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Assembly Bill Looks to Strengthen NJ Arts Impact on Local Economies

By Lawrence E. McCullough, Ph.D.

Assembly Bill Looks to Strengthen NJ Arts Impact on Local Economies

Having been unanimously adopted by the New Jersey Assembly’s Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee early in the current legislative session, Assembly Bill A-2801 awaits a vote by the full Assembly and eventually the Senate. 

If passed by both chambers during this year’s final calendar, the bill would enable the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to bestow an official “Artist District” designation upon no more than 25 New Jersey municipalities or areas within municipalities.

The Council would establish criteria for the designation and would work with the state Division of Travel and Tourism to promote the districts as destinations for artists to live and work and visitors to shop and spend.

How does a municipality go about creating such a district, or determining if it already has one? What criteria distinguish a successful Artist District? 

Arts districts (their typical appellation, also “cultural districts”) are found in growing numbers across the U.S. as hundreds of municipalities employ cultural tourism initiatives to boost their local economy. 

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Whether defined by a specific neighborhood, centered around major cultural institutions or focused on a particular type of arts production or commerce, an arts district’s most public components are general entertainment and festival events, galleries and museums, restaurants and nightclubs, arts-oriented retail shops, tours and attractions geared toward outsiders.

Not so visible, but vitally important for the district’s ongoing success, is a foundational infrastructure that incorporates three core activities:  teaching, developing, showcasing the arts.

Teaching the arts. The district nurtures a network of the area’s diverse arts education providers — commercial schools and individual teachers of traditional music, dance, theatre, visual and literary arts along with new programs in digital arts technology (audio/video production, web design/content, animation/multi-media creation) that emphasize applied skills for the future workscape. 

This network has links to local private and public schools, colleges, tech and trade schools and is an active partner in numerous public art projects highlighting the community’s reputation as a creativity and knowledge center.

Developing the arts. The district houses a nucleus of businesses that develop and deliver arts-related merchandise and services, ranging from musical instrument makers, graphic designers, dance supply stores and craft artisans to sound and light engineers, stage construction firms, intellectual property attorneys, arts publicists, rehearsal room rentals and nonprofit support groups. A special effort should be made to recruit arts technology businesses (both established entrepreneurs and startups) seeking research, testing and manufacturing space for their new designs and products.  

Frequently, these businesses are concentrated at a specific incubator site offering low-cost space and shared administrative services; they can also be placed throughout the district in commercial buildings whose owners offer reduced rental rates to encourage occupancy and foot traffic.

Showcasing the arts. Most current and potential New Jersey arts districts already have at least one major venue — a concert hall, theatre or museum — that presents well-known touring performers or artists. This revenue stream can be supplemented by organizing smaller satellite venues that present programming by lesser-known and local performers and artists emphasizing experimental, low-cost entertainment appealing to a wide audience spectrum. 

In addition to its larger venues, the district should actively promote showcase spaces that draw new artists and new audiences to the community and enhance the ripple effect of entertainment spending through the community’s economy. The smaller spaces will be used extensively by local arts educators for student presentations and exhibits, by local nonprofits for meetings, seminars and training sessions, by local arts developers and entrepreneurs for R&D demonstrations, product unveilings, trade expositions.

The Teaching-Developing-Showcasing matrix allows the district to rely more on assets created, nurtured and sustained within the community and be less dependent on volatile social and economic trends engendered by fluctuating auto gas prices, recessions, seasonal travel, etc.

Preparing a solid arts district foundation requires careful planning and continuing guidance, best achieved by a unified stakeholder alliance of civic and government groups working together to achieve specific goals that shape and sustain the district’s marketing, operational and long-term growth needs:

·      municipal officials at all levels willing to offer support, direction, funding and personnel resources; 

·      a formal, full-time economic development agency that solicits capital and investment for the district and recruits arts businesses, arts producers and individual artists; 

·      a 501(c)(3) local arts council that vigorously markets the district (its artists, arts businesses, arts events, living amenities) while serving as an information clearinghouse for local artists, residents and visitors and a conduit for obtaining grants and tax-exempt donations;

·      a coalition of local artists and arts organizations able to extend their usual arts activity to a more public, more collaborative level.


Scores of academic and government studies over the years have documented the positive benefits the arts deliver to a local economy and the community’s overall quality-of-life. 

As reported by the National Endowment for the Arts, cultural activities annually add more than $700 billion to the American economy (surpassing the construction industry’s $586 billion and transportation/warehousing industry’s $461 billion) while contributing nearly 4.5% toward the nation’s total Gross Domestic Product.

In New Jersey, arts and cultural enterprises generate over $2 billion a year in economic activity while providing more than 100,000 jobs across all 21 counties, according to advocacy group ArtPride New Jersey. 

Assembly Bill A2801 will provide an important marketing tool to help the state’s municipalities reshape their downtowns, neighborhoods and commercial districts into attractive, prosperous, people-friendly places for residents and visitors alike.

As of this writing, 17 states play an active role in defining or creating arts and cultural districts — Arkansas, California, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia. Cultural district bills are currently under consideration in Arizona, Missouri, New York and Pennsylvania.

It is another example of the growing national trend of Business, Government and the Arts finding ways to help each other prosper on behalf of local communities. 

* See text of current Artist District bill.


Lawrence E. McCullough, Ph.D. is Executive Director of Arts Guild New Jersey in Burlington, New Jersey. He has been an organizer of arts and non-profit community ventures since 1973. The former executive director of the Music Umbrella of Austin, administrative director of Humanities Theatre Group at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and founder/president of the Pennsylvania Folk Arts Cooperative in Pittsburgh, he most recently served as executive director-Union County Performing Arts Center, and executive director-Metuchen Area Chamber of Commerce.

© 2017 Lawrence E. McCullough, Ph.D.

originally published: 2017-12-21 00:00:00

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