Arts can fuel citizen participation and the economy

Buzz, the feeling of excitement that cultural venues generate, is actually a commodity that can be traded and is subject to its own kind of inflation, according to Prof. Terry Nichols Clark, whose recent work looks at the role arts play in the economy and civic participation worldwide.


“Buzz is the discussion, news, gossip—everything surrounding cultural activity. It drives economic development and is exchanged as a political resource. If a neighborhood generates more buzz, the mayor may give it more attention,” said Clark, professor of sociology.

Yet, like money, buzz can also lead to a sort of inflation if the messages about a neighborhood become more fluff than content and undermine the authenticity of actual arts activities, he pointed out.

Clark, who has spent his career studying arts and culture and their impact on the economy and civic engagement, is the lead author of new book, Can Tocqueville Karaoke? Global Contrast of Citizen Participation, the Arts and Development. His work on urban buzz with Daniel Silver, PhD’08, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, is featured in the book, which also contains analyses of citizen participation worldwide and how the arts can be an engine for economic innovation.

The roots for Clark’s current work lie with Alexis de Tocqueville, a French visitor to the United States in the early 19th century, who stressed that civic groups encouraged democracy. Robert Putman picked up on Tocqueville’s work, reporting civic decline by Americans at the end of the 20th century in his book Bowling Alone.

Clark’s work examines contexts that encourage participation and how this varies across the globe. It grows out of the Fiscal Austerity and Urban Innovation Project, a 30-year international survey and research program he coordinates. That project brings 700 scholars and others from around the globe for regular discussions on urban life in 35 countries.

“This book actually began with a finding of one of my students, Seokho Kim, who analyzed participation by Korean citizens. He had expected increased participation in civic groups to increase trust in the government, as it does in the U.S. and Northwestern Europe, but he found near zero impact,” said Clark.

Koreans and others in many non-Western societies are more hierarchical in their perspectives and tend to join groups, such as university alumni associations, which have rules that limit membership, according to Kim, PhD’08, now assistant professor of sociology at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Korea. That finding shows how context matters when examining civic participation and indicates that the Western understanding of civic participation’s link to trust is not universal, Clark said.

With 17 coauthors, Clark explored international specifics for nearly a decade. He stressed that “we learned from an engaged group effort, exploring how Tocqueville could karaoke in Asia or even rap in some neighborhoods in the United States. Leaders globally are worried about low trust and legitimacy, and from China to Mexico people are trying new forms of encouraging civic participation, from non-profits to street parades, and the arts play a crucial role in these efforts. Mayors and stock market commentators discuss the arts more than social scientists, who should pay more attention. Just look at our students and people at neighborhood bus stops: they move with their smartphones.”

Clark and his colleagues found, as did Putnam, that while membership declined in some groups, arts organizations flourished in many countries. In the Netherlands, membership in cultural activity groups increased from 12.5 percent of the population in 1981 to 45.2 percent in 2000; in the United States, membership grew from 13.9 percent to 36.9 percent. However, in Eastern Europe and China, countries with a history of authoritarian political regimes, participation declined.

Young people who enjoy playing in bands, listening to music and taking part in festivals drove the participation. Cities can build on this enthusiasm by creating attractions like Chicago’s summer concerts and the arts-filled Millennium Park.

One of the impacts of interest in the arts is a boost of creativity and innovation, a factor that has improved the economies of urban communities where arts and cultural activities are among the amenities that attract highly educated, creative young people.

“Downtown Chicago zip codes have grown faster in 25- to 34-years-olds than any other downtown in the country in relation to its suburbs. Young people are drawn by festivals and arts events,” he said. "Within cities like L.A. and Chicago, neighborhoods differ substantially, some using the arts, others not. Chicago has done better than most cities in making it easy for people to organize festivals. While Chicago is extreme, the strong relationship between arts and economic growth holds across some 40,000 U.S. zip codes and in several other countries we measured, above and beyond education, income, poverty and other controls.”