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  • Installation view of Theresa Chromati, Tea Time, with audio accompaniment by Pangelica, at MoCADA. Photo by @elliott.jerome, via Instagram.

Arts advocates have long extolled the benefits of culture to personal and neighborhood welfare. While the contention is broadly accepted within the field, the existence of the link has largely been argued without an abundance of data and taken a backseat to economic justifications for arts funding.

But a two-year study released this month by researchers from the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania has revealed a quantitative relationship between the presence of cultural resources in a neighborhood and key aspects of social wellbeing, particularly in less advantaged neighborhoods. The research was part of the school’s ongoing Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP).

Professor Mark J. Stern and SIAP director Susan C. Seifert found that low- and middle-income residents across New York City with more access to cultural resources experience better education, security, and health outcomes compared to residents of neighborhoods with similar economic profiles but with fewer cultural resources. The research departs from previous studies by including the arts as “intrinsic” to residents’ having the freedom to live valuable lives, while also looking at its effect on other aspects of wellbeing.

When controlling for factors including economic status, race, and ethnicity, the relative higher presence of cultural resources in lower-income neighborhoods is linked with several health, safety, and education benefits. These include a 14% decrease in indicted investigations of child abuse and neglect, an 18% decrease in felony crime rate and also a 17–18% increase in the number of students scoring at the highest level on standardized Math and English tests.

Stern and Seifert reached the conclusion building on their similar prior study done in Philadelphia. That research was funded by ArtPlace and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the current study on New York City comes at a time when many are calling for the elimination of the agency.

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While the report is careful to note that such findings do not mean the arts are causing these outcomes, the link is nonetheless significant within a broader picture. Indeed, the authors write that while “culture is no magic bullet” for broader social problems, “cultural assets are part of a neighborhood ecology that promotes wellbeing.”

“A lot of arts organizations were founded on the belief which the research shows: that arts and culture are an essential part of a vibrant, healthy, thriving community,” said Michele K. Baer, a program associate at the New York Community Trust, which helped fund the research along with the Surdna Foundation. She cited the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), whose executive director, James Bartlett, was interviewed as part of the research, as an example of such an institution.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers compiled a “cultural asset index”—an accounting of thousands of nonprofits, for-profits, employed artists, and cultural participants across New York City, drawing on numerous sources, including tax, grant, and administrative data. The study complements this data with interviews and discussions with individuals engaged with cultural enterprises across the entire city.

Though any such list is admittedly incomplete (including all cultural activities in a city is impossible), the study found that cultural resources are not equally distributed across the city. Rather, their distribution follows familiar patterns of “social class, racial, and ethnic inequality.”

Lack of such resources in a neighborhood doesn’t reflect a lack of interest in arts and culture, however, but how resources to create such programs are distributed.

Unsurprisingly, cultural resources tend to be clustered in wealthier neighborhoods—in Manhattan, below 125th street, and in parts of Brooklyn like Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. The most affluent 20% of the city has access to a well-above-average number of the city’s cultural opportunities and resources.

But the research also revealed “civic clusters”—neighborhoods with a higher than expected number of cultural resources given their economic makeup—including Hamilton Heights, Flatbush, Flushing, Hunts Point, and more.

The study says that economically disadvantaged areas generally have fewer cultural resources than wealthier parts of the city. But less advantaged communities also had a stronger correlation between the prevalence of cultural resources and social wellbeing.

“We might expect culture to exhibit the strongest relationship with social wellbeing in neighborhoods with the largest number of cultural assets, but this is not the case,” the authors write. “We’ve found the most consistent relationships between culture and dimensions of social wellbeing in lower-income neighborhoods that, on average, have fewer cultural resources.”

The likely cause is that residents in wealthier neighborhoods can steer their own financial resources towards health, safety, and education. Lower-income residents don’t have the same monetary remedies available, so culture plays a more important role.

Baer said, “The report suggests that investments in cultural communities in lower-income neighborhoods would be potentially more advantageous to wellbeing of New York City communities than investments in higher-income neighborhoods.” Targeting these communities and “civic clusters” for additional funding and research could also further bolster—or refute—the link between cultural access and social wellbeing.

But, as Stern wrote, “If you think about it, the fact that culture makes a bigger difference in lower-income neighborhoods makes total sense.”

—Isaac Kaplan