Are arts districts good for artists?

Palace Theater Canton Arts District
Palace Theater Canton Arts District (Digital art by BZTAT)

Everywhere you turn these days there is an arts district. The word is out – if you have a declining downtown, develop an arts district to revive it.

Some cities have been strategic in this process, and some have done it in a half-hearted and haphazard way. Regardless of how it is happening, though, it is happening all over.

This should be a good thing for artists, right?

Yes and no.

It is a good thing because it brings attention and awareness to the arts and artists. Increased visibility is helpful in many regards, and the community awareness can energize artists in many creative ways. There is a fallacy, however, that more attention and awareness automatically leads to profitability and sustainability for artists.

It does not. In fact, in some ways, it can reduce profitability.

More people enjoying a community’s arts offerings does not necessarily increase patronage of the arts, where people are actively purchasing arts products on an ongoing basis. Donations towards arts organizations may increase, but that does not always translate to sustainable business for individual artists. In fact, the opposite can happen. There can be a plethora of arts offerings, but no significant financial reward for the artists, costing the community very little but the artists a lot. When there are numerous artists but few people who actually buy art or purchase tickets to performances in a community, the artists lose out.

Tom Wachunas, writer of ARTWACH and local arts critic in my home area of  Stark County, Ohio, sounded a warning call this week about the sustainability of the Canton Arts District, which by many standards, has been a very successful arts and business corridor partnership.

According to Tom, the Canton Arts District is in peril as a “a serious contender in the business of being a sustainable tourist destination through an enriching, relevant art gallery corridor” if the public’s awareness and investment in individual artists’ efforts is not increased.

I would agree with Tom – if that was the goal.

I am not certain that Canton and other cities truly expect their arts districts to become sustainable tourist destinations through enriching, relevant art gallery corridors. I suspect that the goal is more to bring interest and to increase activity to designated areas, and then transition the arts districts to entertainment districts, which are more easily sustained. Truthfully, that is already happening in Canton.

The reality is, arts districts are not necessarily about the arts. Arts districts are about bringing interest to blighted areas so that said areas can be redeveloped for economic benefit. That economic benefit is not necessarily for the artists who jazz the place up and make it interesting.

Arts districts are all about money, quite honestly, and that money does not necessarily fall into the hands of the artists who invest themselves in their communities.

Arts districts are developed as a step in the process of gentrification, a strategic plan of transitioning urban districts of declining property values towards wealthier residents and higher property values. It is a given in the gentrification process that artists who initially take advantage of low rents and “nowhere but up” standards will typically be forced out as property values increase.

That may seem like a cynical view, and I guess it is in some ways. It is a realistic view, in my opinion.

Having said that, I do not think that all is bleak for artists. Artists can position themselves to be taken advantage of, or they can position themselves to take advantage of the opportunities available to them from the process.

I prefer the latter.

The expectations created in artists through arts corridor developments can be wildly unrealistic. Still yet, if kept in perspective, artists can take advantage of opportunity while otherwise developing their careers for profitable sustainability.

I knew when I moved to downtown Canton in 2007, when the Canton Arts District was just being formed, that eventually I would leave. I knew that the opportunities that existed at that time were temporary, and I knew that the process of gentrification would eventually push me out. I had my idealism, and I fought the process. But I knew what was going on. (I did move out in 2013. I still maintain a presence with a small space in Second April Galerie, but my home is elsewhere.)

In those early days, I benefited from special project grants, public art commissions and early interest in purchasing art from the gallery district. I benefited from low rent from an exceptionally lenient landlord who gave me more chances than he probably should have done. Those opportunities are not as readily available now as they were when the district was new.

I am not going to lie – I do miss having those opportunities that used to be there.

Still yet, I never have relied solely on local gallery traffic to build my business as an artist. While I was involved in the development of the Canton Arts District, I was also building a global presence online, developing my brand and my stature as an artist in a much bigger community. I not only applied my creativity to my artistic works, I applied it to marketing and other aspects of building my business as well.

I am often amazed at how artists can be the vanguard of so many ideas and images, yet be so backward when it comes to monetizing their presence in the world of business. The world of business and the world of web technology is intimidating to many artists, and thus, they avoid it like the plague.

I tend to be curious about web technology, myself. But monetizing my creativity in a world of business? Yeah, that is tough for me. I recognize that it is is essential, though, and I am endeavoring to become more successful with it.

Artists cannot simply assume that others will create a demand for their artistic works and develop profitability for them. They must also recognize that the development of arts districts is not just for them.

Artists are generous people. We tend to care for our communities and we want to give in order to see our communities succeed. But we want to succeed ourselves, as well. In order to avoid the experience of being left behind and feeling taken advantage of, we need to evolve ourselves as the gentrification process takes hold. We need to recognize that we must put ourselves in the position of being relevant, and we need to develop our creativity around the ecology within which it exists. We need to accept that arts districts do not guarantee that people will purchase our creative works, so we must do more to ensure our survival as we contribute to our community’s culture.

How do we do that? Each artist needs to decide that for him or herself.

I am currently developing a plan for myself as I evolve and change with my local and global community. Stay tuned. I will be sharing more about that soon.

If you are an artist, how will you evolve? If you are not an artist, but want to see creative people thrive in your community, how can you help them evolve?

Are arts districts good for artists?

The answer is in the question.

Life is an Adventure!



  1. Laura Kolinski-Schultz says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write a well-considered, honest, clear and truthful article. Well done!

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