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.