Can The Arts Save Your Small Town?

by Joanne Steele on August 3, 2010

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Last weekend I had one of those serendipitous happenings that keep my belief in magic alive.

Phoenixville First Fridays feature live music, open studios and gallery showings.

The topic of our monthly Revitalization Team meeting was to be art as an economic development tool. Who should appear at my info table at our small town summer festival but an expert in art towns!

Joe McArdle is a resident of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, a former steel town that revitalized itself by attracting artists and selling itself as an art town. They’ve been at it for years with great success.

Here are some of Joe’s sage suggestions:

1. Start small to grow big.

It’s common these days for small towns to get excited about something and go for a big grant, or try to raise taxes to pay for something before thinking it through and doing the requisite planning.

Douglas County, Kansas is in an uproar about raising property taxes to pay for heritage enhancements to attract tourists.

Better to grow into something that to try to go big and fail.

2. Don’t ask left brain people to do right brain work

Artists are notoriously bad at marketing themselves. That’s not always true, of course, but something that a community can offer, to help artists do what they do best – make art.

In Joe’s home, Phoenixville, old vacant buildings were turned into arts incubators, with small low cost studio spaces created for working artists. The storefront is devoted to displaying their work.

Monthly art walks and arts events are put on by the town to attract potential buyers from nearby urban centers. Phoenixville was marketing itself as an art town.

3. Give visitors a reason besides art to come to your town.

Joe stressed that the best way to draw arts patrons, besides good art, is good food. Attracting good restaurants gives urbanites a reason to make your small town their getaway destination.

This is vastly oversimplified, but the core to Phoenixville’s success is:

  • Working slowly to build success.
  • Nurturing artists by giving them great space and good marketing
  • Giving visitors multiple reasons to plan a getaway to your art town – good food, good art, regular events and activities.

Here’s another post that might interest you:

Use Your Existing Arts and Cultural Assets to Build your Rural Tourism Destination

1 Mimi Lamp November 17, 2010 at 7:49 am

Thank you, thank you!! I have sent this on to the art organization in town, as well as all the board members of the Chamber of Commerce. Thank you. We are an art destination close enough to the cities in southern California and we can boast of great restaurants, clean air (important in SoCAl) and beautiful vistas. We have some work to do to increase our tourism but we are encouraged and working hard.

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