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Russian City Uses Arts for Economic Revitalization

Last updated on 2014.06.02

Last weekend's New York Times had a wonderful story about creative cultural development in Perm, Russia. Perm was one of the Soviet Union's "closed cities." Westerners couldn't go there; Perm didn't even appear on Soviet maps. The Soviets built tanks and artillery in Perm, and they didn't want us capitalist dogs snooping on their manufacturing might... or on all the political prisoners shipped through this gateway to the Urals and Siberia.

Perm's manufacturing economy took a hard hit from the collapse of Communism, just like the rest of Russia. Jobs and population declined:

"A city must have a dream," said Oleg Chirkunov, 52, who was appointed governor of Perm Province in 2004. A local supermarket magnate fond of blogging about art and culture, Mr. Chirkunov works in a drab, Soviet-era government building that looms over Perm's central square like a guillotine. "When I got appointed, Perm was losing a large portion of its young people: 160,000 in eight years. Something needed to be done to make this an attractive place to live." Options considered included making Perm a center for medical care or higher education. "We wanted something that would bring quicker results," Mr. Chirkunov said [Finn-Olaf Jones, "A Bilboa on Siberia's Edge?," New York Times, 2011.07.22].

Perm needed something new to define itself and revitalize its economy. But Perm's leaders didn't just cling to their history as a manufacturing center. Perm turned to the arts:

[Mr. Chirkunov] brought in a team to "rebrand" the city, appointing as the minister of culture not a politician but Boris Milgram, a former university classmate who had left Perm to become an avant-garde theater director in Moscow. He also hired city planners and Dutch-based KCAP architects to oversee a 50-year master plan for citywide construction and the development of the Kama River waterfront. According to Mr. Chirkunov, almost 3 percent of the region's budget, 1.5 billion rubles ($53 million), has been set aside this year for cultural development [Jones, 2011].

The results? Perm now has a dozen theaters. It is drawing comparisons with and audiences from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Its central square is packed with arts festivals all summer long. Street art is springing up in numerous locations. NYT's reporter sampled local sentiment:

A formidable-looking middle-age Russian Valkyrie paused to watch me photograph a stylized metal mermaid that seemed to leap out of the sidewalk. I asked her what she thought of the city's street art, and she shrugged her broad shoulders. "I don't know what to make of it," she said, "but it brought you here, didn't it? It's nice to see foreigners in Perm" [Jones, 2011].

You don't have to be a paint-spattered dreamer to recognize the value of the arts in revitalizing a city. The Lake Area Improvement Corporation's failed Forward Madison program seems to have ignored the arts. Perm's leaders faced an even harder economic downturn than Madison's during the last decade, and their push for creative cultural development is producing some preliminarily promising results. Perhaps our leaders can learn from our failure and from Perm's example and take a different tack on Forward Madison II.

Related: Maybe we could combine artistic revitalization with downtown renovation. Rapid City's working on that. Says new mayor Sam Kooiker of his city's big downtown project, "I believe Main Street Square will help continue the path of revitalizing downtown.... A dying downtown is a sign of a dying town, and we already do have a thriving downtown, and this will create additional synergy and excitement."Sam must be studying run-on sentences with Kristi Noem... but he's reading the right stuff on economic development!


  1. Stan Gibilisco 2011.08.01

    Reminds me of Homestead, Florida, wiped out by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The agricultural town reinvented itself as an arts community.

    Arts aren't the only reinvention mode. Look at Greensburg, Kansas. After the tornado, they've been hard at work "going green" (as in alternative energy).

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.08.01

    Interesting, Stan! According to this city website, Homestead has gotten a 12-acre/11-block stretch of downtown designated as a historic district. They've also created an Arts, Entertainment, and Antiques District.

    But I wonder: should we be wishing for a tornado to come clean the slate and jump start development in Madison?

  3. LK 2011.08.01

    I don't think communities have to wait for natural disasters to develop a community based on the arts or green tech.

    The bigger problem seems to be entrenched interests that see arts or green tech as a threat. SD light manufacturers want low wage labor. Artists may have different priorities.

    Green tech flies in the face of city planning models that public policy courses teach.

    Richard Florida who is something of a guru for the growing communities with artists and green tech movement makes some SD folk unhappy when he points out that many of the communities that successfully use the arts as an economic tool have a larger than average gay population.

    In short, the problem seems to be that those who currently have the political and economic power feel threatened by the unpredictable gadflies who produce art, support green tech, or self employ themselves at home.

  4. Chris 2011.08.01

    I think the previous post nails a lot of the social issues around developing arts and such pursuits in rural, red-cultured states, and not to dwell on these negative points, but they need to be brought out into the open as part of a healthy mature discussion, and I appreciate those comments being shared and directed towards this conversation.

    Our Madison community does have incredible potential, just not with the current leadership structure so firmly cemented in place and often held in such untouchable regard, as to be above being questioned, addressed, otherwise spoken too in any respect. This firmly entrenched position of a false sense of authority and rule, shown by a few within our community, only continues to push Madison into a deeper and more arrogant era of cultural and economic isolation, which we have experienced for the better part of the past several decades.

    I do believe in this community, yet, without a dynamic change in both attitude and perspective, and a great realization, we will continue to struggle to progress beyond the most meager of expectations, and be held to maintain the way its always been, as if that is all we deserve.

    I for one want something more, as do so many of us, and I will continue to work to ensure that a small part of that cultural-based thinking continues forward within our community and beyond.

  5. Justin Johnson 2011.08.02

    Great discussion! I would love to see a Madison not content on being just another small farming community near Sioux Falls. The assets are there. There are few towns of Madison's size that can boast a college like DSU. People are already taking notice of our lakes. Maybe we should invest in community events not already found in every other South Dakota small town. Sorry "Crazy Days," but that's just more of the same.

  6. Michael Black 2011.08.02

    If you want Madison to thrive then you need to keep the young people here after high school and after college.

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