The New Promised Land(s)
Why cultural and community-focused organizations in small to mid-sized cities should reframe their purpose to raise the awareness of their community and themselves.
“I left my home in Norfolk Virginia, California on my mind”
A lot has changed since 1964. The opening lyrics to Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” released that year, conveyed the big city dreams of many small-town folks across America. And back then, those dreams were grounded in real opportunity. People without college educations could move to large metropolises and find work at jobs similar to those in their small towns, or at jobs that didn’t exist where they were from. The kicker — employers in these larger cities often paid out double the salary of small-town work.
This is no longer the case. Big cities throughout the US have seemingly lost their ability to lift up the middle class. As highly educated workers flock to these epicenters of technology, innovation and finance, they are pushing housing prices to levels no longer affordable for people with less formal education. Many clerical jobs once abundant in these cities have also been replaced by software or outsourced to other countries. All of this hasn’t just stopped some from moving to these cities: it’s driving people out even faster. In 2018, more people left than moved into eight of the ten biggest cities in the country. In 2010, this was only true for four of those cities.
Pair superstar cities’ waning power to support economic mobility with the rising demand for places with a stronger sense of community and what do you get? A unique opportunity for cultural and community-focused brands in small to mid-sized U.S cities. A lot of these cities tick the boxes of desirable features for people ditching or uninterested in big city living. Lower cost of living. Check. Walkability. Check. Jobs that don’t require college degrees. Check. Opportunities to have a true say and impact on your community’s future. Check. Unique cultural destinations. Check.
Though the cultural institutions in these places seemingly show a lot of alignment with potential resident’s desires, that’s not to say they have it easy. In the U.S., the arts contribute more to the economy than agriculture, transportation or warehousing, generating $763.6 billion. Nevertheless, such clear-cut evidence of the arts’ impact often falls on deaf ears. This can be especially challenging to organizations in small to mid-sized cities, where the potential donor base is less expansive, and pockets of donors are a bit less deep. But with the recent migration from the big cities there’s a chance for both of those hurdles to shrink.
Arts and other cultural organizations in these cities need to rethink how they communicate the impact they have on their communities. Both as a selling point to attract new residents and as a renewal of their commitment to support the community members already there. Since numbers won’t always cut it, they need to give the public a clearer sense of what and why they are doing what they’re doing beyond the surface level.
An example: Last year, our team at ThoughtMatter was tasked by the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts in Tacoma, WA, to rethink the organization’s brand from top to bottom in an effort to communicate its expand impact to the people of the city. From education to architectural stewardship to community programming, the organization for years had a tremendous role in the economic and cultural vitality of the city. Yet Tacomans didn’t always tie back this work and give due credit to the non-profit. Following an extensive process that included interviews, workshops and site visits with members of the community, we developed a new positioning and identity for the organization, including a name change to Tacoma Arts Live. We reframed the way people saw the organization, calling out its role as a convener and fundamental driver of the city’s future — not just a nice “extra.”
These efforts paid off rather quickly. Shortly after the rebrand was launched a proposition was voted upon and passed in Tacoma to increase residents’ sales tax by .01% in order to fund an initiative which would give the city better access to arts, science and heritage programs. This proposition was the result of Tacoma Creates, an initiative and campaign to support the youth, neighborhoods and businesses of Tacoma, developed with the support of a large partnership of organizations and people in Tacoma that included Tacoma Arts Live. Its rebranding laid groundwork that made advocacy for this initiative way more effective, because people now saw it as more than just a performing arts center, and instead as a community catalyst. In turn, it also helped its city solidify itself as an attractive place to live for those who care about and understand the impact the arts can have.
How can other cultural organizations reframe their purpose to increase both their own awareness and that of their cities? A good start would be to tap into what already makes their communities desirable. A community garden selling fresh organic produce in a walkable small-city could lean into the fact that they think about sustainability holistically — where there is synergy between a healthy planet and a healthy local economy. A chamber of commerce could highlight the people-focused opportunities it creates and the relationships it’s built in the community. A brewery can position itself as a community center for all ages rather than just a watering hole for those of drinking age. In other words, organizations can lead with more people-centered, emotional messaging that speaks to the problems or needs they are helping folks resolve, rather than what their core offerings are.
If Americans continue to ditch superstar cities because of their inability to support the middle class, the cultural and community organizations that best demonstrate the connection of the work they do with the desirable assets of their cities will have a huge advantage. This will not only position them to garner recognition by community members for the impact these organizations create for them, but also to be celebrated and highlighted as a ‘shining star’ that cities can use to attract new residents.