New arts centers in cities, like a Lucas museum, don’t bring in all the benefits suggested

Chicago may have landed the George Lucas museum but a new book suggests such arts centers don’t lead to all the benefits suggested:

“In terms of the study, our major hypothesis was that these major facility projects—new museums, new expansions—would have these positive net benefits to the surrounding urban area,” says Woronkowicz, a professor in the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. “And that they would have potentially have less positive or even negative effects on surrounding organizations.”

Through case studies, surveys, and construction-cost analyses, the Cultural Policy Center report found that the museum building boom didn’t bring the net benefit to communities predicted by the so-called Bilbao Effect. While poverty rates fell and property values generally rose in communities where new cultural centers or expansions were built—good news!—poorer residents also suffered displacement in those areas. Beyond the standard gentrification effect, the researchers’ evidence shows, supply may have outstripped demand over the course of the U.S. arts center building boom—leaving some cities with the responsibility to maintain or even pay for cultural centers that they don’t entirely need…

“The types of leaders who provide the passion and drive to build structures of this sort [major performing arts centers] are successful men and women who are accustomed to relying on their own experience and judgment,” the book reads. “They depend on what they might describe as ‘inside knowledge’—knowledge gleaned from their own experiences, and those of their collaborators’ experiences.

“What tends to be absent in their thinking, however … is ‘outside knowledge,’ such as what statisticians refer to as ‘the base rate’ regarding the distribution of projects that did not go as planned,” the book continues.

Other traps that civic leaders fall into include hindsight bias and consistency bias: People’s memories about decision-making for projects tends to change over time, and people tend to revise their memory of the past to fit present circumstances.

There are similar findings regarding sports stadiums: they tend to benefit the teams more than the city.

It sounds like arts centers can be explained by growth machine theories. Cities want to promote growth and cultural relevance so bringing in a building dedicated to the arts looks good. It helps a city be more cosmopolitan, connect to famous names, promote tourism, have a new starchitect-designed building (if the city goes that route) or revive an existing structure, and even create jobs. A mayor can look back and say, “I helped bring that institution to the city and further confirm our world-class status.” Yet, such buildings may not do much for the entire city. Who pays for the land, new building, and maintenance? What if the new structure doesn’t draw as many people as planned? What if the institution moves away later? How much tax money does the arts center contribute to the city and where does that money go?

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