Artist Garret as Growth Machine? Local Policy and Artist Housing in U.S. Cities

Cultural Policy and Development: Who, What, and Is It Effective? 

Elizabeth Strom1 


Journal of Planning Education and Research 29(3) 367–378
© 2010 Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning

While artists have always lived in cities, never before have city governments so actively sought to court artists, most notably by supporting the development of subsidized artist housing. This article relies on a survey of municipal officials, interviews, and secondary sources to document the spread of publicly supported artist housing.The article argues that artist housing programs can be found even in cities not known as cultural cities. It further demonstrates that in most cities, artist housing programs are considered part of an economic development agenda. It concludes that the unique class position of artists ren- der them well suited in the eyes of public officials to play a transformative role in urban neighborhoods.


artist housing, economic development policy, creative economy, subsidized municipal housing, urban development 

About ten years ago, officials in Paducah, Kentucky, desperate to revive their struggling Ohio River city of twenty-five thousand, placed ads in art magazines urging artists to relo- cate to their historic Lowertown district. The city altered its zoning to encourage a mix of residential and commercial activities and offered packages of loans and grants to in- moving artists. Today, Paducah claims about seventy artist households (several of which maintain blogs singing the praises of artist life in Paducah1), a number of galleries and cafes, and favorable publicity from outlets such as the New York Times Style Magazine (McGlinn 2008).

The tale of Paducah is emblematic of a larger story in which the arts, and artists, have come to be seen as catalysts for the revitalization of American cities. Arts and cultural policies, once on the fringes of the municipal policy arena, have woven their way into core areas of urban development policy making. City and state policy makers now see the arts as a potential generator of jobs and tax revenues rather than as expendable luxuries. In city and state governments, and across the nonprofit world, the policy arenas of arts and cul- ture, on one hand, and economic development, on the other, have found common ground. And now the Paducah story and others like it suggest that the individual artist as well has moved from the margins, becoming central to the “creative economy.” Artists, then, become that final, secret ingredient added by local stakeholders hoping to revitalize declining neighborhoods or to reposition cities in regional economic and symbolic hierarchies.

The primary goal of this article is to explore and contextu- alize the development of municipally supported artist hous- ing. Is the development of artist housing a significant policy area for U.S. cities? Which cities are building or hoping to build housing for artists, and why are they undertaking these programs? Do policy makers pursuing artist housing devel- opment see these efforts as an offshoot of traditional munici- pal housing policy, as an extension of their arts and cultural policies, as an element of an economic development policy, or as some kind of hybrid? And finally, how can we employ the- oretical perspectives on the role of the arts and of artists to understand the way artist housing development has been deployed? To answer these questions, we have undertaken a multimethod research project that includes a survey of munic- ipal officials and interviews with a subset of these officials, as well as with representatives of two nonprofits active in this field. We have also drawn on secondary sources that describe artist housing projects in cities not part of our survey.

The first part of this article reviews the literature on how the consumption and production of art has become identified as a vehicle for economic development and neighborhood revitalization by a variety of urban stakeholders. The next section surveys earlier artist housing programs and considers current artist housing initiatives in the context or municipal cultural and housing policies. The third part presents findings from survey and interview research with those involved or potentially involved in the development of subsidized artist housing. The fourth part features a discussion of those find- ings and considers their significance in light of the literature on the role of the arts in urban development.

Arts as an Economic Development Engine:

Consumption and Production

Cities have always been central nodes of artistic consumption and production, but it is in recent decades that we see local economic and political stakeholders consciously promote the arts as a means of economic development. The arts have ceased to be “merely” an endeavor of educational, social, or spiritual significance. Rather, they became the focus of civic pride and, more notably, generators of economic activity (Strom and Cook 2004). Cultural activities emerged as attrac- tive urban revitalization tools in U.S. cities for a variety of reasons. Cities have found that both industrial production and many aspects of business service provision can flee to subur- ban areas and rural regions but that urban areas continue to have a competitive advantage in cultural production and con- sumption, much of which still relies on direct contact among participants. The development of large, mainstream cultural institutions was linked to the promotion of tourism (an increasingly significant industry in many cities—see Judd et al. 2003) and also to the attraction and retention of large corpora- tions. Indeed, museums and concert halls have proliferated since the 1980s (Strom 2002; Hamnett and Shoval 2003; Trescott 2007). For many cities, the apparent success of new, architecturally significant museums such as the Bilbao Guggen- heim (Plaza 2000, 2006), or even of blockbuster shows in existing museums (Alexander 1996; Rosenbaum 1997) led to the association of the provision of cultural amenities with postindustrial economic development. Grodach and Loukaitou- Sideris (2007) note that such projects are largely conceived as tourism and economic development assets, but once built they serve multiple constituencies, offering programs to a range of local residents. But for city development officials, it is largely the economic impact of cultural amenities that has moved arts and cultural policies from the “education and recreation” to the “economic development” side of the municipal ledger.

If an appreciation of the economic value of cultural con- sumption can be considered a sort of “first wave” of the “arts as economic development” movement, then surely the more recent “second wave” has focused on the potential benefits of cultural production. Some of this interest grows out of studies stressing the importance of cultural production to local economies—an argument that has particular resonance in cit- ies like New York and Los Angeles, where cultural produc- tion is indeed a significant creator of jobs and wealth. Looking beyond the obvious film or theater industries, other analysts have noted the importance of the arts to for-profit sectors of production—for example, considering the high percentage of the value added to the advertising industry by graphic artists, writers, and musicians; or the importance of design to consumer objects like cars or couches (Perryman 2001; Markusen and King 2003; Currid and Connelly 2008). The arts industry as well as the larger universe of industries for which “creativity” is an important input are thought to benefit from clustering, and urban economic development officials are urged to encourage such clusters to take root (Florida 2002; Drake 2003; Currid 2007). Evidence of cross- fertilization between artistic production and other advanced services further encourages economic development officials to undertake programs aimed at promoting arts and culture (Markusen and Schrock 2006; Currid and Connolly 2008).

Today, states and cities often use the term “creative indus- tries” to label a cluster of economic sectors that may include the fine arts but also commercial arts, video production, and a host of related areas.2 States such as Massachusetts and cities such as Denver and Plano, Texas, have established “creative industries” coordinators. When the city of Philadelphia reopened its shuttered Cultural Affairs Office, it was renamed the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Even cities and states without specific creative industry offices have become cognizant of the potential for such synergistic efforts. The city of Austin offers loan guarantees to private lenders willing to extend credit to for-profit or nonprofit “creative” businesses promising to create jobs. Dozens of cities put out reports measuring and championing the role of the “creative industries” in their economies, often relying on numbers gen- erated by the arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts, which calculates the value of the “creative industries” (defined here by number of establishments and employees in a list of arts-related standard industrial classification codes) for cities and congressional and state legislative districts.

This new, strategic sense of the symbolic and economic value of “creative industries” has led to a greater appreciation of the working artist as a symbolic and economic asset. To date, however, research on efforts to attract artists, through housing or other policies, has been limited. There has been some noteworthy scholarship about the relationship between artists, urban redevelopment, and gentrification—Sharon Zukin, most notably, described the process by which New York’s Soho was transformed from a manufacturing district to an arts enclave to a pricey residential neighborhood (Zukin 1982). More recently, Ley (2003) and Cameron and Coaffee (2005) have written about arts and artists as agents of transforma- tion. In much of this literature, as well as in the popular press, one finds both the hope that artists can “breathe new life” into struggling areas, as well as the fear that they would bring in waves of investment that would create gentrification pres- sures (although other than Zukin’s study of Soho, there has been little empirical evidence to substantiate these con- cerns). But there has been no scholarly work done on pub- licly supported artist housing programs; nor have any of the cities with artist housing programs measured their impact (although some, such as Boston, have done surveys of local artists prior to developing artist housing).

There is certainly a great deal of anecdotal evidence strongly suggesting that urban stakeholders in many cities seek to attract and retain working artists and that such poli- cies are thought—or hoped—to reap economic benefits. For example, a South Beach developer, whose real estate hold- ings have benefited tremendously from the “discovery” of Miami by the fashion and arts industry, is now underwriting much of the cost of a new, tuition-free, graduate arts pro- gram intended to get artists to “stick around” because “fer- tilizing the creative class is good economic development policy” (quoted in Sokol 2008). Providence, Rhode Island, has held a reception through its Convention and Visitors Bureau for artists thinking of relocating, and the state of Rhode Island offers artist settling in specific areas tax breaks on income generated by their art as a way of attracting artists to cities (Schupbach 2003). At least some of these policies seem to be influenced by the work of Richard Florida, who has claimed that cities with a high percentage of “creative workers” in the labor force are more economically success- ful than other cities. A number of cities and states have cre- ated initiatives to help them attract those who meet Florida’s definition of “creative,” and artists are seen as an important part of this cohort (Florida 2002; Bradford 2004; Peck 2005).

The interest in attracting artists and creative production is clear in local and state policy making but perhaps most evi- dent in efforts to transform specific neighborhoods. As Zukin (1982, 84) notes, before artists had status and art had clear economic value, “it is inconceivable that ‘living like an artist’ would have exerted any appeal to segments of the middle class.” But in recent years, the growing economic and sym- bolic clout of art and its producers helped inject new value into the spaces they inhabited—often in marginal, industrial corners of older cities. Today, the connection between artists and urban real estate appreciation is so universally acknowl- edged it has almost become a cliché. Developers use the term “artist loft” as a marketing tool, creating urban loft-like spaces to appeal to residents whose “creativity” may be more in the area of accounting or gastroenterology than in music or paint- ing, at prices that would be unaffordable to just about anyone actually living on an artist’s wages. When business periodicals like Business Week and Nuwire Investor feature articles with names like “Bohemian Today, High Rent Tomorrow” (Roney 2007) or “How Artists Influence Real Estate Prices” (Winnie 2007), urging real estate investors to “follow the artists” when identifying the next big real estate opportunity, no wonder city officials are interested in figuring out how to bring some of this transformative power to their neighborhoods.

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