The arts help neighborhoods flourish—it’s a fact

RESEARCH/A team from SP2 uses spatial research techniques to find out whether the arts revitalize neighborhoods.

Susan Seifert and Mark Stern

Susan Seifert and Mark Stern, who run the Social Impact of the Arts Project, put the social sciences to work gathering real, hard evidence that the arts impact peoples’ lives in a positive way.

Everyone knows the arts are good for us, but where's the proof? Mark Stern and Susan Seifert have been unearthing it for more than a decade. Stern is a professor of social welfare in the School of Social Policy and Practice and director of the School's Urban Institute. With Seifert, a city planner, he runs the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP), which uses geographic information systems (GIS) and other innovative research techniques to measure participation in cultural activities and the impact of the arts on community life.

Recently SIAP released the results of a Knight Foundation funded study called the Benchmark Project, which evaluated the current state of cultural participation in North Philadelphia and Camden.

Stern and Seifert launched SIAP to address what they saw as a serious gap in cultural research. "In terms of data on the social impact of the arts," as opposed to its economic or educational benefits, "there was almost nothing," says Stern. Seifert, who had worked as research director for the Greater Philadelphia Council on the Arts, had seen firsthand how arts organizations relied on anecdotal evidence to present their case to funders and policy makers. "We'd go to D.C., to City Council, and all our arguments were anecdotal," she says. "We had lovely persuasive stories but what was missing was quantitative evidence, something you can take to the bank. To influence policy you need numbers."

To get those numbers, Stern and Seifert came up with a geographic strategy that focuses on neighborhoods rather than individuals. Working with the School's Cartographic Modeling Lab, the pair brought together existing data, such as census records, child welfare outcomes and property sales, and layered that with information they gathered from cultural organizations' own databases.

Integral to Stern and Seifert's strategy is a broadening of terms. Arts and culture, by their definition, extends to libraries and science museums, and they include for-profit ventures, when appropriate, as well as the more traditional non-profits. That way, says Seifert, they're not ignoring neighborhood institutions like dance academies that operate in a for-profit mode.
Interviews with community residents and artists rounded out the research. As Stern puts it, "The data is the skeleton, and the interviews put flesh on the bones."

The picture that began to emerge from Stern and Seifert's research—recorded in several studies funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the William Penn Foundation and other agencies—was an encouraging one. Poor neighborhoods with significant levels of cultural presence were three times more likely to experience a decline in poverty and they were less likely to suffer population loss. They were also more likely to remain ethnically diverse—a stabilizing factor in poor neighborhoods—and to have lower levels of truancy and delinquency among their youth.

Having cultural organizations in a neighborhood encourages revitalization, says Stern, and does have an economic impact. But it's not because of the number of tickets sold to a performance or art museum. It's more about "social capital" and the firming up of neighborhoods that takes place when people get involved with their community and feel able to control their environment. "It's not a straight line," says Stern. "You could build a sports stadium and see a more direct effect."

For the Benchmark Project, Stern and Seifert used their geocoding methodology to measure cultural participation rates in Camden and North Philadelphia. Though large cultural institutions are almost entirely absent from these embattled neighborhoods, says Stern, "if you zoom in there's actually quite a lot going on" in terms of involvement with smaller arts venues and cultural activities that take place in the home or at church.

Now that they have a "base line" of cultural participation, Stern and Seifert will continue to study the areas over time to assess the impact of recent grants from the Knight Foundation to 19 neighborhood arts organizations.

Stern, who has spent much of his career researching poverty, finds focusing on culture in urban settings uplifting. "It's not clear that American society is committed to alleviating poverty, but cultural assets can make a poor neighborhood livable."

Originally published on December 8, 2005