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Thoughts on Developing a Cultural Plan

I am starting a new cultural planning process for Mercer County, NJ, and thought it would be interesting to use this as an opportunity to go back and pull out a copy of the Community Cultural Planning Work Kit, which I wrote on commission from the NEA back in 1990.   I thought I’d return to it and see if it still holds true as a guidebook to the process.  (Good news, it does.) 

Here are some thoughts from it that ring true:

1) A community cultural plan should become the blueprint for building livability into an area. 

2) It should mesh with all other community masterplans, and in its pages detail how culture plays an integral role in shaping the community’s look, feel, spirit, and design.  Other civic plans, in turn, should reference the cultural plan’s role and responsibilities.

3) The planning process iteself should allow each community to define those aspects of cultural development that are most appropriate and essential to its own way of life and future growth. 

4) A classic planning error is to develop a good solution to the wrong problem.  Before a plan is developed, problems, opportunities, and needs must be identified, and perferred solutions or scenarios identified.

5) Don’t confuse planning with a needs assessment process.  The assessment is the process of investigating the community’s cultural needsd, priorities, strengths, weaknesses, and potential within the context of the community’s general economic and social conditions.  The assessment is conducted to provide a frame of reference for decision making – planning. 

6) A plan is more than recommendations.  It is the outcome of a public process that develops vision, goals, and workable strategies, and that identifies how those strategies will be accomplished.  Open meetings that allow the community to hear proposed goals and respond with their own views are important. 

7) The key to turning a plan into reality is the buy-in of all those involved in implementingt goals, objectives, and strategies.  If there are goals or strategies that require the support of groups or decision makers not represented in the planning process, it will be necessary to take the rough draft of ideas to them and to seek their involvement.  Before you begin a plan, meet with all the community agencies, civic leaders, and government agencies likely to be touched by a cultural plan.  Let them know how important their input is to the development of a realistic and workabple plan.  Incorporate them into the planning process.

8) You will need to provide your community with a framework of expectations as to the outcome and value of the plan.  

9) You will need to determine the resources required to implement a cultural plan.  But, a cultural plan isn’t just a plan or a new strategy for funding the arts.  A real cultural plan specifically addresses how your community can and will be transformed and improved through vital arts and culture.   

10) Cultural planning isn’t a one time deal.  Every five years is a good rule of thumb. 

11) The agency plans of implementing organizations – local arts councils, community foundations, civic arts commissions as well as school districts and municipal offices – should continuously respond to cultural plans, taking their cue on priorities and timelines from the overall plan.

Preparation for Cultural Planning

I’m often asked, “How to we get ready for cultural planning? What questions should we be asking? What homework can we do before we engage a consultant?”

Here are some of the questions I ask communities to explore before I come on site the first time. Try this as a good preparation for any cultural development, cultural district planning, or overall cultural planning.

Exploring Cultural Development
Preparation Questions

1. What are your community’s cultural assets? These may include any/all of the following:
a. Organizations
b. Civic offerings and services
c. Educational, school and youth focused programs, and life-long learning opportunities
d. Individual artists and crafts people
e. Creativity based businesses and enterprises
f. Heritage and historic assets
g. Festivals and celebrations
h. Facilities and sites

2. How do these currently support and further community health and well being?

3. Use a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) to describe the condition of the cultural assets. Include the financial conditions including financial assets, participation counts, geography or communities/neighborhoods served, facilities and other measurables in this.

4. Use a Gap Analysis to consider missing or limited cultural assets; use a GAP analysis to consider unmet community needs or population segments that aren’t reached by the cultural assets.

5. Create a vision statement for culture and the arts in your community. What is the completed or achieved vision like? How do people engage and benefit from arts and culture in the achieved vision? What tangible and intangible differences are there from the present cultural profile?

6. To achieve this vision, it is likely that many players will need to work together in partnership. What are the existing and prospective partnerships and alliances that can be developed working toward further developing your community’s cultural vitality? Who should be at the table?

Now that you have a sense of where you want to head (the vision), and who should be engaged, you can begin to shape the assessment (needs) and planning process. In preparation, think through the following:

1. What documents do you need to use as a foundation?
2. What community input process is necessary and important?
3. What kind of consulting assistance, if any, would benefit the planning process?

With this work completed, you’ll know what to seek in counsel. You’ll be able to engage in a cultural planning process that will win community enthusiasm and investment and gain significant outcomes!