Suburban downtowns turn to art to cover up vacancies

Suburban downtowns have struggled for decades: the advent of the strip mall and shopping malls after World War II lured away shoppers. Suburbs have pursued numerous strategies to sustain or revive their downtowns but vacant storefronts can still linger. In recent years, it has been popular to fill these empty spaces with art:

Hamilton and some suburban officials believe using vacant buildings to display art is a good way to help suburban downtown districts keep up appearances while exposing art to those who otherwise would not browse around art galleries.

“I think art in a community plays an important role in revitalization,” said Jeff Soule, director of outreach for the American Planning Association, whose organization encourages creative use of vacant spaces. “Art adds a sense of place to a neighborhood. It shows that people care about the community.”

This push toward art seems to make a lot of sense: it hides vacant spaces, it allows local artists, residents, and young adults to participate in creating art, and suburban shoppers and residents get to see some interesting pieces. But, I remain somewhat skeptical about the revitalizing power this kind of art can have. In a downtown that simply has some vacancies because of the economic downturn, perhaps art works as a filler and keeps up appearances. But in downtowns that struggle all the time (and there a lot of these in suburbs), can public art really make a difference by bringing in enough foot traffic to revive businesses? These always struggling downtowns have much bigger problems that need to be addressed.

Of course, public art has not been limited solely to suburban downtowns: big cities have pursued this option for years. I vividly remember the stir created by “Cows on Parade” in Chicago. But again, these pieces work because there is already a critical mass of people in the area even as they can then attract more people.

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