While the report is careful to note that such findings do not mean the arts are causing these outcomes, the link is nonetheless significant within a broader picture. Indeed, the authors write that while “culture is no magic bullet” for broader social problems, “cultural assets are part of a neighborhood ecology that promotes wellbeing.”
“A lot of arts organizations were founded on the belief which the research shows: that arts and culture are an essential part of a vibrant, healthy, thriving community,” said Michele K. Baer, a program associate at the New York Community Trust, which helped fund the research along with the Surdna Foundation. She cited the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), whose executive director, James Bartlett, was interviewed as part of the research, as an example of such an institution.
To reach their conclusions, the researchers compiled a “cultural asset index”—an accounting of thousands of nonprofits, for-profits, employed artists, and cultural participants across New York City, drawing on numerous sources, including tax, grant, and administrative data. The study complements this data with interviews and discussions with individuals engaged with cultural enterprises across the entire city.
Though any such list is admittedly incomplete (including all cultural activities in a city is impossible), the study found that cultural resources are not equally distributed across the city. Rather, their distribution follows familiar patterns of “social class, racial, and ethnic inequality.”
Lack of such resources in a neighborhood doesn’t reflect a lack of interest in arts and culture, however, but how resources to create such programs are distributed.
Unsurprisingly, cultural resources tend to be clustered in wealthier neighborhoods—in Manhattan, below 125th street, and in parts of Brooklyn like Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. The most affluent 20% of the city has access to a well-above-average number of the city’s cultural opportunities and resources.
But the research also revealed “civic clusters”—neighborhoods with a higher than expected number of cultural resources given their economic makeup—including Hamilton Heights, Flatbush, Flushing, Hunts Point, and more.
The study says that economically disadvantaged areas generally have fewer cultural resources than wealthier parts of the city. But less advantaged communities also had a stronger correlation between the prevalence of cultural resources and social wellbeing.
“We might expect culture to exhibit the strongest relationship with social wellbeing in neighborhoods with the largest number of cultural assets, but this is not the case,” the authors write. “We’ve found the most consistent relationships between culture and dimensions of social wellbeing in lower-income neighborhoods that, on average, have fewer cultural resources.”
The likely cause is that residents in wealthier neighborhoods can steer their own financial resources towards health, safety, and education. Lower-income residents don’t have the same monetary remedies available, so culture plays a more important role.
Baer said, “The report suggests that investments in cultural communities in lower-income neighborhoods would be potentially more advantageous to wellbeing of New York City communities than investments in higher-income neighborhoods.” Targeting these communities and “civic clusters” for additional funding and research could also further bolster—or refute—the link between cultural access and social wellbeing.
But, as Stern wrote, “If you think about it, the fact that culture makes a bigger difference in lower-income neighborhoods makes total sense.”