What is a Cultural District?

Cultural districts are areas designated or certified by state governments that aim to foster a thriving arts and cultural sector through what can be viewed as a primarily economic development lens. Many states have adopted legislation pertaining to the establishment of cultural districts. As of 2015, 13 states have established active cultural districts programs; one additional state has enacted a policy to support cultural districts but has not yet launched a program. Through these programs, approximately 250 cultural districts have been designated across the country.

Cultural district programs strive to advance a variety of planning goals including tourism, historic preservation, business and job development, and the clustering of arts and cultural activity. Many states have also established criteria for certifying or designating cultural districts; assistance offered to districts by state arts agencies ranges from planning and technical assistance to tax incentives.

Cultural Districts in Massachusetts

Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) Chapter 10, Section 58A and authorizes the establishment of criteria and guidelines for state-designated cultural districts. The MCC defines a cultural district is "a specific geographical area in a city or town that has a concentration of cultural facilities, activities, and assets. It is a walkable, compact area that is easily identifiable to visitors and residents and serves as a center of cultural, artistic and economic activity." The goals of cultural districts in Massachusetts, as defined by MGL Chapter 10, Section 58A, are to:

  1. Attract artists and cultural enterprises
  2. Encourage business and job development
  3. Establish the district as a tourist destination
  4. Preserve and reuse historic buildings
  5. Enhance property values
  6. Foster local cultural development

Cultural districts that are awarded designation maintain this status for five years; designation may be renewed for another five years if the district is in compliance with annual progress reporting requirements and there is evidence of ongoing municipal commitments to the cultural district's work.

As of June 2016, Massachusetts Cultural Districts legislation does not include a provision for grant funds or other financial rewards to communities. However, the MCC has compiled a list of state agencies and departments that administer technical assistance and funding opportunities that are beneficial to municipalities that have established cultural districts. This includes:

  • Film tax and abandoned building renovation tax credits, technical assistance, and development incentive programs offered by the Massachusetts Office of Business Development
  • Technical assistance with planning, community, and economic development projects focused on downtowns, including wayfinding, BIDs, and cultural district feasibility studies offered by the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative of the Department of Housing and Community Development
  • Technical assistance with historic facilities, parkways, open spaces, and landscapes offered by the Department of Conservation and Recreation
  • Matching grants for public humanities programming that explores the meaning of place and the special character or identity of a community or place offered by Mass Humanities
  • Signage placement on state roads and highways that direct people to cultural districts, grants that promote implementation of Complete Streets design standards in cultural district areas, and access to federal transportation enhancement grants that promote pedestrian, bicycle, and street and roadway beautification offered by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation
  • Promotion of cultural districts on consumer and travel industry sections of state tourism website, cultural district promotion in arts and history newsletters, and assistance on how to market cultural districts assets to domestic and international visitors offered by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

Learn more about the Massachusetts Cultural Districts Initiative.


District Management Strategies

Natick Center Cultural District
Fenway Cultural District
HyArts and Barnstable Village Cultural Districts
  • MOU with Town of Natick dedicates funding and outlines roles and responsibilities.
  • Additional funds are raised through membership and events.
  • The three-tiered funding approach of grant funding, member institutions, and corporate partners program provides the organization the opportunity to sustain the Fenway Cultural District programming.
  • Operating budget of Barnstable covers full-time staff position in Planning Department for HyArts District.
  • No funding source is explicitly dedicated to the districts.
  • Revenue generated by arts and culture programs helps fund the districts.
  • Paid, full-time Executive Director of Natick Center Associates assumed responsibility for district management as primary role.
  • Paid, full-time Executive Director and Assistant Director of the Fenway Alliance manage the district in addition to other activities.
  • The activities from the cultural district address the mission, vision, and needs of the organization.
  • Paid full-time Arts and Culture Coordinator in Planning Department assumed responsibility for HyArts Cultural District management.
  • Volunteer Executive Director of Cape Cod Art Center assume responsibility for Barnstable Village Cultural District management in addition to other responsibilities.
  • Committees and subcommittees provide a formal structure for coordination among arts and culture anchors, businesses, and residents.
  • Executive Committee and Fenway Cultural District Committee provide regular and ad-hoc opportunities to coordinate among district anchors and partners.
  • Annual calendar coordination meeting coordinates events and programming among partners.
  • Website, social media, and a shared calendar are tools to promote district assets and events.
  • Website, social media, shared community calendar are tools used to promote district assets and events.
  • Publishing district maps
  • Press releases
  • Websites and social media
  • Coordination with Main Street BID and Chambers of Commerce.
Key Takeaways
Natick Center Cultural District
  • Natick Center Associates made the Natick Center Cultural District central to its efforts to achieve broader economic development goals for Natick Center.
  • NCA uses committees and subcommittees to formalize relationships among and stay accountable to district partners, organizations and energized residents.
  • An Memorandum of Understanding with the town designates NCA as the managing entity for the district, delineates the Town's responsibilities for the district, establishes a Natick Center Cultural District Programming and Events committee, mandates a Town-designated "project representative" to act on its behalf as a member of the committee, and provides $80,000 in funds for programming and events.
  • The subcommittee structure has given the Natick Center Cultural District flexibility to organize and engage new organizations and residents to contribute to the growth of the District.
Fenway Cultural District
  • The Fenway Alliance is an organization with over 40 years of expertise. They are a mature organization and their current executive director has been at the organization for 17 years. Their experience in the community positions them well to manage the Fenway Cultural District.
  • The activities from the cultural district address the mission, vision, and needs of the organization. The cultural district designation was a natural fit because it aligned well with they were already programming in the area. Although it is not all of what they focus on, the cultural district is part of their work.
  • The three-tiered funding approach of grant funding, member institutions, and corporate partners program provides the organization the opportunity to sustain the Fenway Cultural District programming.
HyArts and Barnstable Village Cultural Districts
  • The Town of Barnstable's investments in artist workspaces through the Artist Shanty program and performance venues though the Aselton Park and cultural campus development in Hyannis laid the foundation for a thriving arts community that the cultural districts build on.
  • Communication for the purposes of coordinated scheduling, marketing and promotion among district partners and organizations that run arts and cultural programming is the key responsibility for district staff.
  • One paid, full-time staff position within the Town allowed for the growth and expansion of municipal arts and culture initiatives.
  • Securing a dedicated funding source for cultural districts remains a challenge.

Examples of Cultural Districts

A brief survey of cultural district across the country highlights the following districts that may offer relevant policies, regulations (zoning and land use), and programs that can incentivize cultural uses in a neighborhood cultural and innovation district. Each of the districts were selected to establish a geographically diverse collection of case studies that could offer examples of success from around the country. Arts and cultural districts that included a community theatre were prioritized over others. The use, operation, and maintenance of the thetres seems to benefit greatly from a "host" theater company that uses the facility as a home for its program needs and performances, with other events filling in around this baseline of activity.

Each district has a unique story of its origin, but they include a champion to drive the collective vision forward. Several districts were relatively grassroots or artist based enterprises such as the South End Arts and Business Association or the Crossroads Community Association. Other champions included a compact coalition that included an arts organization ready for change including the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization and Cleveland Public Theatre in Gordon Square, or the Beverly Main Streets with the City of Beverly and Montserrat College of Art. Other champions were private foundations and non-profit arts organizations. In each case, these champions are what really got the district off the ground and operating to make a positive change.

Mitigating Displacement

The specific challenges of each district evolve over time, but each district seems to face challenges that follow the general trajectory of district focused arts activities. This general pattern follows a few well-known steps - Step 1. Arts activity takes advantage of low cost space in an underused or undervalued district. Step 2. Arts activity draws attention to the district and positive changes begin to emerge. Step 3. Positive changes draw other real estate pressures. Step 4. Arts activity can no longer afford the district and move out. Mitigating this displacement is a fundamental consideration from the start of coordinated improvement efforts, and approaches include subsidizing costs to retain the affordability of artist activity, providing funding sources for artist activity, creating new spaces for artist activity, and maintaining or fostering the community aspects of the artist activity.