Naturally Occurring Arts Districts

Oftentimes, when people are busy making the big plans, everyone else is working on the little plan.

Over the decades, a number of brainstorming sessions were held by our city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau to see if a cultural district could be created somewhere in the downtown area. Overall, a great discussion to have, and one that sparked a lot of thought in the community about the importance of supporting local artists.

Initial discussion revolved around a large cultural arts center that would serve as an anchor to the area. Later discussions focused on how to create an area akin to Granville Island in Vancouver. Of course, Granville Island was a former industrial site into which the federal government poured nearly $20 million in development funds.

Granville Island

Although Granville is a wonderful destination for tourists and locals alike, not every city has the resources to create something on this scale. In fact, it could be argued that large, complex developments such as this are extremely risky to the developers or the municipality investing in the project.

We were all thinking big but it as it turns out, thinking small may have been the key to the success of our new arts area downtown–the North Village Arts District.

Lately, a lot of talk in the arts community has centered around Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts. interviewed two people highly involved in helping these types of arts districts develop organically.

According to Tamara Greenfield, Executive Director of Fourth Arts Block in NYC:

A Naturally Occurring Cultural (or Arts) District is distinguished by both its origins and organization. A NOCD (for lack of better term) supports existing neighborhood cultural assets rather than imposing arts institutions somewhere new. Traditional cultural districts are often used as a promotional tool to import visitors to a downtown shopping or commercial district and are generally centered on large institutions. The difference is important because each idea represents a distinct set of public values about what’s important to cities and what’s worth supporting. Understanding NOCDs can provide a framework to recognize and support a more inclusive, equitable vision of a neighborhood’s culture.

Caron Atlas, organizer with the Arts + Community Change Initiative, points out that:

If a cultural district has emerged ‘naturally,’ then it grows from, builds on and validates existing community assets rather than importing assets from outside a community.

Instead of developing a master plan for the creation of an arts district centered around a large-scale cultural institution, ours got off the ground through a combination of market forces and dedicated individuals. About the time Mark Timberlake purchased an abandoned roofing warehouse on the north edge of The District, I had been fielding calls from local artists looking for affordable studio space. He listened to this crazy idea and immediately set out to research it more–talking to artists and other groups to determine if it was actually feasible. Turns out, it was.

Orr Street Studios

Mark’s efforts spurred the arts community to action as well as inspired other property owners in the area, namely John Ott, to develop arts-related spaces and to recruit artists and creative professionals to the area. These folks have become the core influencers of the arts district and are largely responsible for its current success.

The Berry Building

The result is that our downtown has an arts district that occurred naturally, and in a way that truly reflects our community. We have artist studios and galleries but the area is also home to a number of creative professionals as well as a grocery specializing in local foods and several live music venues. It’s unclear if a larger master plan could have predicted what the community needed as well as the community itself did. And most importantly, the fact that it’s grown organically over time bodes well for its long term success.