Strengthening and Creating the Urban Arts District

From my observations, downtowns across America live and die by their arts institutions. I know this is the case in Greensboro. We are currently debating the need for a new performing arts center downtown, thanks to the need to update our current civic center auditorium and the opportunity to pay down debts.

Yet, if we are not careful, this will become a misguided initiative, much like Nathaniel Hood has stated in his tome against entertainment districts. I believe that arts districts must be organic and cater to already established needs. Thankfully, there are arts leaders in Greensboro who are also like-minded.

This past week, (July 8-14 of 2012) I ran across an article in the News and Record, our local major paper. A former mayor of ours, Keith Holiday, is now  the executive director of the Carolina Theater, a historic venue that hosts old movies, the Greensboro Opera and a few other local dance, drama, and music productions. Occasionally the venue gets national performers such as Roberta Flack for intimate theater style shows that can’t quite fill the civic center auditorium.

In this article, he touts a plan to build a bigger theater space, similar to the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), directly behind the Carolina Theater space. This space is a parking lot owned by the City of Greensboro. The article above has a rendering of what this space would look like. Also included would be a new black box theater on the top two floors of the facility and an outdoor performance space between the two venues.

While this does create a large scale complex, management would be in two hands. These hands are the Carolina Theater(which is nonprofit) and the City of Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department(government). Also, there are two other theater companies, that also operate as nonprofits, downtown. Combining these with the existing art galleries, dance studios and live music venues, Downtown Greensboro already has an organic arts district. This arts district also incorporates public space and public engagement.

Honestly, because of the abundance of these spaces, we really only need the DPAC sized venue. In addition to the downtown spaces, the universities in town have performance venues. Although not considered traditional arts venues, the NewBridge Bank Park (home to our minor league baseball team), as well as Center City Park, are also worthy of being considered performance space in the downtown area. And then there’s the coliseum complex where the aforementioned civic center auditorium, as well as an arena and several flexible event spaces also reside.

Still, as stated in the News and Record article, there is need for more arts space. There are many people creating and crafting and there can never be enough space for them. In addition, they are generating jobs and a new economy. Coupled with the growing crafters movement, bloggers like myself and traditional creative fields such as architecture, Florida’s creative class is actually alive and well.

Ultimately, an arts district:
– Builds from the bottom-up
– Incorporates and take stock of existing venues, uses and companies
– Thinks ahead, but incorporates all performers and connoisseurs past and present.
– Entertains and feeds the soul

Note that none of these factors mention economic development. I know that this is the cause célèbre of arts venues right now in light of being harassed and pressed by government entities and funders to be self-sustaining. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be a good financial steward. Yet, I am charging cities to think about creating cultural capital and cultural value, then watch the money pour in.
And as I’ve stated before, you cannot be willing to create unless you are willing to fail first.

Since this article was first published, a plan was enacted to use space formally utilized by the YWCA, adjacent to the central branch of the Greensboro Public Library, after a public charette was held to solicit feedback from residents. Many resident-generated ideas ended up in the final recommendation from that charette.