Artists- Economic Alfalfa

According to the recent Congressional debates about the economic stimulus package, the arts apparently make no significant contribution to the improvement of the economy.

I guess that is why Philadelphia’s South Street district has repeatedly owed its revitalization to artists.

According to an Associated Press piece the City of Brotherly Love is looking to have artists bring activity back to South Street for a third time.

Once it was a thriving entertainment district, then the artists were booted in favor of a planned highway that ultimately never emerged. The artists returned and enacted the old story of making the neighborhood so chic, they couldn’t afford to live there any more. Now there are empty storefronts again and the artists are being invited back rent free. All they need to do is pay utilities. The hope, of course, is that the activity will resuscitate the neighborhood again. The article makes it pretty clear that no one should expect to keep their space once conditions improve to the point where someone will actually pay to occupy the space.

“No-rent leases will be signed for two months, with month-to-month renewals, and new empty spaces will be found for the artists if their studio finds a paying renter.”

I guess I am feeling a little cynical on many fronts in regard to this story. First, I obviously resent the idea that the arts don’t contribute to the economy. As I read this article though, I wanted to be happy that people acknowledge the value of the arts to their community, but it seems like the recognition is just utilitarian. The lease arrangement feels like crop rotation. You plant artists in depleted soil and as soon as it is enriched enough to grow your target crop, you move the artist to the next depleted place. It is especially poignant for a place like South Street where artists get pushed out, return and are pushed out again.

If artists go into this with their eyes open and promote the hell out of themselves so they can make as much money as they can before they get displaced, then it can be a winning proposition. Whatever money they make becomes the seed money for developing their work elsewhere. Maybe all the artists taking up residency on South Street can get together and start planning what neighborhood to take over when they get evicted. Go to a place that has a couple decades before things get too expensive to operate so their money will last awhile. (Hello guys, Camden, NJ needs you!)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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