festivals that contribute to community vibrancy and stability. The Trust will make the Chicago Cultural Plan data on all 77 Chicago neighborhoods available for free on its website upon its release in Fall 2012 and will update it annually.


At an event I attended at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago on June 20, Exploring Low-income Neighborhoods in the Regional Context, Jackie Samuel of the South Chicago New Communities Program explained how arts and culture programs are creating connections and facilitating community outreach. For example, Black Cowboys drew families to the opening of a new cultural center. Representatives of World Business Chicago discussed Chicago’s 10-point Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs, and stressed that the Plan, which includes “making Chicago a premier destination for tourism and entertainment” and “supporting entrepreneurship,” is designed to be implemented in and of benefit to all of Chicago’s neighborhoods.


I encourage Chicago residents to participate in ongoing Chicago Culture Plan meetings and press for expanded arts and culture opportunities in low-wealth areas. I urge others around the region and the country to investigate how investments and participation in arts and culture, especially in low-wealth communities, can make for more vibrant and viable neighborhoods and regions.


Correction: This posted was edited on July 2 to correct the name of the Senior Program Officer at the Chicago Community Trust from Suzanne Conlon to Suzanne Connor.