The next growth industry in America? Public-private arts projects

Art and design, while often positioned as luxuries, are actually big, underutilized economic drivers. Just look at the elevated High Line Park in Manhattan, a private-public project that is generating more jobs, revenue, and investment than expected. And don't forget the joy factor.

When 30-somethings Rob­ert Hammond and Joshua David first proposed that a derelict 1-1/2 mile stretch of elevated railway in Manhattan be re-imagined as an urban park, there were certainly doubters.

Would busy New Yorkers use it? What would be the real “return on investment” for benches, bushes, and public art in a city with plenty of all three?

Thirteen years later, High Line Park – which just opened its second section over the summer – clearly demonstrates the power of the arts and the potential of public space. It draws countless visitors, has transformed neighborhoods, far exceeds projected tax revenues and private investment, and has generated thousands of jobs. And it’s not even complete yet.

At a time when America is facing severe unemployment, it turns out that a bench, a bush, and a vision – when infused with the arts – can be economic game changers.

Art and design, while often positioned as luxuries, are actually big, underutilized economic drivers. A new consortium called ArtPlace knows that, which is why they recently announced an unprecedented public-private funding effort, focused squarely on the arts’ unique ability to fuel economic development in locales nationwide.

Backed by a veritable who’s who of public and private partners, the move rightly flies in the face of congressional calls to defund the $150 million National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which has spearheaded the new effort.

Last year, the NEA dispatched its age-old slogan, “A great country deserves great art,” in favor of a two-word tagline: “Art works.” It’s a blunt, seemingly unsexy statement, though one backed up by hard numbers.

Based on data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, NEA researchers estimate a nearly 17 percent increase in arts-related jobs between now and 2018. That figure is about seven percentage points more than projected overall jobs growth in the US during the same period. Meanwhile, in 2009, the arts accounted for $250 billion of the US economy – a thriving sector that includes subsets as wide-ranging as the performing arts and the motion-picture industry.

The arts unite all kinds of people in a time of deprivation and competition. ArtPlace counts nearly a dozen leading foundations, a handful of federal agencies, and half a dozen major banks among its backers. This level of coordination is usually reserved for post-disaster times, not forward-thinking, proactive initiatives of this sort.

The initial $11.5 million being invested by ArtPlace will fund collaborative projects proposed by communities, developers, museums, small businesses, universities, and many combinations thereof. The 34 projects hail from an equal number of cities as far and wide as Boise, Idaho; Detroit; Honolulu; and New Orleans – representing 20 states, red and blue alike. This is precisely the kind of post-partisan, public-private partnership that America needs more of.

Critics of such art projects may be tempted to point to the Census Bureau’s devastating announcement that more than 2.5 million people slipped into poverty last year, adding to the approximately 44 million counted the year before.

Why invest in art when many Americans don’t have enough to eat? However, it is in these trying times that we need more and better public spaces for people to gather, in which to lift our spirits and imagine a brighter future. And more than that, art and public space projects can create jobs, build new skills, and revitalize strained communities.

The visionary financial institutions, foundations, and federal agencies backing the High Line and Art­Place should seize this moment by redoubling their investments. They can start by restoring arts education in schools, supporting individual artists and entrepreneurs driving the creative economy, and funding cultural institutions and museums so vital to public life in this country.

John Cary is editor of Public­Inter­est­ and author of “The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients.”

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