photo by albyn.davis (flickr)

Defining Cultural Arts:Making Cities Great

Great cities define themselves by their cultural arts. When we think of places like New York, San Francisco, London, Paris we think about their culture. It is more than tourism, in fact tourism is simply a byproduct of creating a great way of life for those already living there.

Culture is actually an experience more than it is any place or activity. It is a continuous series of activities, ones that heighten ones senses, inspire, and take you to new places.

A great cultural experience doesn’t have to happen in a great city. These types of inspiring cultural experiences happen to people everywhere all throughout the world. In nature, homes, theaters, museums, and in libraries.

Such cultural experiences can be defined by two main criteria, educational discovery and inspiration. One of the great things about the human race is that everyone is their own unique individual with their own interests, characteristics, and traits. Even siblings with similar biological genetics have are themselves very unique from one another.

When you create a nexus of learning with an individuals interests you get inspiration. This can happen anywhere. Inspiration is found throughout life in many places and experiences.

However, what if you could create a heightened experience, a peak state for inspiration, a place that increased the chances that you could have such an inspirational experience?

That is exactly what cultural arts really are, places that have a combination of experiences that enhance your ability to be inspired. By cross-pollinating learning and inspiration you create a cultural arts experience. The opposite is also true, by creating a cultural arts experience you can create inspiration.

Great cities have capitalized on creating environments that are conducive to such human experiences. The most successful have created some type of cultural districts where people of all kinds and all ages can experience learning and inspiration through art, history, literature, theater, and dining and a variety of other experiences.

Cities that are looking to generate greater economic development, create greater human experiences because it draws people together in a heightened inspirational experience. Shopping and other economic drivers are then follow such development and are a result of creating such great places.

Libraries are sometimes overlooked in this cultural planning when in fact they play a very vital role in its development and if planned and designed properly can become some of the greatest assets for cultural experiences. Take for example the cultural experience and inspiration in visiting the New York Public Library or the Seattle Public Library. Now cities like Phoenix, Sacramento, Salt Lake, and Boise are following suit in creating cultural districts that combine arts and libraries.

This is the inspiring visioning statement for the new cultural project in Boise that Arch Nexus planned that is based on the human experience.

The Civic Center for Education & Culture

IMAGINE! Imagine a place . . . a place that is Boise, that

is culture, that is learning. Imagine a place that creates

inspirational experiences.

This is your place, our place . . . “The Place” to be.

The Civic Center for Education & Culture will be a

world-class inspirational cultural center of activity,

learning, history and art for all; whose inspirational

striking presence will develop an iconic gateway to the

city, a landmark public space of activity and experience

integrated with the serendipitous flow of river.

Libraries have always been a place of inspiration, books have always opened new doors to new worlds of learning, excitement, and inspiration.

Libraries today have become community centers with programs, meeting space, and access to all types and forms of inspiration. A place where people can interact with each other at many different levels in a society riddled with the isolation of technology.

Libraries have now combined today’s technology and the epiphany that we are not all reader learners (many of us are maker / hands on learners) and created maker spaces where knowledge acquisition and knowledge application can be intertwined.

It is insightful to look at the definitions of culture and art from apple dictionary.

culture | ˈkəlCHər |


1 the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively

2 the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

art1 | ärt |


1 the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power

  • works produced by human creative skill and imaginationcreative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture

2 (the arts) the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance

3 (arts) subjects of study primarily concerned with the processes and products of human creativity and social life, such as languages, literature, and history (as contrasted with scientific or technical subjects)

4 a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice: the art of conversation.

Programming + Inspirational Space = Cultural Arts

How then, do we create these intersections of education and inspiration? It is part programming and part inspirational space.

Programming are the activities planned by organizations for people to have these experiences. They are everywhere from story time to Hamilton.

Inspirational Spaces are created by designing inspiring buildings. This is the missing ingredient that many do no understand. The architecture of designing spaces creates environments where peak states, places of enhanced experience, are more likely to happen.

Design, great design, is what creates places and spaces of enhanced inspirational experiences.

In fact, Art and Design have a very uniquely intertwined relationship. Contemplate on the above definition of art and now let us look deeply at the definition of design.

design | dəˈzīn |


1 a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is built or made: he has just unveiled his design for the new museum.

the art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing: good design can help the reader understand complicated information | the cloister is of late-twelfth-century design.

2 an arrangement of lines or shapes created to form a pattern or decoration: pottery with a lovely blue and white design.

3 purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object: the appearance of design in the universe.


decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), by making a detailed drawing of it: a number of architectural students were designing a factory

Art + Function = Design

When art meets function you have design. That is the difference between art and design. Although art has a function, and art has a message art is mostly not created for a specific function.

Take for example a toothbrush. No matter how epic the design of a toothbrush, if it doesn’t function properly by keeping your teeth clean it has not met the definition of a great design.

A coat that looks great but doesn’t keep you warm enough in the winter isn’t a great design.

You must have both function and art to be a successful design. So it is with buildings and the spaces they create in our cities both inside and outside. A building must meet it’s function whether a library, a factory, or a performing arts center while simultaneously creating an inspirational artistic space to be a great design. If it lacks either then it fails.

Why is this so important?


Inspirational human experience that heightens the senses creates optimal environments for peak states, heightened opportunity for inspiration. When the function of the building and its spaces work so well that the people working, playing, or living in them don’t have to put forth extra effort to compensated for them functioning poorly AND they are inspirational they create enhanced opportunity for developing key insights, creativity and productivity.

More so today than they have ever been, libraries are at the heart of cultural movements.

They are the cultural community centers where people gather, learn and discover.

They are the places that hold the doors to new worlds and inspiration.

When libraries are designed as functional, flexible, and adaptable spaces combined with artistic expression, use of natural light, texture, detail, human scale, and regenerative design principles they become beacons of inspiration. Places optimal for creating peak states of thought and learning that are accessible by anyone from anywhere.

Great cities define themselves by their cultural arts. Cultural districts that put libraries at the cultural core are more successful in serving their communities, spurring economic development, and creating inspirational experiences for people who both live there and visit. Libraries really are the cultural core of the city, they are the heart of the communities they serve.

To follow this series or to learn more about what each of the 13 written episodes will reveal click on this link to download “The Future of 21st Century Libraries: The Series Begins”