When government proposes finding “untapped capital” in the arts, artists may be wary. For the city, the growth of an arts district means money in the bank; for artists, it usually means finding a new apartment. Still, in last week’s Ideas City mayoral panel, a fairly compelling pro-tapping case was made by five former mayors of Austin, Nashville, Paris, and Miami, and the current mayor of Lexington, Kentucky—all of whom have significantly improved the living standards in each of their cities. Several told stories of recovering from a deep recession, often simply by nurturing local color, though that was prominently lacking in the panel itself.
“Tonight we have five white guys in their fifties, moderated by a white guy in his fifties…so…diversity!” NPR’s Kurt Anderson joked, by way of introduction. With some humor and consideration, speakers mostly managed to squash the elephant in the room; at some moments, though, it was harder to ignore.
Austin’s former mayor Will Wynn, for example, spoke about the famed “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, which some have criticized for producing normalizing results. Wynn told us that he came into office just as the dot com bubble had burst, hitting Austin (a tech mecca) especially hard. Because the city’s environmental regulations make it difficult to attract big industry, Austin diverted its new strategy into small businesses. And to create new small businesses, the city needed to attract a population of small business-creators: educated twenty-five to thirty-four year-olds. So, “Keep Austin Weird” advertised the progressive ideology which had long defined Austin, basically investing in its residents as an attraction for new residents; it facilitated things like festivals, indie film productions, poetry slams, an overall liberal ethos.
As for what that looks like, Wynn screened a Chamber of Commerce video which shows footage of Tex Mex, bikes, segways, and hand-painted signage set to soft rock. “What it shows visually: it shows lots of outdoor activity, it shows lots of live music, some pretty funky streetscapes, storefronts, food trailers, pedicabs,” he said. “It shows people living.” The combination of funkiness and cheap rents brought the new population out in droves, attracting more 25-34 year olds over the past decade than any other city in the country.
“Without a whole lot of planning, frankly…Austin has become a very attractive city from a quality-of-life standpoint,” he told us. “And the people we’re attracting are disproportionately that glorious Holy Grail of demographics, the 25-34 year olds. They come to town, they’ve probably already been educated by somebody else, they don’t bring a job with them, but they either soon find one, or more than likely, the jobs follow them. Facebook has opened only its second office worldwide in downtown Austin because of who is already there.”
Facebook, of course, is neither weird, nor a small business–though the economic benefits are hard to argue. As of December 2012, Austin rose to an almost pre-recession unemployment rate of 4.6%, compared with 7.6% nationally. And Wynn’s fellow mayors achieved similar results, all by making simple investments in local communities: safety, education, parks, and the arts. During his term, Nashville’s Bill Purcell increased the urban population from 900 to 20,000, and corporate headquarters followed. Lexington’s Jim Gray spoke about condensing city limits to create a sort of artificial Manhattan. Miami’s Manny Diaz treated public programs as a long-term investment, and utterly changed the face of his city.
He illustrated the point: “Plant flowers on a medium, and guess what you’ll find? You’ll find that people will stop littering on that medium. And a clean medium will lead to a clean neighborhood, a greater sense of pride, which will lower crime, and create a sense that people care, that that government cares.”
Flowers on a medium scaled up to things like a $450 million performing arts center. “People like to criticize mayors who support arts and culture because that’s for the wine and cheese crowd,” he said. “First of all, I reject that and consider that a bigoted statement, because I think art and culture is for everyone…and getting back to the business common sense analysis, this performing arts center is located in a community redevelopment district of Miami.”
After the arts center was built, the neighborhood’s tax revenue increased by one billion dollars. That money helped him elevate Miami’s school system from a D to a B average, construct 200 new green buildings, and seriously reduce Miami’s crime and murder rates. There’s no question that improvements like these are, and should be, a higher priority than art.
Still, absent from the conversation was sustainability; improvements seem to just lead to more improvements, boundless economic and urban expansion. The mayoral attitudes recalled a recent piece by Felix Salmon, explaining what made Peter Cooper’s vision so strong: not growth, only indefinite sustainability.
So perhaps Paris, which is all grown-up, is the only community with the luxury of viewing art as a cultural necessity, rather than an economic tool. “We didn’t want Paris to be Disneyland,” said Christophe Girard, former Yves Saint Laurent CEO and Deputy Mayor of Paris in charge of culture. “Art is not something you do on the weekend, it is part of your life,” he told us. “I don’t believe we are born to be only consumers. We are born to be citizens. And one of the issues, when we are mayors, protectors of our citizens and our cities…is to make sure that what’s called today modern or classical art will happen again by attracting poets, writers, creators…It’s not only when you’re famous and when you’ve achieved that you should be able to come to Paris and stay at the Ritz.” It was the only view of art for art’s sake, though unfortunately Girard makes it sound as though artists can no longer afford to live in that city.
He identified an issue which seemed all too clear from a New York perspective–what happens to the community which spawns this great urban turnaround, once the outside industry has been successfully poached? Finally, NPR’s Kurt Andersen broached the subject in the following panel. He asked Wynn whether or not Austin’s recent population double has been “altogether a good thing.”
“Well, people think the city peaked the day they moved there and started going to hell the next day when someone else moved there,” Wynn said. “Austin suffers from schizophrenia as bad as any city I can imagine. So as we have continued to double, it’s trying to convince a bunch of naysayers– folks who are just scared of change, unfortunately. You have to convince them that there’s at least a plan, and you’ve given it some thought…show people you at least have a plan.”
It’s not hard to see why people might be confused. “Keep It Weird” means keeping it weird; the new plan means change. In New York, the plan is evident as soon as you step outside, where moving is a way of life, and half of our priciest neighborhoods now stake a claim as the once-funky art scene. It would be nice to hear the next plan involve the arts beyond window-dressing: a community, with goals of its own.