Beyond the Aesthetic: The Historical Pursuit of Local Arts Economic Development

Document Type


Publication Date




This study debunks the myth that arts economic development (AED) is a recent phenomenon. Although marked by piecemeal policies, different motivations, and scattered implementation, AED has played a strategic role in modern city planning over the past hundred years. This research unveils AED’s trajectory through seven forms: (1) aesthetics, (2) cultural agglomeration, (3) workforce investments, (4) city building, (5) amenities and livability, (6) creative regions, and (7) community development. The article outlines central motivations, program character and proponents, accomplishments, shortcomings, and planning legacy for each approach. The examination shows how modern AED, with roots in the City Beautiful era, adapted over time to address changes in urban problems. This century-long quest has resulted in variations on a general strategy to refocus attention and resources on forgotten or challenged places. A cacophony of interventions emerged while a comprehensive narrative came up short, creating confusion about AED’s purpose and use. This article provides the first historical treatment of local AED and explains how and why art is used today as an instrument in urban life.