SHORT-TERM THINKING, OVER-ESTIMATING DEMAND, UNDERESTIMATING COSTS PRODUCE ARTS GLUT … WILL IT SPELL DOOM FOR PITTSFIELD? … plus … UNEARTHING AN IMPORTANT CLUE TO THE CITY’S FUTURE
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, FRIDAY, JULY 6, 2012) — Yesterday, as we have done on numerous occasions prior, THE PLANET discussed the folly of relying upon a recreation-and-resort economy as a city’s economic cost center. Most of the jobs of such an economy are service-type positions that pay minimum wage or not much more. Benefits are rare to non-existent.
There is, of course, a direct correlation — an ironic one — with a city not known for the arts trying to function economically solely off the arts. The makeup of Pittsfield — its culture, its mindset — is blue collar. Riding Recreation-and-Resort for the sum of its economy leaves too many residents without the jobs or the means to earn a livable salary.
The presence of a dangerous demographic of dropouts, druggies, mentally ill, Sec. 8 families, handicapped, teen single moms, welfare recipients, prisoners and their families, and other needy populations invariably follows. For example, Pittsfield leads the state in the number of group homes, and it’s for a reason: Money. Many of the statuary benefits “given” to the city by Beacon Hill are the payment for taking unwanted human subpopulations from other parts of the Commonwealth and environs.
One problem with an Arts economy in a city like Pittsfield is the bewildering array of choices in Berkshire County on any given evening, especially from July through Labor Day. That’s when the Berkshires get as hot as the weather. So much to do, so little time, and too little money in Pittsfield with which to do it. The discretionary income isn’t there, for the locals have little.
Pittsfield Isn’t Great Barrington
Owning to second homeowners who have driven the price of real estate up and who use relatively little of a town’s public services, communities where the arts have been historically and culturally integrated into the local culture — Great Barrington, Stockbridge, and Williamstown, for example — do well during this time and, to some extent, year round.
Pittsfield never was, is not, and likely never will be such a place. The city is a blue-collar town where manufacturing once ruled. Its social, political, and economic infrastructure hasn’t been and is not geared to be a Stockbridge or a Great Barrington. The heck-bent-for-leather push for the R&R economy has largely ignored the local demographic makeup. It’s like forcing a construction worker to wear ballet slippers to work.
In the whooshing exit of more than 20,000 good manufacturing jobs (GE, Sheaffer-Eaton, Beloit-Jones, the woolen and paper mills, Sprague), the city panicked and made many colossal and irrevocable mistakes. It allowed cronyism and barroom politics to win the day ahead of sound policy and sober decision making. These short-sighted blunders include failure to build a downtown mall, tearing down too much of its heritage in a disastrous Urban Renewal frenzy, and letting Berkshire Community College move miles away to the city’s fringes instead of keeping it downtown (you think downtown wouldn’t benefit from having 2,000 students, faculty, and administrators there every day?).
Another hidden problem is one of market. Stockbridge and Williamstown will always get the arts dollars. People will want to live there and play there. Railroad Street in Great Barrington will always be packed. Williams College will keep Williamstown vibrant. The Red Lion Inn, Tanglewood, Naumkeg, Eden Hill, the Berkshire Theater Festival, Kripalu, and the Norman Rockwell Museum will take care of Stockbridge just fine.
Pittsfield, on the other hand, cannot cut it with South and North county spillover. It can’t keep adding performance space, eateries, screens, galleries, and other ingredients of an R&R economy without again shooting itself in the foot. The market isn’t there, nor is the discretionary income. Moreover, as the town adds to its problematic population — a scary sub-class mix mentioned earlier — there will be a growing disconnect between the city’s public and private lives. Caught in the middle with be the vanishing middle and lower middle class.
A Glut of Options: What is a City’s Capacity for Art, Recreation, and Leisure?
That leads to an interesting and apropos article brought to THE PLANET’s attention by our good friend Laurie Norton Moffatt, executive director of the Norman Rockwell Museum. It seems that nationwide, Pittsfield, Mass., was at or near the top of the biggest spenders on the arts. Before the local cheerleaders take that and run with it, as if it’s some sort of badge of achievement and proof of the Renaissance, let’s head that off at the pass with some honesty.
The careless overspending has created a glut of options, will fail to produce a return (why do you think private capital wants no part in building arts space in places like Pittsfield?), and will drive down value. To keep it all going, public subsidies will be sought.
Here’s the article, first published in theatlanticcities.com. It was written by Emily Badger:
“Demand” is an inherently tricky concept to measure when it comes to the arts. How can a museum know, for instance, that a million new visitors will surely come through if it opens a new gallery? Or how can a theater accurately gauge that its community has the capacity to support a new stage, if it can just find the money to build one? There is no neat way to count a city’s untapped demand for museums, cultural centers and performing arts spaces.
That being said, it’s becoming pretty clear that during the boom years, American cities built too many of them, surpassing demand with a supply that would come to weigh down arts institutions that had no business chasing after their own Guggenheim Bilbao. A massive new study by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago reaches this conclusion after surveying 725 new arts facilities and expansions that sprang up in American cities between 1994 and 2008, at a collective cost of more than $15 billion.
Here are a pair of maps from the final report of the metropolitan statistical areas with cultural projects under way in 1994 (at left) and with projects begun between 1994 and 2008.
Every corner of the country was in on the craze, as were communities of all sizes. Per capita, the biggest total spenders on cultural projects during this period were Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the San Francisco/Oakland/Fremont region of California, Appleton and Madison, Wisconsin, and Lawrence, Kansas. (The biggest total spender, not surprisingly, was the New York region, coming in at more than $1.5 billion.)
“If demand is difficult to measure in the first place, then what’s the justification for the supply?” asks Joanna Woronkowicz, one of the report’s co-authors and an associate with the Cultural Policy Center. Repeatedly, the researchers came across arts organizations that failed to thoughtfully assess this question. We know in retrospect that the demand often wasn’t there: In overbuilding for audiences that did not come, many of these organizations have since run into financial trouble.
So why the building glut? The researchers point first to some demographic trends. The communities that tended to invest in these new arts facilities were often those experiencing population growth with rising rates of education. We also saw during this period a building boom in multiple sectors (although it’s particularly noteworthy that building in the arts grew faster than or on par with building in the health and education sectors).
“We’d just finished this huge period of economic growth, and a lot of institutions were under the guise that they were doing very, very well,” Woronkowicz says. “What we concluded is that there’s a lot of short-term thinking going on. A lot of institutions felt very successful, however they weren’t really thinking down the line.”
She also points to one other factor: Cities’ own Richard Florida’s books, such as The Rise of the Creative Class. This theme recurred throughout the center’s surveys and interviews: “This Florida hypothesis was a belief that was taking hold in a lot of cities,” Woronkowicz says, “that if we have cultural amenities, we’ll have better, more creative populations.”
The biggest arts building boom in fact occurred in the South, a potential sign of cities there trying to catch up with the rest of the country. Often, these institutions made the assumption – “if you build it, they will come,” Woronkowicz says – that revenue and bigger crowds would necessarily result from the new buildings. “We saw that everywhere,” she says.
“These projects are very much emotional, they’re projects that have a lot of passion in them,” Woronkowicz says. “A lot of the rationality that goes into running a business sometimes doesn’t go into these projects.”
Arts institutions are also particularly susceptible to the idea that the building itself should be a piece of art (one case study from the research tells the story of a museum in Roanake, Virginia, whose humble plans were sidetracked by the dream of a Bilbao-like architectural landmark). Within this community, Woronkowicz adds, there is often the perception that a successful arts organization must have its own building.
Those organizations that genuinely did need new space (and kept to their budgets, with consistent leadership and community input) tended to fare the best. As for the others that got into trouble, the researchers document a formula. The operating expenses of the new facilities wound up being higher than anyone anticipated. The revenues turned out to be lower. Then to bridge that gap, institutions began to cut programs, then their hours of operation, and sometimes even days of the week, and eventually their staff.
The recession surely played a role in this process. Plenty of arts centers and museums that were planned in good times later opened their doors to an approaching recession. But the lesson here, Woronkowicz says, is not that all these institutions suffered from poor economic timing beyond their control.
The authors of the report are all self-described arts lovers themselves, and so they’re not out to discourage cultural institutions from ever building anything new again. But Woronkowicz says these findings may suggest organizations over-invested in bricks and mortar when they might have been wiser to spend on programming. The report also suggests we may need to change the way we think about what it means to have a “healthy” arts sector.
“This has been coming up in a lot of discussions about ‘what is health?’ Is health growth? Or is health quantity?” Woronkowicz asks. “And that doesn’t seem to be the case for the cultural sector. We’ve seen a big expansion in the cultural sector in terms of organizations and facilities. Is that necessarily healthy? I don’t think so.”