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Cities are banking on the arts

Once the first thing to be cut in a time of recession, the arts are proving their worth.

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New Orleans, still struggling after the double whammy of hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, tried for a similar heroic comeback vibe. Hoping to make art as big a draw as music, it mounted ambitious exhibitions of international artists at Prospect.1 Biennial in 2008-09 and a sequel, Prospect.2, that closed in January. But for a city stereotyped as Party Central that attracts more carousers than connoisseurs, it's a hard sell.

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The first version brought 42,000 visitors over three months but ended up $1 million in debt. The second, greatly scaled back, was sparsely attended, even though Terry Fassburg, a New York collector and regular at international art fairs, pronounced it "way more fun than Venice." No silver bullet, art is seen "primarily as something that needs to be supported by public coffers but which doesn't add anything to public coffers," says Dan Cameron, Prospect's founder, who raised funding privately and is now chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art in California.

Buffalo studies others' success

Buffalo took a methodical approach. After studying British cities like Glasgow, New­castle, and Liverpool – regenerated as destinations for hip tourists – Buffalo launched a new branding campaign in 2011: "Buffalo. For Real."

Its current reality is a blue-collar, industrial city that has lost half its population since 1950. All the more reason to emphasize its legacy of cultural heavyweights: a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the finest modern-art museums (the Albright-Knox Art Gallery), and architecture by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright. In the past decade, the city invested more than $100 million to polish, package, and promote such gems, part of a vision to "gild the smokestacks" and entice cultural tourists.

More than gaining tourist dollars, "ultimately, the goal is to turn Buffalo's image around," says Ed Healy, vice president for marketing of Visit Buffalo Niagara. He hopes the new identity will make it easier to recruit top executive talent to companies and lure new businesses. "We're telling a very different story," Mr. Healy explains. "People may come with a certain degree of skepticism, but they leave extremely impressed."

Cincinnati, too, sees the arts as vital to attract and retain professional talent. With in-demand creative people so mobile these days and lacking mountains or a coast, "Quality of place is more and more a determinant," says Mary McCullough-Hudson, president and chief executive officer of ArtsWave, a nonprofit arts advocacy group. "A defining, distinguishing feature of Cincinnati is the breadth, depth, and quality of the arts and cultural offerings," she says.

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