Shaping Art & Culture
| 2013 Summer | story by DAISY WAKEFIELD | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |

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At the third meeting of the Cultural District Task Force, a group of artists, art advocates, downtown business leaders, city leaders, and East Lawrence residents sat around a table casting a vision.

It was a brainstorm of ideas that orbited the recently city appointed Cultural District, an area rich with artistic, historical, political, and cultural buildings, businesses, and landmarks that encompasses much of downtown and East Lawrence. Some ideas were pragmatic: installing proper lighting, making roads walkable or bike-able, coordinating public transport. Other ideas dealt with branding: defining a narrative, engaging stakeholders, avoiding “Disney-fying” the area. Complications (securing funding, ensuring sustainability, addressing neighborhood gentrification) were also discussed.

And of course there were ideas about making art and growing culture. But the Cultural District is more about making use and highlighting what is already existing, rather than creating new things. In the nine by nine block bordered by the Kansas River to the north, Kentucky Street on the west, the Boroughs Creek Trail on the east, and 15th Street on the South, there are approximately 80 historic sites, galleries, studios or art schools. The hope of the task force is to create practical and story-telling pathways between the sites.

“We are taking existing elements in the district and refining and redesigning them to produce an unique end product.” Bob Schumm, chairman of the task force, says. “We are not bringing in stuff from outside, but redefining the use of what’s already there.”
The creation of a cultural district compliments a National Endowment of the Arts initiative called creative placemaking, in which “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” (Creative Placemaking Executive Summary, 2010)

group“In creative placemaking, we capitalize on what make a place, or a district, a neighborhood unique,” says Susan Tate, Director the Lawrence Arts Center and key proponent of the designation of the Cultural District. “Part of our vision is not to change what is there but to connect what’s there through pathways and narrative and branding. What we look for is cross sector support, shared language between non profits, artists, the public, business leaders, chamber of commerce, and elected officials. We see the presence of robust cultural arts district as a plus to our entire community and region. It improves livability, reputation, and in this case tells a story about Lawrence that currently exists.”

“It is vital that Lawrence look to what is indigenous as a resource for attracting high tech and knowledge-based jobs,” Tate says. “This is an area where Lawrence is struggling even though it should be a strength. If we can tell the story of what’s happening here for creative based people, we can create a narrative for high tech knowledge-based corporations, and they will be attracted here.”

That cross sector support is critical to the eventual success of Cultural District. Fears have been voiced, particularly from East Lawrence artists and residents, about possible gentrification of neighborhoods, driving up space rentals and pushing out the lower socioeconomic sector of that community. The task force is looking to address this concern, asking representatives from the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association to join in the conversation and planning public forums in the future after recommendations have been made.

The creation of the Cultural District was a development intended to bolster the application of a grant made jointly by the city and the Lawrence Arts Center to ArtPlace, a collaboration of 13 national and regional foundations and six of the nation’s largest banks. Lawrence was in the top 100 of 3000 grant applicants, but did not make the final cut. City and Lawrence Arts Center leaders hope another year’s cultivation of the Cultural District will put Lawrence in a much stronger position to win a grant, which ranges from $150K to $500K. The Lawrence Arts Center is still in the running for a $75K Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission grant.

Other funding possibilities for the maintenance of the Cultural District will be suggested with the task force’s recommendations in October. The city will likely be called on to provide funding for improvements to street infrastructure. Business engagement will also be a key factor in funding, as they can provide reasonable or free space to local artists to showcase their work.

Creating a strong narrative within the Cultural District has several potential economic development benefits, the most basic layer being additional tourism dollars. But Tate says that the benefits of developing a “creative economy” can go much deeper, with money generated through creative-based work industries. She suggests that other cities that have developed successful cultural districts have seen their overall economies boosted. ■

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