At a recent gathering by the National Endowment for the Arts, In Pursuit of the Creative Life: The Future of Arts and Creativity in America, more than 200 arts leaders from around the country discussed how the arts can better integrate into everyday life. We started out by introducing ourselves by place.
“Who here is from a city?” asked the moderator. A sea of hands rose up. “Who here is from rural America?” Another 20 to 25 hands shot up proudly. “Welcome. Oh, um, who here is from a suburb?” I raised my hand. Later I was told another hand went up at the far end of the conference room. So we’ll say two.
The lack of suburban arts leaders shouldn’t come as a surprise. From 2011-2015, Barry Hessenius published an annual list of the Fifty Most Powerful and Influential People in the Nonprofit Arts. Of the 142 individuals included on that list over the years, just three people came from suburbs.
If you’re anxious about the steady decline in arts participation and interested in a fully integrated creative situation, then this is a problem. Because over half of Americans live and work in suburbs. If equity and inclusion are of concern to you, then the suburbs should demand your full attention. Almost one-third of the nation’s poor live in suburbs; by 2008, the suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country. Brookings calls this the “suburbanization of poverty.” And while minorities only represent 35 percent of suburban residents, more than half of all minority groups in large metro areas live in suburbs. They call this the “melting pot suburbs.”
To be clear, the absence of suburban arts leaders isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom. The problem is a set of assumptions that occlude the arts and arts leaders not only in the suburbs, but everywhere:
We serve audiences. We bemoan the lack of arts audiences in the suburbs. Well, sure. Because they don’t exist independent of the organizations who create them and give them meaning. And if organizations don’t have a presence in the suburbs, then of course audiences won’t develop. It’s a vicious cycle. What does exist in suburbs are communities who are very much creative. Rather than perpetuating a nonprofit arts model designed to bring people to art, what emergent models exist that bring art to people, and how can we incentivize them?
We are overbuilt. I’ve worked in two suburban communities and live in another. I can tell you that the lack of permanent arts venues and cultural space is the single most important cultural issue in our communities. The suburbs need basic cultural infrastructure. At the turn of the last century, Andrew Carnegie built more than 1,600 libraries throughout the country in communities of all types. What would it take for every suburb in America to have a designated public cultural space?
We are an industry. Film and finance are industries. They produce films and financial products. Banking, hospitals, libraries, and schools have systems. These systems are designed to provide communities with credit, care, literacy, and learning. Industries produce profits and are geographically concentrated; systems provide social benefits and exist wherever people do. Maybe the suburbs will never host a vibrant cultural industry. But they can, and do, support vital systems. What does a cultural system looks like that distributes creative opportunities as opposed to an industry that consolidates them?
Confronting these myths is critical to getting at the heart of this problem: We need to understand which cultural policies cut off suburban communities from widespread arts participation and replace them with policies that connect the suburbs. Because continuing an arts industry that excludes 50 percent of all potential arts participants from the start is not a sustainable one. If we are to live up to the promise of participation and equity in the arts in the 21st century, it is essential that we ask how our creative endeavors—as artists, businesses, organizations, and policy makers—promote creative communities, inclusive growth, and regional connections. Only then will we see a sea of hands in the arts that look like the America we are destined to become.