Jeremy Frey Porcupine basket, c/o Maine Indian Basketmakers Association                                          Jeremy Frey Porcupine basket c/o Maine Indian Basketmakers Association

Rural Cultural Roundtable at the Archibald Bush Foundation, 332 Minnesota Street, Suite E-900, St Paul, MN, June 28, 2011 9:00 am – 1:00 pm

For Rural Roundtable report click here

This is part of a series of roundtables about the power of place-based culture as integral to equitable, democratic, and culturally vital communities. This roundtable aims to:

  • Demonstrate the role of place-based culture and creative industries in rural communities through diverse examples (with a broad definition of arts, culture, and creative industry).
  • Identify hub organizations; alliances; and other mechanisms, such as naturally occurring cultural districts that support cultural vitality as part of sustainable communities.
  • Identify policies and funding and financing strategies that support this work and those that create barriers.
  • Make recommendations and identify how to move these recommendations into action.


 Framing the Day 9:00 – 9:35  



 Catherine Jordan, Director, Bush Foundation’s InCommons

 Roundtable history, format, and focus

 Caron Atlas, Director, Arts & Democracy Project and Arts + Community Change Initiative

 Amalia Deloney, Grassroots Policy Director, Center for Media Justice

 Rural public policy framing

 Dee Davis, President, Center for Rural Strategies

Examples 9:35 – 11:15 

We will ground our conversation in a diverse range of six examples including networks, hub organizations, historic sites, and cultural districts. They address themes including keeping tradition alive, creating opportunities for young people to stay in and contribute to their communities, cultural economies, working across state lines, and cross sector partnerships.

(Each presentation is 5-minutes with 5 minutes response and 5 minutes clarifying questions.)

There will be a 10-minute break in the middle of the examples.

Llano Grande Center for Research and Development, Edcouch, TX

Presenter: Delia Pérez, Associate Director, Llano Grande Center for Research and Development 

Response: Julie Ristau, Co-Director, On The Commons 

Appalshop / STAY Project, Whitesburg, KY

Presenter: Ada Smith, Program Coordinator, Appalachian Media Institute, Appalshop and founding member, STAY Project (Stay Together Appalachian Youth)

Response: Peter Pennekamp, Executive Director, Humboldt Area Foundation 

Penn Center, St. Helena Island, SC

Presenter: Emory Shaw Campbell, Executive Director Emeritus, Penn Center and Founder, Gullah Heritage Consulting Services 

Response: Erik Takeshita, Senior Program Officer, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)

Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, Old Town ME

Presenter: Theresa Secord, Executive Director, Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance (MIBA)

Response: Isabel Broyld, U7 Project Manager, Neighborhood Development Center  

Festival Theatre, St Croix, WI

Presenters: Danette Olsen, Executive Director, Festival Theatre and Amy Frischmon, Vice President, Wild Mountain Taylors Falls Recreation 

Response: Tom Borrup, Principal, Creative Community Builders 

Arnaudville Experiment and LA Department of Cultural Recreation and Tourism, LA

Presenter: Gaye Hamilton, Cultural District Program Manager, LA Department of Cultural Recreation and Tourism

Response: Anne Gadwa, Principal, Metris Arts Consulting 

Increasing Impact 11:15 – 11:45


Ann Markusen, Director, Arts Economy Initiative and Project on Regional and Industrial Economics, University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and Principal, Markusen Economic Research Services

Communication and documentation

Discussion initiated by Mimi Pickering, Director, Community Media Initiative, Appalshop and jesikah maria ross, Founding Director, UC Davis Art of Regional Change 


Discussion initiated by participating funders

Open Roundtable Discussion 11:45 – 12:15

Recommendations in Small Groups 12:15 – 12:45

Identify and prioritize

  • Recommendations
  • What’s needed to implement them
  • Next steps

Report Back and Closing 12:45 – 1:00

Lunch and informal discussion 


In the spring of 2009 the Arts + Community Change Initiative (now part of the Arts & Democracy Project) began working with various partners to explore the power of place-based arts and culture as an integral part of equitable, democratic, and culturally vital communities. The Initiative was responding to the vision, sustained needs, and creative resilience of low-income communities. It was also responding to a moment in time when the economic crisis and heightened civic engagement encouraged people to rethink how creativity can be part of a transformative vision for the future.

We launched a series of cross sector roundtable discussions about the role of local arts, culture, and creative industries in revitalizing our cities and towns from the neighborhood up. This roundtable, cosponsored with the Arts & Democracy Project, Center for Rural Strategies, and Incommons adds the experiences and perspectives of rural communities. The roundtable format is intended to encourage everyone to participate and to share multiple perspectives. We invite you to come to the table bringing both your expertise and a willingness to reconsider assumptions and think creatively.

We will ground our conversation in values of equity, inclusion and recognition of the integral role of arts and culture in communities. Many efforts to support sustainable communities or comprehensive community development overlook the deep reserve of arts, culture and creativity that is essential to the vibrancy and resilience of a community. And many articulations of the arts and creative economy lack an explicit analysis of who has access to cultural resources and opportunities, what forms of arts and culture are validated, and who benefits from the creative economy. We will consider these questions throughout the roundtable: How can opportunities and benefits be distributed fairly and equitably across communities? What is the nature of the benefit? In what ways can community members have a voice in these decisions? How can arts and culture be supported as an ecology, rather than a hierarchy?

We draw on the concept of “naturally occurring cultural districts” as a window into a broader understanding of the dynamic inter-relationship between a community’s cultural assets, social networks, and economic wellbeing. Some cultural districts are planned as part of initiatives from institutions, while others spring up more organically in the context of their neighborhoods. “Naturally occurring cultural districts” are self-organized through community action, and cultivated by a diverse range of participants over time. 

Tapping into and strengthening community assets, they stimulate social, civic, and economic benefits within communities and across them. The naturally occurring cultural district concept does not always work -- besides being a mouthful, the idea needs to be adapted to rural contexts, and begs the question of what is truly “natural”.  However it has proven to be a useful catalyst for discussion and framework for considering policy change.

The context for the roundtables is growing interest in placemaking, culturally-based community revitalization, cultural districts, and integrated strategies for sustainable development. Mark Stern and Susan Seifert’s Social Impact of the Arts Project, including their report Cultivating “Natural” Cultural Districts, Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa’s white paper, Creative Placemaking, Maria Jackson’s work on cultural vitality at the Urban Institute, and the field information gathered by Leveraging Investments in Creativity, inform our conversations.

Each conversation builds on the learnings of the conversations that preceded it. They have moved from defining characteristics and benefits, to grappling with critical issues and challenges, to making recommendations and considering how best to implement them. The roundtables are also intended to help develop the cross sector alliances needed to move the recommendations into action.

The naturally occurring cultural district concept (borrowed from naturally occurring retirement communities) draws from knowledge generated from five prior roundtables held between 2009-2011 at Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, the Neighborhood Funders Group, the Surdna Foundation, J.M. Kaplan Fund, and Los Angeles County Arts Commission (April 2011).

The information below was created from the learnings, open questions, and recommendations from previous roundtables, drawn from the discussions and written comments of roundtable participants. Recognizing that this information is based on urban conversations, we asked the Center for Rural Strategies to supplement this information with their own memo focused on rural questions and contexts.

 Part 1: Towards a definition

 A naturally occurring cultural district is a neighborhood or place with a set of socio-cultural characteristics that can   generate community and economic benefits.


  • Cluster that connects cultural groups, artists, and other small businesses and community groups
  • Inclusive: broad definition of arts and culture in both creation and participation and a recognition of the vitality of indigenous cultural producers
  • Dynamic: clusters are fluid, organic and constantly changing
  • Values of diversity, inclusion, people advocating on their own behalf
  • Grassroots, growing naturally out of the community’s cultural assets
  • Self organized; not imposed from outside or through large-scale economic initiatives
  • Networked: clusters (in urban areas density), diversity, and participation generate social capital, social networks, and community capacity

 Potential benefits:

  • Collective efficacy—residents come together in response to crisis (unified plan to respond to evictions) and/or in response to opportunity (access to space, economies of scale, markets)
  • Sites of community visioning and planning, social networking and civic engagement; relationship with community organizing and strategies for social change
  • Sustained diversity: a means to preserve diversity in a rapidly changing community
  • Sites of community revitalization and sustainable development with place-based arts and culture as an engine
  • Sites of creativity and innovation that attract artists, cultural workers, and creative entrepreneurs and activists
  • Destination (for those residing in the community and for outside visitors) that creates neighborhood benefits

Part 2: What policies and practices are needed for naturally occurring cultural districts to flourish?

Challenges and questions

  1. How does one organize and support these districts in a manner that honors their natural growth and development, without creating a process or structure that is so formal that natural growth is no longer possible?
  2. Who gets included on the district map? What are the criteria for inclusion and for engaging the politics of mapping?
  3. How do we generate and equitably distribute investment while preserving neighborhoods and avoiding displacement?
  4. What agencies would do the funding and who would they fund?
  5. Is supporting naturally occurring cultural districts an arts, community-building, or economic argument?
  6. What kind of relationship would these initiatives have to urban planning, tourism, neighborhood revitalization strategies, and cultural policy?
  7. What outcomes would we be looking for?  Social capital? Social change? Economic development? How would we measure them?
  8. What role is there for elected officials to get involved, and support, but also stay out of the way of programs that work?



  1. Lack of stability. Do cultural groups and local businesses own the structures where they are doing business, and if not, will increasing real estate prices force them out?  
  2. The ability to develop and implement their plans. Are participants organized? How much power and control do they have?  Is there a public process that they can influence? Do they have the resources to fully realize the potential of the area?
  3. The ability to provide, develop or sustain amenities.  Are there complementary services or businesses that will strengthen the area and keep visitors there longer?  If they attract the interest of these businesses, is there affordable real estate?


Strategies for support

Identify and recognize local cultural assets and distinctive neighborhood characteristics of the community

  • Identify communities that have numerous grassroots cultural entities, with a history in the neighborhood 
  • Identify the determining points of common interest. Why are cultural and community partners joining forces? What is the real or potential collective impact?  Is there a specific crisis or opportunity that provides a compelling incentive for collaboration? 
Support responsive cultivation
  • A natural cultural district policy must begin with the commitment to “do no harm.” We must remember that these districts are generally self-organized.
  • Naturally occurring cultural districts require policies that are responsive to conditions on the ground and flexible enough to accommodate the unique qualities of particular types of clusters.
  • Networks are more important than individuals. Neighborhoods need bottom-up strengthening, not trickle down policy, and connections across neighborhoods.

Strengthen networks internally with support and technical assistance

  • Coalitions need leadership and resources. A lot of time and relationship building is required to bring together the mix of individual artists, cultural organizations, community groups, small businesses, and residents that make these communities vibrant.
  • Identify and support diverse anchors - community development and cultural hubs - that have deep histories in the districts.
Provide support for both process and programming in the context of community visioning, planning, and sustainability
  • Arts funding often focuses on discipline and project, while community development funding looks at process and outcomes. Bringing these funding approaches together would better meet the needs for community building, advocacy, inclusion and network development.
  • Provide flexible support for leaders to formulate creative responses to current conditions and respond to a dynamic environment with ever-changing conditions.
  • Strategic grants for place-making activities—such as special events, distinctive streetscapes, and new signage—can also help build public awareness, engage the community, and reinforce the partnerships.
Invest in developing a better understanding of naturally occurring cultural districts
  • Support better data collection to further understanding of how natural cultural districts work. We need a means of tracking and monitoring both the direct economic flows associated with creative sector activity and the non-economic benefits that accrue from it.
  • Develop better mapping tools to identify the less visible assets in communities.
Create cross-sector opportunities
  • The support and advocacy of a diverse group of investors, comprising institutional funders, public officials, and local stakeholders, are necessary to cultivate naturally occurring cultural districts.
  • Look at a range of solutions from public intervention and investment, to incentives and subsidy, to negotiating between/connecting sectors to broaden participation and open up new opportunities.
  • Some cultural clusters have the potential to be part of a regional or metropolitan economic development strategy as anchors that connect neighborhoods.
  • Specific tools include: industrial zones, business districts, historic districts, tax increment financing, commercial and residential rent control. Also other agency models, like the Cornell extension programs and Operation Green Thumb, could provide targeted, and informed technical assistance over time.


Anyone who has spent time in rural communities will intuitively grasp at least part of the concept of "naturally occurring cultural districts." We all have examples of cultural activity that seems to spring spontaneously out of specific places like churches, festivals, schools, town halls, and open fields.

The Center for Rural Strategies is pleased to be a partner in a roundtable discussion about the impact of arts and culture in rural communities. And we are looking forward to hearing what you have to share on this subject at our roundtable on June 28 in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Our partners in this discussion, the Arts + Community Change Initiative and Arts & Democracy Project, have been holding a series of such discussions with various constituencies. These discussions have developed the working concept of naturally occurring cultural districts to describe the kind of cultural districts that emerge without a centralized plan or the backing of a major institution. Rather, their theory asserts, these kinds of cultural districts emerge from organic local activity. (The attached memo has more information on this concept and their findings and will inform the roundtable discussion.) By looking at cultural development through the lens of natural cultural districts, we may be able to identify policies that will build more inclusive, fair, and effective community-building strategies.

The framing of the roundtable will be broader than naturally occurring cultural districts. We will, however, examine how this concept may work in rural areas, how it's different than or similar to the experience of urban communities, and what these differences may imply for policy for rural communities.

The memo from the Arts + Community Change Initiative and Arts & Democracy Project contains their reflections based on conversations they've had with artists, cultural workers, manufacturers, planners, policymakers, elected officials, funders over the past two years.  We hope you will consider their preliminary findings and what they might mean for rural communities. While we may instinctively recognize naturally occurring cultural districts in rural areas, there are important questions that arise when we attempt to transfer this concept to rural settings. We hope the discussion will look at some of the following questions:

  • The term naturally occurring cultural district implies geography. Rural geography is different from urban geography. How does that affect the concept of naturally occurring cultural districts in rural places?
  • Another characteristic of such cultural districts is that they have dense clusters of connection among “cultural groups, artists, and other small businesses and community groups.” Rural communities are less densely populated. Is there another type of “density” at play in rural areas? Or is lower population and organizational density antithetical to the existence of such a district?
  • Another characteristic is dynamism: “Clusters are fluid, organic, and constantly changing.” In rural areas, change generally occurs more slowly than in urban areas. Does the pace of rural change affect naturally occurring cultural districts? Or does rural change have a different set of indicators?
  • Yet another characteristic is in "networking," or the interconnection of people and institutions within a district. Do rural networks behave differently than urban ones because of distance, less access to communications technology, and fewer organizations? Each of these aspects of a network might, in turn, affect how such networks help create social capital and community capacity.
  • The connection between place and culture is strong. This roundtable session is an opportunity to explore these concepts and perhaps shape some new ways for talking about the relationship between arts and culture and building stronger communities. We're looking forward to hearing from you.