Building cities through the arts – it is not done by accident anymore.

Canton First Friday Arts Festival
Digital art by BZTAT

When I moved to the Canton Arts District in 2007, it was an adventure. A formerly blighted downtown was being redeveloped into a creative paradise for artists. There was an energy that was exciting and inspiring.

For five years, I have been a big part of shaping and developing the district. I have lived here, worked here and helped to create and promote a variety of activities. Other artists and I, with the help of ArtsinStark, the Canton Special Improvement District and King Properties, can take pride in what we have built.

There is a wave of interest in developing declining downtowns across the country through the arts. Canton, honestly was on the forefront of that. It is not by accident.

Robb Hankins, the charismatic and inspiring leader of ArtsinStark, has led the city to redevelop and reshape itself through public art, live music and theater, and artists’ galleries and studios.

Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has made such efforts a cornerstone of his agency’s purposes. Consultants like Rebecca Ryan actively encourage cities to capitalize on the arts as a way to bring young professionals to their cities.

Artists can benefit greatly from such an influx of interest in the arts. I have. But artist beware. It is not the end-all-be-all for launching an art career.

In Canton, we have had numerous challenges. Egos and lack of business acumen have impeded the progress of many creative people with high and sometimes unrealistic expectations. Canton is a football town, and although its people have embraced the new arts focus, it is not a community where enough people buy art to support a number of self employed artists.

And although the business community has embraced the arts in a very surprising way, the mayor and other elected officials have not. In a future post, I will share about how decisions made by city officials have totally altered my experience of the city.

The present day movement of building cities around the arts harkens back to the New York City SoHo District’s regeneration as an artists’ haven. Once a low cost area for creative people to live and work, it now is an upscale area where only the most successful artists can afford to live.

Most cities are hoping that the world that the artists create in their communities are not necessarily going to remain a place where starving artists can survive.

Cities are fluid organisms that change and adapt to the circumstances around them. Artists have to adapt as well, and recognize that change is inevitable.

How have the arts changed and contributed to the development of your city? How have artists had to adapt to the changing circumstances around that development? Are the arts an important and embraced part of your community?

Are you an arts supporter who wants to see artists and their cities succeed? What suggestions do you have for them?

3 comments

  1. Bernadette says:

    BZTAT, I’m so happy to hear how the arts are working for Canton (with the exception of the new neighbor you mentioned today…). A town really can come together with arts as the center because it brings all the creative people together and that becomes a cool place to be. In 2003 I founded a group called “Carnegie Renaissance” to help use our arts culture in my little town of about 9,000 to build business, foot traffic, and attract new residents. We had three galleries to start with and at one point had six plus a Carnegie Library, Historical Society, a music school, dance schools and other assets who participated. We had quarterly gallery walks, the restaurants had more business, people came back during the week to visit other businesses. But our devastating flood in late 2004 put a stop to everything, though we tried to come back businesses couldn’t make it with the debt of rebuilding. I’d love to see where we would be now without that flood!

  2. bztat says:

    Thanks for your comments Bernadette. So sorry to hear how the flood affected you. I agree, I think it is a great idea to build around the arts. Doing so in a non-creative and exploitative way is not such a great idea, and I do see that happening in some cities. I think Canton has some challenges ahead, but I do believe the Arts District will be the crown jewel of the city in the not too distant future!

    • Bernadette says:

      I didn’t want to go on and on, but I also thought I’d mention the objections we got from many residents who thought we were going to have, like, gay couples parading up and down the streets and nude models posing everywhere–they had no idea what the arts were all about but we won them over when we told them they probably already visited a few of the places and knew a few resident artists. Some people never got with it, but most came to appreciate the events and the street banners and flowers and murals and other beautification that grew from it. I eventually had to give it up to care for my mother, and we have a Main Street committee now, but you can tell how I felt about it!

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