Does our arts scene makes us a hub, cluster or something else?
In a previous article, we defined two phrases that bubble up consistently in community development conversations: creative placemaking and cultural district. Still at the dictionary, let’s look at two other words, as they relate to cultural district: hub and cluster.
While you will detect overlap among definitions for cultural district, hub and cluster, there are distinctions that seem important to parse. Working from the specific to the abstract: If you look at a common city map, you might find a cultural district defined by color or borders (Google Newport, R.I.). Were you to read about a group of geographically connected cities and towns, you might observe that one of those communities seems to serve as hub (see Kansas City, Mo., not Kansas City, Kansas, or St. Joseph, or Topeka, or Columbia). If you look at a planner’s schematic, you might see evidence of a particular cluster of design studios, or of immigrant communities or solar panel producers.
A commonly used definition for a cultural district is: a well-recognized, labeled, mixed-use area of a settlement in which a high concentration of cultural facilities serves as the anchor of attraction. Nearly every word in this careful definition (used in several best practices sources) describes a particular element which, taken with the definition’s other elements n, adds up to "cultural district." Any one element by itself does not fully evoke cultural district.
A cultural hub, on another hand, may share certain district qualities: mixed-use, well-recognized, concentration, but hubs tend not to be officially labeled, nor are their purposes primarily as anchors. Cultural hubs tend to appear, to somehow just happen, and tend to remain amorphous. Their influence and recognition fluctuate over time and seem particularly susceptible to contemporaneous reputation. Currently, Berlin is pulsing as Europe’s most prominent cultural hub, whereas Florence once shone brightly. In New York, Brooklyn is speedily gaining attention compared with Manhattan’s vibrant command.
A cluster can be defined as a stronger than "normal" presence of specific phenomena -- for example illnesses or diseases, businesses dependent on specific labor skills, customers or raw materials: think here of artists, immigrants from the same ethnic group or even gas stations at the intersection of highways.
In Brattleboro, an example of a creative cluster is Cotton Mill, those buildings owned and fostered by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation. The combination of an understanding landlord, flexible, robust space suited to studio work and serendipitous interactions -- "networking" among creative people -- are all attributes of a "cluster."
Zooming out from a specific neighborhood such as Cotton Mill Hill, a cultural assets map reveals an "arts" cluster evident in Brattleboro more so than in many similar-sized communities. For 50 years Brattleboro has enjoyed a growing reputation as a community where the arts seem valued and part of everyday life.
Might these definitions guide Brattleboro toward its future?
The CoreArts Project is exploring forms of engagement between government, nonprofits and business, as well as the community’s stated values (the Town Plan) to answer questions and thus help ensure a vibrant, sustainable community, with the arts at the center.
The CoreArts Project is a three-part exploration into the potential development of a cultural district. This community study is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to local partners, Town of Brattleboro and the Arts Council of Windham County.
This article is part of a short series presented periodically in the Reformer. For more information about the CoreArts Project, visit www.brattcorearts.org.
Zon Eastes, a longtime resident of Guilford and advocate for the arts, works at the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier.
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