Urban Renaissance

Can Arts Programming Save America's Cities?

Acrylic painting and papier-mâché may seem like childhood staples, but they are at risk of becoming a rarity due to budget cuts in Boston Public Schools. In the face of BPS art class funding cuts, some charitable groups are stepping in to fill the gap. Nicole Murray is director of the school partnership program at the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts. She also works on the Roslindale Arts Initiative, a project that works with eight public and charter schools to create a cohort of schools in the Roslindale neighborhood with extensive arts programming. The program, which is a partnership with the Eliot School of Art, started offering in-school and after-school programming in Boston Public Schools.

“Our goal would be for every school to have a full time Boston Teachers’ Union art teacher, but now with budget cuts and school funding being what they are, schools have made decisions that have made that impossible,” Murray says. “Our goal is to show schools the value of arts education so that at some point, in the future, they might hire their own art teachers. In the interim, we fill a gap.”

The Roslindale Initiative culminates in two public art exhibitions every year, one in June and one in November, where students, families, and communities can see student art displayed at the Roslindale Community Center. “Every art teacher has challenges—maybe they're the only art teacher in the building, or they don't have money for supplies...and [the exhibition] makes it a community that is more united through the arts. it makes it so teachers feel proud, parents feel proud, students feel proud, principals take note,” Murray says. “Families are struggling so not everybody comes, but enough come to demonstrate that people are excited about the arts.”

Murray says some clear markers of success from the program are already visible, such as starting a conversation about the need to fund the arts and getting students excited about classes. “We've had several students who were middle school kids who took our classes [for free]. The next year, we gave them a job working as a classroom aide in our program and they've gone on to Boston Arts Academy or to high school, really with the sense that they are an artist.”

According to Murray, the biggest impact is on children’s self-confidence. “The value of art as not another test is huge. It just makes kids happy. We see that again and again in our surveys. Especially when we hear from teachers that someone who is struggling in their classes is doing well in art class, that's a serious impact. And for that child—that's immeasurable. And that happens every day.”




Many clubs at Harvard, including CityStep and HARMONY, seek to enrich the lives of Boston’s youth through exposing them to dance, music, and art. The Student Theater Advancing Growth and Empowerment—or, as it's more commonly known, STAGE—is one such group that uses arts as a vehicle for social justice. STAGE’s after-school theater program addresses the same loss of arts funding that Murray speaks of. The program, which works with five schools in the Boston area—two of which are in Dorchester, an area with a reputation for crime—teaches young kids how to act and write their own plays, helping them to develop public-speaking skills and confidence.

On the group’s Campus Day in the spring, elementary students are invited to come to Harvard to work on their plays and sets. In May, the year of work culminates in a public performance for students from other schools, teachers, and the Harvard project team.

Erin A. Lotridge '15, STAGE co-president, says the program offers students a rare opportunity to join a structured extracurricular activity.

"[In the] second semester, the kids actually write a play themselves, and then they come to Harvard and perform it. Their parents come to Harvard to watch the plays and we all gather to watch the performance," she says. Many of the STAGE students come from low-income families with working parents for whom taking time out of the day to attend a performance can require sacrifice. Still, Lotridge says, many parents make the effort to drive over and support their children.

According to Lotridge, the program has a substantial effect on the young students it mentors. "It really does inspire their confidence and social skills. A lot of the after-school programs are homework-based, and even if they have other programs, they're not clubs, they're activities that vary day to day. STAGE is special because it's something structured that they get to do all year, and at the end they have this performance."


In 2002, Richard Florida, former correspondent for and current American urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto, published "The Rise of the Creative Class," a sociological study of what he termed the "creative class"—a category that includes not just artists but anyone who works with ideas and intellectual properties. His study sheds light on the ways that investing in the arts can lead to economic benefits through sales revenue, advertising profits, tourism, and job creation.

Florida claims that there are three factors that attract creative talent to a region: existing talent, technological innovation and the capacity for further technological growth, and cultural tolerance. Cities that position themselves as attractive places for artists along these three axes stand to benefit economically from the industry. “The economic benefits [creative clusters] provide are less direct, but nonetheless significant,” says Florida.

Though some had speculated that this trend was limited to pre-recession times of economic prosperity, in 2012, Florida updated the statistical analyses in his work and found that the increasing economic importance of creative clusters continues to be a reality supported by data.

Florida emphasizes that the arts are not a magic bullet for struggling communities and that a major university, hospital, or natural resource will have a more immediate effect on economic growth than an arts cluster. Still, he asserts the importance of the arts as an economic driver. “Creative clusters give rise to creative businesses—art galleries, clubs, performance spaces, publishers, recording studios,” Florida says. “That in turn attract[s] people who might not be culture workers themselves, but who are educated, aesthetically attuned, and very likely work in creative professions.”

All across Boston and the surrounding area, youth in programs like ZUMIX, the Roslindale Initiative, and STAGE take part in an art education system whose cumulative effect is to materially change their communities. For these kids, focused on producing a catchy new song, memorizing their parts in a play, or completing a painting assignment using materials more exciting than standard markers and crayons, the arts are a way to express themselves and work with peers. Focused on their individual projects, these students aren’t necessarily aware of the community-level effect of these initiatives—but they are unmistakably there. While art is not a universal cure for urban economic woes, it is an increasingly common part of comprehensive revitalization strategies. These initiatives hold that art has the power to engage youth, both intellectually and in the form of art-related jobs, and to be the spark for a creative economy.

–Staff writer Ola Topczewska can be reached at