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Cultural Districts: Creating Areas of Opportunity for More Than a Decade

Carolyn Cole, Program Officer

Looking back and acknowledging how far this work in communities has come

headshot photos of Meri Jenkins (left) and Carolyn Cole (right)
Meri Jenkins and Carolyn Cole

If you’ve ever had a heart-to-heart with me about this sector, and why I love doing what I do, you’ll recognize that I attribute my work to our communities and my predecessors. And you’ve undoubtedly heard my recounting of the day one predecessor changed my perspective on everything.

On a cold afternoon in 2018, I drove into Boston to meet with Meri Jenkins, the inaugural manager of Mass Cultural Council’s Cultural Districts Initiative. If you know anything about our Agency, or the Cultural Districts Initiative, or have ever spoken the words ‘creative economy,’ you’re familiar with THE Meri Jenkins. I proceeded to pour my heart out to her, over a cup of hot chocolate, about the discouragement I felt due to the serious lack of support I was experiencing in this line of work. I cared too much, and it seemed as though I was just expected to be a service mechanism to my city and sector, and I should get used to disappointment. I asked Meri to give me a reason to continue. She opened my eyes to recognize that what I thought was my deficit was an actual opportunity: to see and administer this work in a way that I had never considered.

Today, sitting in what was Meri’s chair, as the Agency has passed the 10th anniversary of our first Cultural District designations, I thought it might be good to look back and acknowledge how far our work has come. Of course, we couldn’t do that without assistance from the person who started it all: Meri Jenkins. The following is a summary of our recent conversation:

Carolyn: Let’s start from the beginning. Why and how did the Cultural Districts Initiative come to be?

Meri: 20 years ago, Massachusetts was really the only state talking about the ‘Creative Economy.’ It was also the only state investing money in programs that positioned the arts as a means of driving economic growth within communities.

Studies of the economic impact of organizations were being dismissed. With no data to inform the pursuit of funding a grants program for arts and economic development, a compact was created between the New England Foundation for the Arts and the 6 New England State Arts Agencies to join forces, develop their own data, and pursue this enigmatic funding.

There was this baseless assumption that arts and artists should be in service to a community, not that they can develop and sustain it. There was no road map to follow. Even the organizations were skeptical of being seen this way, and other state agencies once thought that such programs would dilute their work, so it had to be offered strategically, and positioned as ‘complimentary.’

Mass Cultural Council, and its partners, hit the road to talk to people. They held convenings and conferences across the state to roll out these concepts and educational conversations, which were met with large turnouts everywhere they went.

Even amid budget and staff cuts, the work to study and support the Creative Economy continued because people were starting to really grasp its value.

What no one had at the time was a sophisticated analysis of the kind of growth development that applies to most other sectors, perhaps partly due to the fact that there are so many nonprofit entities involved. This creates confusion and an assumption that the money will always come from somewhere else, when really, being a nonprofit was just about a tax status allowing them to go after diverse funding in order to be able to deliver a mission-driven agenda.

In 2004, the Adams Arts Program for Cultural Economic Development was established with the support of State Representative John H. Rogers (D- Norwood). This grant program funded projects that created jobs and income, revitalized downtowns, and increased cultural tourism, leveraging the assets of the creative sector. It was a transformative program in both the work and introspection.

But understanding that grant programs don’t typically last forever, the Agency wanted something that would be sustained. And the talk of state-designated Cultural Districts began to formalize.

Carolyn: Considering the data and the direction this work was taking, there must have been a lot of confidence in the sustainability of it at a STATE level to create a legislatively mandated program.

What was your approach to the development of the Cultural Districts Initiative (CDI) as you pursued it on a LOCAL level with municipalities and communities?

Meri: All elements of the Initiative’s design were considered thoughtfully, intentionally, and deliberately.

Conversations were started with the consideration of what it was going to be like for the people sitting on the other side of the table, and how they would be held accountable for the sustainability of this place. We acknowledged that communities were used to things starting and stopping or not going so well. We wanted to be clear cultural districts were something that would be done for the long haul, and that artists and creatives were central to its sustainability.

Municipalities were to play a pivotal role in a Cultural District designation. They are ideally placed as central partners because they are regulatory, they can move things through that others can’t, they are highly networked, and they have diverse expertise and problem-solving experience within their staff.

When municipalities get it, they get it, and they understand the extent to which investing in their creative economy, and ultimately supporting a cultural district designation – centered on people, culture, and place – can positively shift the dynamic in their community.

Successful participation, rooted in collaboration and community, leads to sustainable economic development.

Cultural District designations are as long as they are (10 years) because no one person could own it. It was going to be passed on, and still be standing when it was passed on.

CDI wasn’t about putting things in place to make people jump through hoops. It was about how do we do this work in a way that holds things steady for long enough for there to be an impact? Because there’s an arc of development in this work.

Carolyn: Zeroing in on your statement that ‘successful participation leads to sustainable economic development’ what are some examples of how cultural districts spur inclusive participatory environments when it comes to things like public programming, public art, businesses, etc., and answer the question of ‘Who is this space for?’

Meri: Low-touch introductions to cultural activities for communities, such as Mass Cultural Council’s Festivals [& Projects] Program, serve as great examples of how to develop community engaged programs that meet people where they are, serving the underserved people who are integral to this work, and breaking down participation barriers, exposing them to new mediums.

The development of the Cultural Districts Initiative shifted the perception of ‘placemaking” by putting artists and arts organizations at the center of the process — not as a ‘service mechanism’, but on the basis that if you’re really making or keeping place, these are the people that can do it and do it well.

The other piece of it, the soft side of it, is the boost in community pride. There’s also the opportunity for business growth and start-ups. When you’re creating an area of opportunity, such as a cultural district, it’s huge and invaluable, though you actually can put a value on it.

As our conversation wrapped up, I asked Meri what guidance she would give to sector leaders now, knowing what our communities have gone through over the past few years, if they were to meet with her to vent over a cup of hot chocolate. She said her advice will not have changed:

“Just find the intention and purpose of what you want to accomplish and ask yourself how you’ll get there,” she said. “This is long-term, worthwhile work. And the work never ends. As long as artists, creatives, and community are at the center of your advocacy, you’ll find the strength to continue it.”

Read More About Our Work with Cultural Districts

Special thanks to Meri Jenkins for her invaluable insight and contributions to this article and to our sector!

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