I often hear it said that San Jose lacks culture. I’d like to say that the speaker is invariably not from around these parts. But more often than not, I hear it from San Joseans. It’s reached the point where I’m not surprised anymore. In fact, I have a speech polished and ready to go for these very occasions. When you’re wearing an Arts Commissioner badge, it never hurts to be prepared. Thankfully, some news arrived at last week’s monthly commission meeting that will add some heft to my argument.
ArtPlace recently recognized downtown San Jose as one of America’s Top ArtPlaces in 2013. ArtPlace is an initiative of national and regional foundations and major banks to accelerate what’s called “creative placemaking.” In other words, they facilitate the integration of artistic design and urban development. America’s Top ArtPlaces is an unranked list of neighborhoods in America’s largest 44 metropolitan areas where the arts are central to bringing people together.
The process of choosing the Top 44 involved a search of 33,000 ZIP codes to find areas that scored highest on a set of six indicators. But it wasn’t as simple as tallying the number of arts organizations or patrons. Indeed, four of the indicators had to do with the “vibrancy” of a neighborhood:
• Number of retail and service businesses
• Percentage of independent businesses
• Neighborhood Walk Score (or how convenient it is to get around on foot)
• Percentage of workers in creative occupations living in the neighborhood
• Number of arts-related non-profits
• Number of arts-related businesses
Downtown San Jose received high marks for its success in combining the arts, artists and creative venues with small businesses, restaurants and “walkability.” And in case you’re wondering, the final scores took family income into account; so affluent neighborhoods didn’t skew the results. In other words, we didn’t bribe anybody to make the cut.
The credit for this honor should be shared by everyone who lives, works and plays in our downtown urban village. But no small bit of praise is due to the work of San Jose’s economic development team, particularly the hard working staff of the Office of Cultural Affairs, who continue to do more with less—setting a good example for other departments. OCA has had a significant impact on the two artistic indicators in the ArtPlace study: the number of arts-related nonprofits and arts-related businesses.
Through grants, trainings, subsidies for cultural facilities and strategic planning, the city of San Jose has nurtured the development of countless nonprofit arts groups of all shapes, sizes and communities. And recently, OCA launched a pilot grants program to build capacity for local businesses that serve the arts community. This innovative use of available funds to stimulate economic development through the arts is a wonderful example of a phrase du jour among politicians, “public-private partnerships.” And it’s another reason we’ve been singled out by ArtSpace. But San Jose’s involvement with ArtPlace doesn’t end with a plaque on a wall at City Hall commemorating this award.
Of the $26.9 million in grants that ArtPlace has awarded to 76 organizations in 46 U.S. communities, $1.6 million has come to the city of San Jose. Absent these grants, the city could not afford to support the Illuminating Downtown Project, the recent makeover of Parque de los Pobladores (a.k.a Gore Park) in the South First Street area, or the new ZERO1 Garage. San Jose’s partnerships with organizations like ZERO1 intrigued ArtSpace. Downtown was specifically recognized for its unique confluence of art, technology and environmental sustainability. This blend is starting to become a trend, one that makes a lot of sense in the Capital of Silicon Valley.
More and more, arts organizations are recognizing that the future of culture is about using technology to engage people where they live, and draw them into a physical (or virtual) space to experience art together. Our increasingly social world has provided the arts community with the tools to tap into the creativity nascent in every human soul. I’m excited to be at the epicenter of this evolution, and I’ll be sure to keep you apprised of all that’s on the horizon.
Peter Allen is a first-term Arts Commissioner and a native of San Jose. His opinions are his own.