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The Queens Museum’s Panorama of the City of New York seen during the recent Mierle Laderman Ukeles retrospective (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

A new report outlining how the arts and culture contribute to a sense of wellbeing for residents of New York was released last month, and it details some surprising insights about the distribution, use, and significance of cultural assets throughout the city. The report relates the results of a two-year study undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) in collaboration with the Reinvestment Fund, which is a federally certified community development financial institution (or CDFI).

The project was initiated in the fall of 2014, when SIAP accepted an invitation from Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), to undertake a study of the social value of the arts. The study was conducted by estimating cultural participation through geocoding data the researchers requested from organizations that receive grants from the DCA — either through the Cultural Development Fund (CDF) or as members of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) — with supplemental information taken from the National Endowment for the Arts’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). Importantly, SIAP focused on identifying relative differences in participation across the city’s neighborhoods, not on estimating the percentage of residents who take part in cultural activities.

A chart showing the unequal distribution of cultural assets in the city, from “Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City: Highlights of a Two-Year Research Project” (2017) (all graphics by and courtesy University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts Project)

The resulting 149-page report, “The Social Wellbeing of New York City’s Neighborhoods: The Contribution of Culture and the Arts,” constitutes another chapter in the ongoing international conversation about the value of culture and the arts. However, the emphasis for SIAP was on looking at the relationship between what they term cultural ecology (“The way that different cultural entities — organizations, artists, and participants — interact in cultural production and consumption”) and neighborhood ecology (“the way that different entities, including cultural agents, interact” in a particular locale).

There are some expected findings of the study, like that aspects of wellbeing such as security, health, education, and housing are strongly correlated to economic wellbeing, race, and ethnicity. Following on this, SIAP found that 35% of New York City neighborhoods are characterized by “concentrated disadvantage,” while another 38 % are considered “diverse and struggling.” This is part of the understanding of the study’s central finding: “the cultural resources in the city are overwhelmingly concentrated in relatively few neighborhoods,” which they rightly determine is an impediment to social justice. The neighborhoods that are identified as deserving more attention due to their relative lack of cultural resources include East New York, Gravesend, and South Jamaica in Brooklyn, Corona Park in Queens, and Soundview, Eastchester, and Williamsbridge in the Bronx.

The neighborhoods with fewer assets, from “Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City: Highlights of a Two-Year Research Project” (2017)

However, one of the report’s most surprising findings is that the cultural sector is phenomenally informal. In the discovery phase of the study, SIAP found more than 4,700 cultural providers in the nonprofit sector and more that 17,000 for-profit cultural entities. Not only is much of this cultural work “off the books,” but the presence of these organizations in lower-income districts has a measurable, beneficial effect on residents’ social wellbeing — including health, school effectiveness, and personal security. In fact, the study found that cultural organizations’ strongest impact on social wellbeing is not in areas with the largest number of resources, but rather in lower-income districts where the social connections they facilitate operate as a form of capital, substituting for the financial capital available in other places. As SIAP writes: “culture makes a difference in these communities by enhancing social connection, amplifying community voice, and animating the public environment.”

The Lowest 40 Percent of income distribution chart from “Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City: Highlights of a Two-Year Research Project” (2017)

It has always been difficult to discuss the forces that pull and keep communities together, particularly since the markers of structural inequality — like educational attainment, personal health, and personal security — tend to be already quantified in data sets, while civic engagement and social connection tend to be seen in qualitative measures. This report shows in statistical terms that the presence of cultural resources is associated with a decrease in cases of child abuse and neglect, in obesity, in the rate of serious crimes, and an increase in students scoring in the top stratum on English and math exams. What’s more, the cultural resource does not have to be something on the scale of a concert series at Lincoln Center to have a meaningful impact; it might be as informal and local as a storyteller making time to give the gift of memorable tales to children who might not otherwise know that there are realities beyond their own that are attainable and worth knowing.

The areas used to tabulate the cultural asset index from “Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City: Highlights of a Two-Year Research Project” (2017)

Social Wellbeing Clusters chart from “Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City: Highlights of a Two-Year Research Project” (2017)

Read the full “The Social Wellbeing of New York City’s Neighborhoods: The Contribution of Culture and the Arts” report here.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is the opinions editor and managing editor of the Sunday Edition for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on...