Radiance Blog

How Allentown is using art to shape its downtown

In 2015, SeanKing and his colleagues reached out to Corona to learn more about creating a cultural plan for their city of Allentown. We spent more than a year working together to produce the Allentown Arts &Culture 20:21 Plan.It has been so interesting to see how cities of all sizes are using arts to revitalize their downtowns. I was very excited to catch up with Sean recently and hear about what Allentown has done since revealing their cultural plan.Below is an interview that captures some of the highlights of how Allentown is using art to shape its downtown.

To start us off,can you tell us a bit about your background and role in arts and culture in Allentown?

For over 25 years, I’ve been working in the world of marketing for non-profits and small to medium sized businesses as the principal of my own consulting firm. In 2013, an opportunity arose through one of my clients to become involved with the revitalization of the city of Allentown which had launched a plan for $1 billion worth of reinvestment from a state tax program designed to reinvigorate Pennsylvania’s third largest city. I had little experience with concepts such as “arts-led economic development” and “creative place making” prior to venturing into the cultural planning process with the team at Corona Insights.

My role in 2013 working as a consultant led to an invitation to connect with the other arts leaders in the city in a meeting with the lead developer and other funders to discuss the role of arts and culture in the city’s rebirth. The topic of the first meeting was creative place making and the conversation focused on how arts and culture could be infused into the coming development of office space, a 10,000-seat arena and market rate housing. It was clear that the arts leaders needed to connect with one another and to create role in this redevelopment process and eventually I began serving as the convener of these groups which led to cooperative marketing and fundraising efforts.

At the same time as these projects were launching, a tax credit program, known as “Upside Allentown”, was being unveiled to support redevelopment in the neighborhoods around the main business district. The blocks in these historical neighborhoods had fallen on hard times and through the program, funds were made available to address needs in housing, physical improvements, education, public safety, economic development, marketing and of course, arts and culture. Upside Allentown became the source of the funding for the original needs assessment and cultural planning process, as well as serving as the initial investment into our first Signature Initiative, an Artist-in-Residence program. From there, we’ve been able to cultivate and leverage funding from other sources to continue to expand the role of the arts in Allentown.

What do you think arts and culture has done for Allentown since the cultural plan was unveiled?What are you most proud of so far?

Since the adoption of the Arts & Culture 20:21 Plan there have been several major impacts on the organization and the city as a whole.

Prior to our project, no less than eight previous plans for the arts had been delivered to the arts organizations, city council, mayor and funders. Needless to say, none of them ever gained much traction. From the very beginning, it was our intention to work from the 20:21 Plan and not let it sit on the shelf and collect dust. In short, for the first time in decades there is a general plan for the arts for people to reference, and if we follow our plan, we will be able to leverage our success into a comprehensive plan for the arts for the entire city in the coming years.

The 20:21 Plan has provided a framework of components for programs and initiatives that came directly from the residents and guests of the city. Using Corona Insight’s methodology of listening at the grassroots level has given us credibility when speaking with arts organizations, artists, funders and city officials. One of our favorite quotes from the original series of focus groups with residents came from a recently relocated NYC resident of color who said, “I know there are arts buildings (such as the museum and symphony hall), but I have no idea what goes on in there.” This statement has become a rallying point for arts organizations to work on connecting with the community.

Advocacy has become one of our main areas of interest and work recently. As we’ve continued to evolve as an organization with the 20:21 Plan as our source document, we’ve determined that our best efforts would be put towards those projects and initiatives that the arts community, including artists and arts organizations, cannot accomplish on their own. Therefore, we’ve begun doing more work in advocating for the arts with government and municipal planning officials, data analyses of the region’s creative economy, while also offering professional development for artists, capacity building for event organizers and collaborative marketing efforts.

Most importantly, we’ve raised the specter of the arts across the city at a time when there were some major challenges facing the city government and when redevelopment was occurring at breakneck speed. It was a goal of ours to simply have a seat at the table, no matter the project or role. The arts are now being invited to meetings regarding all facets of the city’s operations with the opportunity to contribute what we call “artistic solutions to urban challenges.”

Since the delivery of the Allentown Art & Culture 20:21 Plan, the 20:21 stakeholders group has evolved into the Cultural Coalition of Allentown, a 501c3 organization with a Board of twelve local and regional leaders and two part-time employees. We have seen the budget commitment to the arts from city entities grow from $0 in 2014 to an effective budget of $150,000 in 2018 with additional growth planned in 2019 and beyond.

Internally, the 20:21 Plan has become a touchstone as an organization when making decisions regarding projects with which we want to engage or dismiss. Making certain the Plan was a living, breathing document has been a goal of ours as we revisit the document formally once per year and several times throughout the year in determining the direction or pursuit of new goals and initiatives.

What recommendations do you have for other communities, especially ones similar in size to Allentown, who want to use arts and culture to revitalize their community? Are there any challenges that they should be aware of?

Allentown is certainly not unique. It is a city of 120,000 people which has recently grown in diversity with Hispanic, Syrian and African-American residents bringing their unique heritage and culture to the city. The challenges of bridging these different cultures and making sure that the redevelopment includes everyone and leaves no one behind is an obstacle that cities of all sizes in the late 2010’s are attempting to solve.

While Allentown does benefit from a Neighborhood Investment Zone (NIZ) which has helped fund all of the major construction and development, none of these funds have been ear marked for support of the arts.  All funding that has come to the arts has been organic in nature but only merely percentages of what is spent on other economic development undertakings.

Unfortunately, arts funding for the sake of funding the arts is dead. Unless arts organizations are connected in some way to economic development, education or healthcare, the future is rather gloomy as funders look towards ways for their investments to make as much impact as possible.

A confluence of initiatives including Allentown starting the cultural planning process at the same time a major redevelopment was occurring combined with a determination to connect economic development to the arts can be replicated in other communities. The combination of three or more of these or different elements allows for the arts to fight for their fair share of the economic improvements occurring in cities nationwide. The hardest part is taking the first step.

Creating a culture of collaboration was first and foremost before we were able to begin implementing even the needs assessment and cultural planning process. For Allentown, there were four main elements needed from any community before embarking on an arts-led economic development strategy.

First there needs to be a catalyst. This individual, project or organization gets people talking and moving away from the status quo. Second, communities need the data and research to know exactly what is being said about the arts on the streets, in the homes and schools and at the highest level of government and businesses. The third component is a sherpa to help guide the project through its many facets and to lead the way in convening ongoing and consistent conversations about the arts. Lastly, a strong network of stakeholders who, by staying connected and moving forward with one vision, will start to turn ideas and concepts into realistic and practical outcomes.

Obviously, this is a gross simplification of the time and energy that needs to be expended to reach your goals. One of the most significant challenges we met and still continue to wrestle with is the splintered leadership within the arts. The arts institutions must remain strong to provide structure, so artists and independent galleries and organization can exist and thrive. However, getting buy-in at all levels is extremely difficult and is a never-ending job as there will always be new players moving into the market, elected officials to be voted in and out of office, company mergers, artist egos, difference of opinions and everything else associated with the natural ebb and flow of the economy in a given region.

Resources will inevitably come up as part of the discussion, but as a wise counselor once advised “Money always follows great ideas.” It is up to the artists, arts administrators and communities as a while to find common ground and reimagine what is possible through the arts in their cities and towns.

Thanks to Sean for updating us on the cultural plan at work in Allentown!



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