What the Arts Can Learn from the Jersey Tomato

August 18, 2010

The staff at the Dodge Foundation often challenges itself and our arts, environment and education grantees to think about the intersection of sustainability and creativity in our work. Leonardo Vazquez from Rutgers University’s Arts Build Communities makes this contemplation his daily work. He works to help community and cultural leaders make better choices in connecting the arts and community and economic development. ABC conducts practical research – most notably through the New Jersey Creative Vitality Index – provides technical assistance, and offers high quality continuing education. We hope you will share your ideas on how to better communicate the public value of the arts.

Highland Park Farmers Market Tomato

By Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, Arts Build Communities

If you’re struggling to get more support in your community for arts, take a walk in the woods or go to your local farmer’s market.

Cultural organizations and their supporters throughout New Jersey work hard to show that art is more than decoration or entertainment for elites – it makes important contributions to the health and wealth of all communities. Environmental advocates have also worked hard to make their pitch for a greener planet – and have had the kind of success most politicians could only dream about. Over the past 15 years, the vast majority of efforts to support open space got passed by voters¹. In at least 218 of New Jersey’s 566 municipalities, residents passed bond or spending measures to preserve open space and farmland.


There are three keys to the success of the open space/farmland preservation movement: The movement connects to what many voters value most; people see and feel real benefits to themselves (think farmer’s markets); and there are a number of advocacy groups that work from the national to the community level to promote environmental protection.

Preserved Farmland sign in NJYou can tell what people value most by what they are willing to give up or spend more to get. In most of New Jersey, residents are willing to give up what large cities offer – a wide array of public transit, the ability to walk to shopping or entertainment – for more space in their homes and green space outside. For some residents, protecting farms feels like protecting your heritage – or at least the myth that their community could be a Norman Rockwell-type town nestled in Americana. Another desire is preserving and “protecting” a place from outsiders². (Consider that in New Jersey, open space initiatives tend to be more successful in places that are fast growing and have a high percentage of homeowners.)

One of the biggest challenges to getting support from community members is answering the question: “What’s in it for me?” The open space movement excels at this. When people see the green “Preserved Farmland” sign that seems to stop a subdivision in its tracks, walk through the woods, or buy a plump Jersey tomato at a farmer’s market, they can see, feel, and touch the benefits.

What can artists and leaders learn from the environmental movement?

1. Connect the arts to what your audiences value most. Watch and listen before you advocate. What do they spend money on, even in a tough economy? What do they worry about? What do they hope for themselves and their families? Arts Build Communities interviewed dozens of cultural professionals who were successful in their communities and what we found could help you. Please see “Building communities that support and nurture the arts: What works best?

Arts Build Community banner

    2. Show influential people how arts and artists help make their communities better places to live. Encourage them to go to your opening or show. Promote public art. Connect to and support the groups that leaders belong to. Lend a hand. Tell the story (or draw the picture) of how the arts connects to more vibrant and prosperous communities. To get more tips, please visit Arts Build Communities blog NJ-ArtiFacts or its sister publication, PDI Advisor

    ArtPride logo

    3. Connect to the advocacy organizations working from the national to the local levels. Americans for the Arts is perhaps the biggest arts advocacy group in the nation. ArtPride New Jersey works to promote the arts around the state, and has a number of resources to help you make your pitch. (Full disclosure: ArtPride is a partner in Arts Build Communities.) If your community has an arts council, get to know the people there. If not, think about collaborating with your neighbors and fellow artists to create your own group.

    Above all else, remember that it takes time to change beliefs and behaviors. Even though the environmental movement is quite successful today, it took decades for it to bloom.


    ¹ In their article, “Selection and Design of Local Referenda for Land Conservation,” Spencer Banzhaf and his colleagues say that between 1998 and 2006, more than 75% of 1,550 ballot initiatives supporting open space passed. The article was published online in Journal of Policy Analysis and Management this month.

    ² This idea was explored by Stephan Schmidt and Kurt Paulsen in their study of open space voting patterns in New Jersey. To find out more, please see “Is Open Space Zoning a Form of Exclusionary Zoning?” Urban Affairs Review, September 2009.


    Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is the Director of the Professional Development Institute and The Leading Institute at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. He is an urban planner and leadership expert who specializes in cultural planning, community and local economic development, leadership and organizational development and strategic communications. He is a licensed planner in New Jersey and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is the author of Leading from the Middle: Strategic Thinking for Urban Planning and Community Development Professionals and edits two online publications, NJ-ArtiFacts and PDI Advisor. Recently, Arts Build Communities and the Bloustein Online Continuing Education Program launched a Professional Certificate Program in Cultural Planning and Development. Learn more about the certificate program and Deep Learning courses.

    Jersey tomatoes: Molly de Aguiar/Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation
    New Jersey Keep It Green campaign banner
    Preserved farmland sign: Hillsborough Township, NJ
    Gallery: Arts Build Communities
    ArtPride NJ Logo