Beyond what is reflected in sheer economics, ‘the arts’, according to Jenkins, ‘can help community members look themselves in the eye and be in control of what is coming next’. On the psychosocial level, participation in artistic activity leads to self-affirmation, reparation (correction of mistakes) and transference (of artistic skills for use in other parts of their lives), and is a preventive and protective resource to overcome problems (Daher and Haz, 2011). Skills in fine and applied arts contribute to self-reliance, thereby reducing poverty levels and contributing to national development (Palmer, 2014).
The arts directly support local economies by providing jobs (Americans for the Arts, 2015), revitalizing small post-industrial towns by drawing in other creative types and businesses (Ryan-Vollmar, 2014), increasing property values (for better or for worse) (Grodach et al., 2014), and creating the attractions and events that are the basis of cultural tourism (Merfeld-Langston, 2013). A high proportion of artists are self-employed (National Endowment for the Arts, 2011). Fine arts and crafts making are independent and mobile ways to make a living, particularly in rural areas where traditional employers have relocated and moved their jobs overseas (Pierce and Schott, 2012). Artists are often the first to occupy the dilapidated or even abandoned buildings of the deserted factories and farms. In the process, they can trigger economic revitalization, increasing rents, and drawing in more commercial interest. Artists attract other creatives, who enjoy being in artists’ company and spend money on art; this strengthens a virtuous circle of production, consumption and participation (Florida, 2002). The dollars spent on art stay longer in the community because most art is locally made. A vibrant arts scene plays a role in establishing a place as a destination. Visitors are attracted to the art and cultural events as well as to the eclectic artist community members who gather in the coffee shops, music festivals, galleries and on the sidewalks.
A participatory artistic culture is intertwined with the social fabric of communities. It builds connections between people and increases social capital. It has effects on all community capitals as well: in addition to financial, social and cultural capitals, it improves human capital, by increasing people’s creative skills; political capital, by proving neutral ground for political discussions; built capital, through adaptive reuse of old buildings; and natural capital, by using green space to display art (Delconte et al., 2016).
The results from this exploratory study show that, beyond the direct economic or community-building effects they might have, the arts serve as a catalyst to move communities beyond periods of distress to their next iteration. Robert McBride said that the arts transform places, at least partly by promoting community-based values, such as tolerance, openness, simplicity and respect. Mathew Glassman pointed to their ability to foster traditional values of partnership, collaboration and mutuality. Meri Jenkins stated that an art-based culture can lead people to take control of the narrative of their place - to be in control of what’s coming next. As factories leave towns and family farms in the surrounding landscape are sold, all four of the informants for this study said that art plays the role of helping community members to take stock of their values, skills and assets, pointing them towards new ways to express themselves, conduct business and move beyond hardship in their rural environment. The Double Edge
Theatre is using these principles as it plays a central role in triggering a new rural economy in its old dairy farm in Ashfield. Similarly, RAMP is helping to transform Bellows Falls by injecting the same values into the ecosystem of the historic New England mill town.
As the artists and agencies work at the grassroots level to change perceptions and build community values and cohesiveness, they are simultaneously active participants in the traditional economy and, increasingly, in government. The patchwork of cultural expression throughout rural areas can potentially be stitched together to form an attractive product for the cultural tourist. As Meri Jenkins explained, connecting outlying artists and arts venues with urban cultural districts is one strategy to create a cross-flow of visitors between rural and urban settings. In the case of Massachusetts, cultural districts are listed and mapped on the state tourism website (massvacation.com) to give potential visitors an overall perspective of rural and urban options for travellers.
Critics challenge the assumption that using the arts and culture intentionally as a tool for economic development and cultural tourism leads to a concomitant decrease in poverty. If anything, they say the bohemian culture leads to gentrification, displacement of the poor and a plethora of trendy shops. However, Markusen (2014) refutes this notion, saying that gentrification is due to generalized market pressure that is often developer led. Other researchers have found little evidence of artist-led gentrification (Markusen and Gadwa, 2010b; Gadwa and Muessig, 2011)
This preliminary study was limited primarily by the sample size. Only four informants were interviewed. Also, the study does not provide empirical evidence of the relationship of the arts to poverty reduction. However, the majority of informants said that the arts serve a role in helping communities relieve their distress, if not strictly through economic means. This is not to say that a shift in values and perception can be a substitute for the hardship of economic poverty. However, the social infrastructure that the arts community brings, with its emphasis on civic engagement, interdependence, diverse human capital and shared experiences, might indeed help to ‘alleviate’ economic troubles by making communities more liveable and resilient, and recasting the dominant social narrative of accumulation.