Think you want to undertake an Arts and Cultural Master Plan?

Here are 10 questions to ask.

By: Susan Silberberg

One of CivicMoxie’s core areas of work is in arts and cultural planning. I started in arts planning over two decades ago when I was lucky enough to work with Adele Fleet Bacow at Community Partners Consultants. We undertook a variety of arts and cultural planning projects for both arts organizations and public clients. The work continued during my 13 years as Lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT where I was Associate Director of the MetLife Innovative Space Awards and then went on to publish “Places in the Making” on the state of placemaking in the United States. Now at CivicMoxie, we have completed a number of arts district and cultural plans for cities, regional commissions, and other clients.

More municipalities and organizations are recognizing the value of arts and culture to overall planning and community development, which has led to a proliferation of cultural planning. But it’s not a one size fits all endeavor. Here, we address the questions you should ask if you are considering undertaking an arts and cultural master plan.

CivicMoxie and the project team leading a community workshop aboard the USCGC Ingham to kick off the planning process of the Truman Waterfront Park Arts & Culture Master Plan, an NEA funded project in Key West, FL.

1. Why do you want the plan?

Having a good list of the “why” of cultural planning seems like a surprisingly simple piece of advice, but you would be surprised how many clients have not fully answered this before beginning the process. Answering this question is really an exercise in understanding everything a cultural plan might accomplish (and also aids in setting your budget (see Question 5!). Begin by jotting down a list of what you hope the plan will accomplish, ranging from the small, easily achievable tasks to the big picture, lofty goals.

2. Who wants the plan?

The best arts and cultural planning avoids putting arts in a silo and instead, brings everyone to the table to think about mutual interests and benefits. If only the arts organizations or a few cultural advocates want a plan, more work needs to be done before undertaking the plan. At CivicMoxie, we believe in a “systems” approach to arts and cultural planning (and all other planning as well!). Arts and culture touches everything we do and is an integral part of our lives…from how benches and bike racks look downtown, to the events and festivals that celebrate community, to the plays and music that showcase talent, tell stories of our history, and help us reflect on difficult questions. That means that certain stakeholders are surprised to find themselves at a meeting on arts and culture and that we have done our job well if they leave understanding how their interests and goals are intertwined with arts and cultural goals. The bottom line is a cultural master plan needs a lot of “ownership” to move from planning to action.

3. Are you clear about the difference between a cultural master plan, an arts district master plan, and a public art master plan?

A cultural master plan assesses all the arts and cultural assets in a town or city and includes considerations for facilities, organizational needs, events, and public art, among other things. It is comprehensive and delves deeply into community and organizational needs.

An arts district master plan is place-specific and explores how a geographic location in a town or city can be the focus for arts and cultural policies that support and enhance arts and cultural uses, experiences, and organizations.

A public art master plan looks at policies, funding, ongoing maintenance, and locations for public art in a city or town, or in a specific district. A public art master plan is not an arts and cultural master plan although some arts and cultural master plans have a public art plan as part of the overall plan.

Of course, not all plans fit in a box and some of the most exciting work can be a variation on the above. The important thing is to understand some of your priorities at the outset. Keep your eyes open for another article exploring different kinds of arts and cultural plans later this fall.

4. Are key cultural organizations and civic leaders onboard with the effort?

It’s hard to do a cultural master plan without the support and involvement of key cultural organizations. The anchor institutions in a community are highly visible and usually well-respected. Their involvement brings others to the table and creates momentum. It’s important to articulate early-on why these organizations should invest valuable time in planning (see #1 and #10 as a start for making the case). In the end, they are the ones that are going to move the plan into implementation.

5. Can you secure the proper funding to do the plan right?

OK, this one is important. A half-size arts and cultural master plan is no plan at all. The level of public outreach, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews and meetings is a significant part of any cultural planning process and the inventory and documentation needed to understand the range of cultural assets takes a lot of legwork. In addition, the success of any cultural master plan depends on the level of “ownership” felt by key stakeholders. That means that implementation action steps have to be vetted and coordinated with all the stakeholders involved and this takes time. It’s difficult to put an estimate on what a cultural plan should cost because of size differences in communities, but generally the bigger the community, the more it’s going to be.

6. Do you have 9–12 months in which to plan?

See #5 above to get some sense of why we say 9–12 months. Some planning processes have taken up to two years but we are getting increasingly wary of any planning process that goes beyond a year. The burnout and meeting fatigue that comes from prolonged planning begins to have negative consequences that do little to benefit plan outcomes.

7. Do you have a good sense of who the stakeholders are for the plan?

Susan Silberberg leading a focus group for the Create Newton Cultural Master Plan.

If you are going to truly answer #2 and #4 you need to have a good sense of the stakeholders who must be at the table. Understanding who should be involved can help frame the scope of work and budget for the planning process and perhaps shape the membership for an advisory or steering committee to guide the process. At CivicMoxie, we spend the early phases of every project building this list of stakeholders and, when clients have already considered this question, it makes the entire planning process go more smoothly.

8. Do you have a clear idea of how your town or city defines arts and culture?

A very common question during early phases of arts and cultural planning is “what do we mean by arts and culture?” This question also comes up before the process begins when funding discussions and allocation votes are made. Do you define arts and culture very traditionally, including visual and performing arts and public art such as sculpture and murals? Will the plan be a bit broader and include civic events, community programs, and educational initiatives that address storytelling and crafts? Or will the plan cast a wide net and also include creative industries such as film, graphic design, bookmaking, and others?

9. Have you read through a few plans to get an idea of the scope and breadth of a plan?

No two places are alike. That said, we recommend reading through a variety of arts and cultural master plans to understand what might be included. It will help shape expectations and open up possibilities as you craft a list of what you want in the plan (important for #10 below). Here are some examples:

10. Have you defined success for the planning process?

At the end of the planning process, what constitutes success? What would you like to achieve? What current conditions would be different? What challenges addressed? What great aspects of your arts and cultural community will be enhanced? You don’t need to know specifics — that’s the focus of the planning process, after all — but you should have a general sense of what you want from the plan (see #1). Answers to this question will guide all your decisions, from a general scope of work to selection of a consultant.

Have more questions about undertaking arts and cultural planning of any kind? Feel free to get in touch! I can be reached at susan[at]civicmoxie [dot] com

CivicMoxie is a planning, urban design, and placemaking group based in New England.

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