Keeping it Local and Equitable
Large-scale public planning efforts to inject the arts into revitalization efforts have the danger of leading to gentrification (Grodach et al., 2014). Most evidence is based on case studies, which makes generalization difficult. However, specific types of artistic activities are better linked to gentrification. Fine arts are associated with revitalization, whereas commercial arts activities lead to gentrification. Fine arts areas have stable slow growth, and commercial arts clusters trend to undergo rapid change (Grodach et al., 2014).
Gentrification is what pushed the Double Edge Theatre from its original home in Boston to its current 100-acre site on a former dairy farm in Ashfield, Massachusetts. According to Matthew Glassman, the theatre’s Co-Artistic Director, the group was facing a ‘bloated’ economy in Boston that ‘forced people to the outside’ when they moved to the farm in 1994. Matthew said that their Farm Center ‘creates a new narrative for community’. By offering artists training and living space, the artist community becomes engaged in a ‘living culture’ that encompasses the local community.
Ashfield, like Shelburne Falls, is also in Franklin County, Massachusetts. The area had once been home to a larger number of family farms. From
1987 to 1997, the number of dairy farms in Franklin County decreased 20% and the farm labour force dropped 70% overall (Lass et al., 2000). Regarding how the arts can alleviate poverty in rural areas, Glassman stated that artists change the perception of what is possible in a community. The arts can help people move beyond what is considered to be the traditional economy to an ‘economy of happiness’.
Glassman went on to say that the arts bring purpose and meaning to a community and give people a perception of abundance rather than scarcity. Artistic activity, particularly in the theatre arts, requires collaboration, partnership and mutuality. These values, he said, are in line with the traditional values of a farming community. As the artist group came to occupy and renovate some of the oldest farm buildings in the state, they transformed an old farm that was vulnerable and changed the notion of what was thought to be possible for the area, which led to community pride.
The sentiment is echoed by Guingane (2010) of Burkina Faso, West Africa. Guingane found that dramatic art can change the way people view their economic plight. She believes the problem of poverty is one of misdiagnosis. People are not underdeveloped, poor or in debt. They have lost the values that have defined their culture and structured their lives. Dramatic art leads to trust in neighbours and the courage to fight for their way of life. The change comes through a sense of mission, and the mission is transmitted through information, education and drama.
The Double Edge Theatre was part of a Rural Initiative, which promoted locally made products to their theatre audiences. Their business partners shared their values, forming a partnership between local arts and local industry to promote the ‘richness’ of the region. Glassman said that the artists were serving as a catalyst for change as they took existing values of collaboration, hard work and community pride, and repurposed an old farm and began the process of building a local economy network, which included sweat equity, the gift economy and bartering as central notions. Cultural organizations naturally build connections between sectors, which is central to the concept of creative placemaking. Farmers, like artists, do not practise their craft because it is lucrative.
Building a strong local economy means building upon a diverse set of goods and services that are cultivated from within the community. Schuman (2007) writes that local businesses spend more locally and therefore increase wealth and jobs for their community. This is the opposite of the more traditional economic development model of attracting single large multinational employers to a region, which can easily leave when the economic winds change.
The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (https://bealocal- ist.org/) suggests that real security comes from community instead of the Darwinian model of survival of the fittest. As proponents of the buy- local movement, they support commerce among local business networks, believing that local communities are strong and resilient. Because art is usually locally made, and much of it is produced collaboratively, the principles of partnership and sharing, which are central to buying local, apply largely to the art scene. Having a diversity of many local interesting providers also makes the locale attractive to tourists.