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Seeing Like a State Cultural Agency: Creative Place-Making Transcripts of Local and State Actors

Extralocal organizations and agencies have increasingly entered into the business of creative place-making—a strategy they use to encourage economic development. One such cultural development strategy is formal cultural district programs implemented by state agencies in cities and towns. While the use of art and culture as a tool for generating revenue is well-documented, less is known about the perspective of local actors—how they understand cultural district programs as a strategy to shape their place and what ways they negotiate the logics and strategies imposed on them from extralocal organizations. The Massachusetts Cultural District Program supports communities in their efforts to attract artists and cultural enterprises, encourage business and job development, establish tourist destinations, and enhance property values. In two Massachusetts cultural districts, I explore the “public” and “hidden transcripts” of state and local actors as pertains to their use of art and culture for fashioning locales as destinations and economic engines, on the one hand, and as places that respond to the wants and needs of the community on the other. Analysis of field notes from participant observations and in-depth interviews indicates a mismatch between the local and state logics that govern cultural districts—particularly around definitions of culture, place, and success. To cope with these mismatching cultural development logics, local actors find ways to harmonize with, modify, and circumvent extralocal logics to meet their own community goals. While these findings show that locales are not simply at the mercy of extralocal actors implementing their programs, they also expose opportunities for local actors to lead the policy conversation with their own logics and strategies.