The arts — a tool in every community’s toolbox

Thanks to G.P. McLeer for sharing his thoughts on this topic.

Building a community is hard work. Imagine a room of 100 hungry, tired and opinionated toddlers, and then try to create a place where every child walks around with a smile on their face, content with their surroundings. This is essentially what building a modern community is like.

When community leaders sit down to plan how to better develop their city/town/state, they have a lot of things to consider: public safety, public health, infrastructure, logistics, opinions (a lot of those), industry needs, residential needs, quality of life enhancements – the engines of growth that make this “machine” move forward.

Community leaders, volunteers, officials and stakeholders can all be considered the “builders” of a community, and the community itself a monstrous machine. To build, maintain, fix and continue to develop this machine, the builders have an equally large tool box full of helpful instruments that assist in measuring, tightening, loosening, adjusting and building additional components. For the builders of a community, these tools include things such as sewer and power lines, asphalt, garbage trucks, police cars, hospitals, fire stations, arts centers or councils, parks, zoning requirements, codes, laws, regulations and city hall. Wait a minute — did I just say “arts centers and councils?”

Yes, I did.

No longer should someone see the arts as a sign of solely a “healthy,” “successful” or “rich” community.  The arts are not solely a sign of success; they are not an amenity, a frill or elitist. The arts are one among many tools to be used by communities at all stages – developing, new, old, successful, struggling – to assist in constructing the framework of a place that is more than an interstate stop or a point on a map, but a place called home, a place called vacation, a place that puts a smile on every “toddler’s” face. The arts are in every community’s tool box, but it is up to its leaders to take out the arts and apply them to their machine.  A community that ignores the arts as a tool, but rather regards the arts as an added benefit, neglects not only the functionality of its community, but sets their community afloat without any agent to bond the people together. A community that doesn’t acknowledge art as a vital component of infrastructure, or at the very least an important part of their machine,  is broken before it’s even turned “on.”

When successful communities revitalize themselves, re-identify themselves, or develop themselves, they include the arts.

In 1982, more than a dozen corporate leaders from Greenville, South Carolina, traveled to Memphis, Tennessee – not to discuss business stats or company policies — but to talk arts. As Greenville began looking at revitalizing its downtown, corporate leaders took notice of the important role their companies could play in helping arts organizations re-invigorate the community.  This trip, organized by Greenville’s Metropolitan Arts Council and the Memphis Arts Council, sparked a discussion that no doubt was the starting point for using the arts as a tool for community development.

Greenville is the perfect example of what is possible when the arts are viewed as a tool and is one of the most creatively inspired and arts friendly downtowns in the country.  Meanwhile, Fountain Inn, S.C., is well on its way to capitalizing on its arts offerings, and right here in Mauldin, we’re working hand-in-hand with our community leaders to ensure that our programs at the Mauldin Cultural Center are geared towards strengthening our great community.

I urge you all to start looking at the arts not just as a way to advance your local arts organization’s mission, but as a vital tool in building your community.

G.P. McLeer is executive director of the Mauldin Cultural Center in Mauldin, South Carolina.