A University Taps the Arts (and Hopefully Donor Dollars) to Revitalize a Neighborhood

If, for some reason, you happen to be a proponent of the arts and find yourself in a debate with an effective altruist, we'd like to pass along some (hopefully) constructive conversational advice.

Can an opera save a life? No, not literally. But that argument seems increasingly myopic. That's because it takes a very narrow view of the "arts."

"The arts," quite obviously, consists of more than a one-time staging of La Bohème. Rather, a more useful question is this: "Can opera—or any other artistic pursuit for that matter, or a combination of those pursuits—when coupled with intelligent planners, local officials, and higher education partners, help transform a neighborhood, create jobs, and revitalize parts of a city?"

This question itself generates quite a bit of controversy—especially in regard to what, exactly, urban improvement really means? Are we talking, for example, about more professionals moving in and rents going up? 

The latest case study comes to us from Chicago, where the University of Chicago is working with community partners to develop a stretch of historic East Garfield Boulevard into a major arts and culture corridor called the Arts Block. The Arts Block expands the University’s efforts to convert vacant spaces along the block into a mix of artist studios, performance and exhibition facilities, retail establishments, and public program and education spaces.

Now, if the Arts Block sounds like a classic example of creative placemaking and/or place-based development, it's because, well, it's a classic example of creative placemaking and/or place-based development. However, unlike recent examples in this space, whereby national funders like the Kresge FoundationArtPlace America, or Heinz Endowments take the lead, the work here in the Windy City is being spearheaded by the University of Chicago itself.

Of course, this isn't to say foundations won't be part of the planning. For example, the block's proposed Green Line Arts Center will be dependent on donor support, and the university is seeking funding as you read this.

But the university has a head start from a conceptual and planning persepective thanks to previous successes in the neighborhood. The Arts Block is also home to the University’s Arts Incubator, which hosts a residency program that supports local artists in all disciplines, a design apprenticeship program for teenagers and a rich array of public programming. In just three years, the Arts Incubator has attracted more than 30,000 participants at more than 650 free public events and programs, and served hundreds of area teens through its design apprenticeship and youth programs.

In short, the announcement represents an intersection of two increasingly important trends across the philanthropic arts space. One, organizations using the arts to revitalize neighborhoods—or, as recently noted in Washington, DC., using the arts to create an entire neighborhood from scratch. And two, universities act as the motivating player in driving such projects while simultaneously positioning itself as an arts-driven destination. (For multiple examples along these lines click here.)

Theaster Gates, professor in the Department of Visual Arts and director of Arts + Public Life, summed up the school's plan nicely. "To transform a neighborhood, we have to help people believe that beautiful things can happen there. Arts and culture are some of the ways we can do that. Investing in people’s abilities and developing space for creativity to thrive are ways we can demonstrate that belief."