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St. Louis experiment hopes to use 'embedded arts' to build neighborhoods

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2012 - The idea that the arts and neighborhood development can go hand in hand is not new. But the Kresge Foundation has put $100,000 into St. Louis to see if local organizations can find new ways to support the collaboration.

The effort is spearheaded by the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation, with the assistance of the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis and the Regional Arts Commission. The first milestone in the year and a half process will come shortly with the naming of recipient neighborhoods.

These neighborhoods will be nominated for further funding that will try to support and grow community organizations that already exist and local artists in each neighborhood. As a plan is worked out individually for each neighborhood, the goal will be to build on strengths, making each building block stronger as well as the area as a whole.

“What can policy-makers do to encourage these clusters without snuffing out the spark that makes them distinctive? Because natural cultural districts are not planned from scratch but rely instead on the self-organized efforts of  local players, they require tender-care and a light hand. Natural cultural districts must be cultivated.”

-Mark J. Stern, Susan C. Seifert, "Cultural Clusters: The Implications of Cultural Assets Agglomeration for Neighborhood Revitalization”

The grant from Kresge is part of a new wave called "embedded arts." Under this idea, groups try to cultivate arts and social capital and to build collaboration from within neighborhoods, rather than bringing in and planting organizations from the outside. Directing the grant is a committee that represents a broad range of industries in St. Louis and decisions are backed by comprehensive data and research on neighborhood dynamics. Basically this effort is collaborative even in the planning stages and is designed to identify where implementation money will get the most bang for its buck.

Jill McGuire, executive director of RAC, explained that the Kresge Foundation said "'We’ll give you 100k and here’s what we want you to do: We want you to plan. We want you to figure out how you plan to do this kind of work.' And that’s where we are."

Right now, this planning is all that has guaranteed funding.

The grant is designed to support a bottom-up approach to specific neighborhood’s arts scenes as a way to increase the vitality and livability of the area. According to Diane Drollinger, director of community relationships at the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation, arts outreach efforts often focus on bringing new programming to a community, or trying to increase foot traffic and commercial investment from outside sources, using a top-down approach.

Specific to each neighborhood

Economic development is good, Drollinger said, but the Kresge team wants to capture and nurture an organic neighborhood identity through the arts, with community vitality following closely behind increased social capital -- social capital being the collaboration and cooperation between members of a community, and the resulting positive effects.

"These models historically have been driven around community vibrancy; so you would embed an [outside] artist, create an arts retail district, put out public art," Drollinger said. The old model "expresses community fabric, but it's not necessarily part of the community fabric. It's laid over the community fabric."

An investment in the arts won't be to draw tourists into the area, but to look for ways to, say, bridge pre-existing divides, be they cultural or political, or bolster public health in the area. By supporting a neighborhood's own grassroot growth, Drollinger and others said, the positive, secondary effects -- whether they be crime reduction, education or public health -- would reverberate through the neighborhood. 

During the planning process, the steering committee has been seeking viable neighborhoods for the project, researching the respective assets and characteristics of each neighborhood and preparing to apply for further funding from Kresge and other sources.

"If we do our job correctly, the neighborhoods are going to inform us what those needs are and our leadership expertise and arts expertise will help us create a product that's unique to those areas and help them accomplish their goals," Drollinger said.

Ambiguity is part of the very nature of the project. Each specific neighborhood would, no doubt, grow a different path of the arts depending on the characteristics that already exist there. The grant’s second stage of funding, which would potentially come from the Kresge Foundation and other local and national funders, would be based off of the findings and ideas presented after the planning stage, after the groups dig into and work with the people in the neighborhoods.

Growing social capital

“What’s interesting about this new way of looking at it is it’s also about social capital -- it’s about giving a sense of community, a sense of identity to the neighborhood,” said Todd Swanstrom, Des Lee Professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis and a consultant for the Kresge grant.

For McGuire, the proof of the project's efficacy is clear in RAC's own work with local community organizations and artists.

While it can be difficult to quantify community metrics such as general well being or student participation in school activities, McGuire has seen the positive effects of smaller grants given by RAC and its work with organizations such as Peter and Paul Community Services.

To effectively implement a homegrown program, Kresge is seeking neighborhoods with well-used social networks and a pre-existing bend toward the arts and community support. And that, Drollinger said, is where UMSL's data and a "cool" steering committee come in.

Drollinger said the grant's programming would thrive best "in a community that has some basic core services" and was becoming more sustainable through intra-community work.  

"In many of those communities, that work isn't done," Drollinger said. "So how do the arts step into that and help that work be accomplished?"

Swanstrom, Community Development Specialist Karl Guenther and Research Specialist Will Winter, all of UMSL, drew data on neighborhoods that were most likely to encourage artistic growth and benefit from community development. Their findings were presented to the steering committee.

The committee will announce the neighborhoods chosen for further research soon. After the neighborhoods agree to participate, people from those areas will come together to work out possibilities and plan programs and projects. Drollinger said the planning process should be complete by March 31. What happens then depends on the projects that have been identified and funding.

Few would argue that arts alone can solve the daily problems facing communities, but that is not the point, Drollinger said. Swanstrom explained that this grant process was about seeking opportunities and assets to build upon, not problems and disadvantages to fix.

And while this project is at the very beginning stage, Drollinger has her fingers crossed that their focus on the embedded arts as a vehicle for health and human services, all driven by objective data and a well-rounded board, will reverberate, locally and nationally, for years to come.

"We're really hoping that this project, whatever or however it ends up, is not just a one-out project, but a model to be replicated in a number of different scenarios," Drollinger said.

The St. Louis Beacon has been following the project for several weeks, reporting independently. Its reporting is supported by the Kresge grant. Johnny Buse is a freelance writer.

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