Leveraging Assets: How Small Budget Arts Activities Benefit Neighborhoods
March 1, 2003 | Grantee Publications | Arts & Culture in Chicago

Executive Summary

This report demonstrates how small budget arts activities play a role in leveraging both local and non-local assets for neighborhood improvement. Throughout this report we shift the focal point from the “art product” to the activity around it.  We saw how such activity connects people to resources and to each other, and enables local problem solving.  This report draws attention to the social networks that exist within local communities and encourages further exploration of ways to develop these networks. Our research synthesizes social science research on social capital, arts production, and neighborhood capacity building.

We surveyed 10 neighborhoods: Logan Square, Kenwood, Oakland, Woodlawn, Grand Boulevard, North Lawndale, Rogers Park, Uptown, Little Village and Humboldt Park. Arts activities in this study are regularly organized activities, which are open to the public, including visual art exhibitions, theater, dance, poetry and literary presentations, arts education, art therapy and community festivals. We sought out arts activities with budgets under $100,000. We gathered qualitative data on arts activities through review of public records, observation of local arts activities and interviews with 126 people including artists, directors of small arts organizations, staff at community development organizations, community leaders and residents. Through interviews and observations, we sought to understand a participant’s view of his/her world and the meanings he/she attaches to arts activity within the neighborhood. We also gathered statistical data on each neighborhood. The report includes: a review of relevant research, comparison of the 10 neighborhoods, interview-based descriptions of how arts activities build capacity, overviews of each neighborhood, including maps showing locations of 111 community arts activities and snapshots of organizations with budgets under $100,000 found in the target areas.   

This study is exploratory in that: 1) it is the first formal study designed to map arts activities in these neighborhoods, 2) it is the first to attempt to connect small budget arts activities to neighborhood improvement, and 3) it presents a range of information on the benefits of such activities in several different contexts, rather than measuring specific outcomes in specific environments. Our findings could serve as a point of departure for future studies measuring specific neighborhood-level outcomes.   

Among our findings are the following:

  • Arts activities leverage assets to benefit local neighborhoods.   
  • Arts activities play a unique role in building social networks in neighborhoods, they enable access to new resources and they build civic dialogue.  
  • Arts activities provide unique opportunities to build and incubate social capital; social capital helps local areas and organizations within these areas mobilize resources to improve the quality of life.
  • Broad networks that include people trained in tacit skills of art making, as well as people with connections to the social, political and financial networks of neighborhood environments, enable the ability of arts activities to exist.   
  • Local differences influence the number and type of arts activities.   

This research was designed in part to inform small grants programs for  small, local, arts organizations.  The categories we identify – Providing Access to Resources, Enabling Problem Solving and Building Social Relationships – could be used to structure a funding program designed to develop neighborhood capacity through arts activities.  Requests for Proposals (RFPs) could solicit information on networks of support engaged in local arts activities as well as employ the categories we have identified to locate the impact of particular activities.

Among the types of questions posed could be:  

  • What resources do you provide to your local community?
  • How does your activity build social relationships within your local community?  
  • How does your activity serve as a bridge to other communities?
  • How might your activity engage people in dialogue that enhances civic involvement necessary for problem solving?
  • What other types of problem-solving might your activity address?

This study has both local and national relevance to social science researchers, philanthropists, policy makers, art organizations, artists, and community leaders. Our findings may seem familiar to those who have worked in the arts, but may not be as obvious to some business owners, policy makers or community developers. While evidence is plentiful of the economic impact of large budget activities in creating jobs, and attracting tourist dollars and corporate investment, little has been done to look at the local impact of small budget activities. In fact, because of the way such activities are organized with limited staff and funding, they are often overlooked as part of the fabric of the art world and community life. This report draws attention to the social networks that exist within local communities that enable small-budget arts activities and encourages further exploration of ways to build these networks.

This study provides some insight into what activities exist and how they benefit their local area. A factor analysis with a larger sample and additional demographic factors would provide more conclusive evidence as to what factors enable existence of arts activities. Our approach emphasized qualitative methods to provide insight into the neighborhood context and to provide a glimpse into the worldview of the participants that create and sustain these arts activities. Through these methods we are able to provide a rich and multi-dimensional view of locally-based arts activities.


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