Reposted from the Chicago Forum on Global Cities blog
If the power of the city is found in bringing together a network of people to innovate, the power of the global city must come from making that network a wildly diverse ecosystem. Attracting and engaging people from a multitude of backgrounds, with an untold number of unique experiences, continues to be elusive for many cities and organizations within – an easier task to tack onto a list of priorities than to put into practice.
The effort to increase diversity must come from two ends – from the top-down, where leaders need to ensure representation is a priority; and from the ground-up, where we need to ensure foundational access that allows for all people to become a part of the greater whole of our cities. In this second area – a street-level “welcome mat” that we can launch creative ideas from – arts and culture can play a significant role.
While it is troubling that many existing arts and culture institutions have diversity problems among their own leadership ranks, newer groups are speeding ahead and developing alternative means to a more diverse set of cultural practices. If underrepresented groups lack access to the traditional front door, they are using advocacy and technology to build a new one. These creative individuals and collaborators are leveraging the “sharing economy” to unlock resources and using new crowd-funding intermediaries like Kickstarter or Patreon to expand funding opportunities beyond traditional sources such as grants, high net worth individuals, and public funding. Other artists are applying their creative impulse to the for-profit sphere, scratching both an entrepreneurial itch while distributing creativity globally: LaPlaca Cohen’s longitudinal Culture Track study continues to show that audiences are defining culture more broadly, less mindful than ever of a split between for-profit and not-for-profit activities.
Flexibility is appearing not only in the funding of culture; it’s also reaching the governance of the places and spaces used for unique community outreach, providing new access to these areas for artists from all backgrounds. Leaders of the member districts of the Global Cultural Districts Network are spending as much time developing powerful programming for their outdoor public plazas as they do for the symphonies in their concert halls.
A culture that welcomes diversity reaches far beyond what we think of as traditional institutions; it needs support no matter the place or the time. Cities are learning this lesson too: Amsterdam has installed its first Night Mayor to support restaurants, bars, music halls and dance clubs; and London, Paris, and Zurich are closely following these efforts with their own “night-time” initiatives.
These efforts at embracing flexibility and new forms are launched with the 21st century in mind, but they also have an opportunity to build equity by respecting and understanding the multi-layered histories of urban life – both the people who live in our neighborhoods and their built legacy. Arts groups are leading by adapting and restoring historic structures for new purposes; New York’s High Line is perhaps the most cited example, but it is only one. Carriageworks in Sydney was created from the railway workshops at the Eveleigh Rail Yards, originally built on the site between 1880 and 1889 as the place of work for thousands of Sydneysiders. Today, eight contemporary art companies work there, filling the space with new forms of artistic practice, as well as a tangible commitment to social and cultural diversity.
Innovative and flexible modes of funding, governance, and physical spaces are important levers in creating a diverse cultural environment – but perhaps nothing is more essential than an attitude of openness and welcoming that, over time, builds community. The New World Symphony in Miami uses the exterior of its Frank Gehry-designed building to present Wallcast™ concerts to audiences in the surrounding park. These free events invite the South Florida community – many of whom are from first generation immigrant families who might not have the resources or inclination to step inside the hall – to a mass picnic soundtracked by symphonic music from one of America’s finest orchestra academies.
A similar welcoming gesture was made when museums in Berlin, Stockholm, many Canadian cities, and beyond responded to the recent Middle East refugee crisis by opening their doors to those impacted, sharing a small piece of the local cultural heritage with their new fellow citizens. Others organizations have pulled down those walls more permanently: In 2013, the Dallas Museum of Art dropped admissions charges and launched a free membership program called DMA Friends. Instead of giving first-time guests pause with signs indicating special access only for members, visitor services staff now stand at the front door and walk guests through a simple process to enroll as a Friend. DMA Friends explore the museum and build up points that can be redeemed for discounts and tickets to special events; the museum uses the accumulated data to learn more about how visitors are engaging with exhibitions and how educational access might be improved in the future.
Building thriving cities with diverse people and ideas requires cities to stand upon the foundation of their cultural offerings; their legacy demonstrates what is important to us. By leveraging innovation and flexibility in our cultural institutions and spaces and creating welcoming communities, culture can enhance our cities, showing that we intend to create that wild ecosystem that will leave behind incredible inventions and new thinking that will last for years to come.