Five Ways Cities Can Foster the Arts and Catalyze Equitable Economic Recovery

As we navigate the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, cities are especially economically challenged.  Tax revenues can barely keep up with the need to improve infrastructure, maintain public safety, encourage business, educate the young, care for aging residents, and provide basic and essential services to residents.  Arts and culture are way down the list of priorities, but civic and business leaders should not under-estimate the power of the arts to effect change, to create social cohesion and to unite diverse people around a common vision of the future. As a part of our communities’ economic recovery, relatively modest investments in the arts and arts-friendly policy can make a world of difference, expanding creativity, equitable growth, and resilience.

Arts and culture should be a crucial part of any city’s economy recovery plan.  Here are five ways that cities can use the arts strategically to improve life for all residents and support recovery of local economies.

  1. Make Arts a Part of Every Child’s Education. Children sing the alphabet song to learn their ABCs.  Students who struggle with math or who are not native English speakers can excel in drawing and music or express themselves in spoken word.  Theatre programs teach skills in collaboration and teamwork.  Numerous studies prove that students who participate in the arts outperform their peers on virtually every measure, and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds see the greatest benefits.  If we want a creative future workforce with excellent problem-solving skills, making arts a part of PreK-12 education is cost-effective and essential.
  2. Encourage Arts in Health Care. Hospitals with art on the walls, music programs and other arts find that patients need less pain medication and heal faster.  The arts give seniors physical and mental stimulation and avenues for social interaction and connection that keeps them healthy, including reducing dementia.  Arts improve mental health and help people who struggle with addiction to recover their lives.  People are healthier when they engage their whole selves in the healing process, using movement, visualization, and the calming effects of the arts.
  3. Incorporating the Arts in City Planning in the Early Stages. All too often, city planners present their ideas to community stakeholders and residents late in the process, rather than engaging the community early on to more fully understand local issues and concerns. This is particularly difficult for communities that traditionally feel excluded and find it difficult to express what they so deeply feel at a microphone in a community meeting.  Using theatre techniques or visual arts to engage residents early in the process makes a world of difference.  It communicates respect, generates healthy civic dialogue, and brings people together with a sense of community ownership.  The arts inspire creative solutions and bridge differences to make community growth possible.
  4. Marketing. As a sector, arts organizations earn almost half of their revenue through tickets, program fees, rentals and other means.  Marketing both promotes the image of a city as vibrant, diverse, and fun and helps nonprofit arts organizations to generate their own revenue.  More people attend arts and culture each year than attend professional sports.  In addition, the majority of arts audiences attend a performance or event only occasionally, making it difficult for arts organizations to target advertising effectively.  Cities can help to spread the word about the arts in community calendars, by including the arts in image campaigns, or simply by having civic leaders frequently mention the arts with enthusiasm.
  5. Funding for Arts & Culture. Yes, money matters.  Government provides far less than private sector philanthropy or earned revenue, but public support is essential for a healthy arts sector and helps to ensure equity and access to the arts for all residents.  Small grants of unrestricted operating support make a world of difference to community-based, grassroots arts organizations.  Government funding is much more equitable than individual donors or private foundations, both of which give more to large, established arts institutions that have well-staffed development departments.  Government support also targets arts programs for the under-served, increasing access to the arts for young and old and even the incarcerated.  Almost all major performing arts centers receive government support, which is returned many times over in tax revenues from audience spending in restaurants, parking, shopping and hotels.  When cities can subsidize venues to make space affordable to smaller arts organizations, it extends those benefits to neighborhoods and business corridors.  Using public support strategically returns big benefits in increasing equity and inclusion and creating social cohesion amongst residents – and it also generates economic activity.

It is not the product of the arts that makes cities vibrant – though we all appreciate murals, festivals, performing arts productions and museums.  It is the process of creating art that matters.  Understanding how arts and culture improves education, health, business activity, social cohesion is far more powerful. And when done right, arts can help catalyze our cities’ steps towards equitable economic recovery. Cities that underestimate arts and culture also underestimate their own citizens, because the arts is how we share ideas, express creativity, and find new ways to appreciate our differences – and find productive ways to live together.


Maud Lyon, Senior Advisor | [email protected]

Maud Lyon has guided the development of nonprofits, helping them to improve service to the community while adapting to changing circumstances that alter their business models. She also deeply understands the role of arts and culture in civic life:  how it brings people together, creates a sense of possibility and opportunity for individuals and communities, and establishes connections that are essential to vibrant civic engagement. As President of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance 2015-2020, she spearheaded exploration of the economic, cultural and political forces re-shaping arts and culture that would affect the future of museums, performing arts, arts education and community arts nonprofits. From April to July 2020, she led COVID-19 Arts Aid PHL, collaborating with foundations, individual donors, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.

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