Arts and culture: A superpower to help people and places prosper

On my business card it says: “Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) – Helping people and places prosper.

Community development organizations like LISC have learned that if we just help individuals and families, but fail to improve their neighborhoods, folks move out once they can afford to. At the same time, if we improve the neighborhood but don’t help the people, they eventually get priced out.

The key is to do both of these very difficult things—helping people and places prosper—simultaneously.

Laura Zabel, the executive director of Springboard for the Arts, talks about how artists, the arts and culture have a “secret superpower.”

Arts and culture changed my life, and I am convinced it can do the same for others—particularly traditionally disenfranchised folks from lower-income communities and communities of color.

More specifically, I believe arts and culture’s superpower can help 1) people and 2) places 3) prosper. Here’s how:


I was trained as a ceramic artist. The process of transforming mud into a usable object that has permanence—perhaps not as beautiful or technically perfect as those in a museum, but in the same vein—gives you a sense of power.

The same is true with painting a mural, composing a song or performing a spoken-word piece. Making art is an act of creation that gives people a sense of agency—the experience that they can change the physical world and the world of the people around them.

The arts also give people a greater sense of belonging and a connection to others with similar background or experience, sometimes called “bonding social capital.”

Just as the work of Mu Performing Arts made it okay for me to be Asian-American in Minnesota, arts can tap into cultural traditions that help people bond with one another through expression of common experience.

Judilee Reed from the Surdna Foundation recently noted that for some artists, particularly from traditionally marginalized populations, the mere act of maintaining cultural traditions is an act of social justice.

It is also critical that we find ways to connect local residents across their differences, sometimes referred to as “bridging social capital.” Because the arts and culture transcend traditional barriers between people such as class, language, race and age, arts and culture are uniquely positioned to connect people from different backgrounds.

It only helps that people don’t approach arts as something to do “because it is good for them,” but because they are FUN, interesting and exciting!

Bridging social capital is also crucial to make connections outside a community. The theme of the recent LISC Annual Report is “It Takes All of Us.” Community redevelopment takes work from local residents and from public officials and from foundations and from the business world and from many others.

Art and culture are a natural connecting point for all these people, regardless of their background or status. In the Twin Cities, for example, Laura loves to point to  neighborhood artist Dianne E’Laine’s “light-rail shuffle,” a dance about ensuring equity in the development of a new light-rail line in St. Paul.

Laura argues that once someone dances the light-rail shuffle with the Mayor, that resident has indelibly changed his or her relationship with and perception of the Mayor.


As we saw in our creative placemaking tour, arts can physically transform a community too, in ways big (a colorful mural splashed across a warehouse) and small (a house’s new iron gate, created at a local studio).

We saw artist housing in Indianapolis and Covington, Kentucky that re-imagined aging and nearly forgotten buildings into a redeveloped community asset.

And we saw studios, theaters and galleries that bring new enterprises to low-income and other distressed places where there is vacant land, empty storefronts and undercapitalized businesses.

Across the country, of course, it’s no secret that the arts can help spur new investment above and beyond the studios and galleries themselves.

The arts and culture can help create “cool, hip and edgy” neighborhoods, boosting the market for housing, commercial districts and businesses. Part of our mission at LISC is to spur private investment in communities that have been forgotten or bypassed, and the arts can be a powerful vehicle to attract that attention.


It’s also no secret, however, that the attention arts and culture bring to a community can also lead to displacement.

For a community to truly prosper because of arts and culture, investment must bring equitable outcomes—especially for the people that live, work and own businesses in the community now. This is theirneighborhood. They should continue to be able to recognize it as their own as new investment occurs and still be able to afford to stay there if they choose.

For LISC, that means that we’re interested in creative placemaking projects that are explicitly designed to help incumbent artists and other arts-related businesses with long-term affordability as the market conditions in the neighborhood change.

Innovative models such as commercial land trusts and regulatory mechanisms, for instance, can help artists and arts organizations “own the dirt” and continue to stay.

We’re also interested in increasing the income of artists and arts-related businesses by help them grow and increase profits.

That’s why we help artists become stronger business-people and we work with other local businesses be “visitor-ready” so they can maximize the opportunities created by the buzz of having a more arts and culture in their neighborhood.

To be clear, while LISC is interested in supporting artists and arts-related businesses—this is about helping everyone in the neighborhood prosper.

That’s why linking creative placemaking strategies with other LISC-supported programs such as investment in affordable housing and helping families increase their income and assets through our Financial Opportunity Centers is so critical.  It helps ensure all residents can prosper in theirneighborhoods.

But preventing financial displacement is only half the battle. Incumbent residents and businesses also have to want to stay. They have to continue to see the neighborhood as a place where they belong—to see the neighborhood as their place.

This is where arts and culture’s superpower to help build social capital for residents to feel a deeper connection to their neighbors can help.

Arts and culture also help strengthen a community’s “sense of place,” so new investment doesn’t overwhelm the existing “brand” and identity of a neighborhood.

I’ve heard Margaret Gee from the Bay Area LISC office say that new investors are welcome to invest in Chinatown as long as they understand that this is, and will always be, Chinatown.

Taken together, that is a lot of benefits for people and places to prosper when arts and culture are in a community. You have to admit—that’s a superpower!

This first appeared on the LISC Institute for Comprehensive Community Development website.