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Five Questions With Maria Rosario Jackson

Document date: March 01, 2007
Released online: March 01, 2007

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Maria Rosario Jackson is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center and director of the Urban Institute's Culture, Creativity, and Communities Program. She is lead author on Cultural Vitality in Communities: Interpretation and Indicators, a first-of-its-kind comprehensive statistical portrait. Looking at everything from community festivals to financial contributions, the report found metropolitan areas on both coasts and in the Midwest earning top honors.

1. How do you define cultural vitality?

A community's capacity to create, disseminate, validate, and support arts and culture as part of daily life. Opportunities for creative expression are important to community—it's part of what makes for a good place.

Look for ingenuity and creativity. That may not be what's most popular in the media. It may not fit the mold of what counts to make a world-class city. Whether it's immigrants' music, family or religious traditions, or street culture, cultural vitality may fall outside parameters of "high" art or "refined" art, but it's vital.

To me, regional variation is also a sign of cultural vitality. Hip-hop, for instance, has a Southern sound, a California sound, a New York sound, and more. Artistic expression done a particular way that is specific to place is interesting.

People arguing about whether something is good or not—whether it is art or not—is another sign of cultural vitality. A place that's culturally vital is not always a comfortable place. It’s a place where new ideas are cutting across old ways of thinking. It's not always a sanitized space or place.

My African-American and Mexican parents resorted to the arts of their particular ethnic group to teach me things about history that they knew I wasn't going to get at school. It was my dad pointing out Blues lyrics about migration and my mother showing me Diego Rivera murals. Even as an urban planner and an analyst, it's very natural to me to look at cultural expression as another text on understanding my environment.

2. What is the Arts and Culture Indicators Project?

It's the first arts and culture project at the Urban Institute and has from its inception ten years ago connected to other Institute work on neighborhoods and community development. The intention is to treat arts and culture as something integral to communities. The project has also triggered other arts and culture projects at the Institute.

A long-term investment by the Rockefeller Foundation, this research activity includes more than 400 interviews, plus scores of participant observations at community cultural sites. Another key aspect of the project is the creation of measures or indicators of cultural vitality that can stand alongside measures of education, housing, employment, health, and other issues that are important to communities.

You can't adequately grasp the experience of race and ethnicity or socio-economic status without some understanding of a community's cultural expression. The demographic figures on communities tell only a limited part of the story. You also have to understand the cultural expression of the community to get at the heart of it.

3. Why are arts and culture so important to communities?

They offer outlets for human expression and creative impulses. Although they get taken for granted, arts and culture are central to the economy too. And, they catalyze education, economic development, civic engagement, and social capital—often inextricable from arts and culture.

It's not just symphony, opera, or ballet, which is the default to most people when they hear the word "art." Some forms of art and cultural expression involve regular citizens in creative and artistic activity. Through that activity they give meaning to space and geography. Often times, too, cultural activity is part of community mobilization efforts. Whether it's song or whether it's painted banners, any community activity that has some kind of aesthetic is going to be important. It's people coming together with some kind of social or civic intention.

Amateur activity is definitely as important as professional. One conundrum of the arts world is that, unlike for housing or even open space, there is no set formula for what is enough or what is minimal. We know what fair and decent housing is supposed to look like. There's a formula for how much open space is optimal in a dense city area. There isn't very much of that at all in the arts field.

Creative, cultural, artistic expression is a strength of the community. One way to oppress people is to deny them cultural expression. When you think about populations that have been colonized, part of the colonial strategy is to strip culture, language, and the creative voice that allows for individual expression.

A healthy community is one that can both preserve and invent—and do both simultaneously. Preservation without invention is problematic in the same way as not having a sense of the past.

4. What places are culturally vital?

Places where there is evidence of both preservation and invention. Places where there is a range of artistic expression, from amateur to professional and commercial to nonprofit.

The nationally comparable measures that we use in our report are illustrative, but we're not saying they are the only things that matter in thinking about cultural vitality. If I had my druthers, we would also have recurrent nationally comparable data about arts education and about people involved in amateur practice.

Our measures are intended to signal that places have different characteristics worth paying attention to. For example, the San Francisco region ranked number one on three of the measures. San Francisco has a mix of commercial and nonprofit arts and culture. It has a high level of arts expenditures and arts giving. Plus, artists live in the area.

Seattle and New York also ranked high. Los Angeles and Nashville rank really high in terms of commercial entities and also artists in the area. But when you look at ranking on nonprofit festivals, a whole different slew of places come up.

Big dollars being spent is important, but it’s not the only driver. We want people to think more critically when they consider arts and culture in the community. Our definition of cultural vitality has implications for what a cultural district would look like—it's how you would think of a community with good amenities or a world-class city.

We wanted our report to be a catalyst for urban planners and others.

5. What is your advice to urban planners or policymakers?

Creative expression is part of healthy living. It can be designed and planned for. Planners and policymakers can allow the spaces for it to happen and plan for possibilities.

Space is one of the biggest enabling factors—and a limiting factor. Some of the most impressive spaces are community spaces where thought has been given to creative expression. For example, in Los Angeles there is Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA). It's a Pilipino-based social service organization really, but the space was designed to accommodate cultural activities.

Space is very important, especially when you're talking about the collective arts. Sometimes the space is designated; sometimes it just happens. We used to think about a town commons. Now it's important for urban planners to consider the cultural commons.

More and more doors are opening with the recognition that creativity is an economic commodity. This bodes well for the future.

Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods

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