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Art and culture: A path to progress and community development

Colorful mural on the Hello Peoria Building

URBANA, Ill. — Artists, arts organizations and collectives, and arts activities, in general, can play a valuable role in economic and social development, as well as in the long-term sustainability of communities. Creating artistic spaces fosters connections across sectors to improve physical and economic health, social justice, well-being and strengthens inclusion and diversity.

Often, when a community faces a social problem, art projects can foster cooperative dialogue and bring about solutions and change. Together, these things make it possible for communities to move toward their goals. Communities with a rich cultural scene are more attractive to live in, have greater economic stability, and attract a more diverse and educated workforce.

With funding from an Extension Collaboration Grant, the “Central Illinois' Cultural Assets: Mapping Resources, People and Meaning to Boost Community and Economic Vitality” research project was conducted in Peoria to foster reflection and connection across the city’s cultural ecosystem to identify strengths and opportunities and serve as a model for adaptation by other communities. Another objective of this pilot project was to provide cartographic products based on the research of the community's cultural assets: geospatial maps, videos, and reports.

Process & Timeline

The research was led by Urban and Regional Planning professors Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Andrew Greenlee and doctoral student Emma Walters of the University of Illinois, with the collaboration of specialists from Illinois Extension.

The research project began in the summer of 2021 by creating initial geospatial maps of the cultural properties. This was followed by video interviews with community members in the fall of 2021. In Spring-Fall 2022, video interviews and focus groups were held with members of the Peoria cultural ecosystem, and in Spring 2023, the cultural asset product is being shared publicly. This project adapted the Community Voice Method, which more can be learned about at

Approximately 150 individuals and organizations were contacted to develop this research, information was collected from 51 people through interviews, and two focus groups were conducted in the study area in Peoria.

This project also engaged many people and perspectives through an interactive video-based interview process to capture individual reflections on Peoria and its cultural assets to curate a more holistic perspective on the strengths and opportunities of the area’s cultural ecosystem.

The researchers established areas of guidance for other communities wishing to adapt to their engagement process. Within these areas, they provided information on how they conducted the process, what worked, what was learned, and lessons for other communities. An example of this process is how faculty used the University of Illinois Extension to engage and work with partners and create an understanding of the community representatives that would provide an inclusive Local Advisory Group.

Kathie Brown, a retired community and economic development educator, and Nancy Ouedraogo, CED specialist, facilitated the creation of the Local Advisory Group that allowed the researchers to conduct a transparent information-gathering process. In doing so, Greenlee stated, "Our Extension collaborators were able to leverage key partners to make connections, and the local advisory group advised and ensured ongoing representation and synthesis, or interpretation of information." 

The project has contributed significantly to Peoria and Illinois by fostering reflection and connections across the area's cultural ecosystem to identify strengths and opportunities, providing community research-based cultural asset mapping products that can inform local and regional community and sustainability planning, and serving as a pilot project to inform and model how cultural asset mapping can be applied in communities across Illinois.

Project Findings

The project findings included three main themes. First, a strong sense of community and collaboration existed in Peoria's artistic and cultural environment. However, it was partly isolated because of the historical remnants of racial segregation. According to the researchers, recognizing this was an important first step in addressing and creating a more inclusive arts and cultural environment and economy. Two other themes discovered were what Greenlee and Novak-Leonard called "evolutionary forces" and "community reproduction."

Extension Specialist Nancy Ouedraogo further described these "evolutionary forces" and "community reproduction" as powerful and important, stating that artists in the interviews kept alluding to a really brilliant aspect of arts and culture, not just as a kind of place-making, but rather as a kind of upward spiral, where as soon as ideas were put into practice, actual events and people in those spaces created a more substantial manifestation of arts and culture that might not have been thought of as such during the inception.

“I find this 'evolutionary force' fascinating because it means that any of us can look at a flyer or an invitation that defines an event or an exhibition in a certain way and think one-dimensionally about it,” says Ouedraogo, “but if we add to that the human or social element, it creates a completely different result, it creates a moment, a feeling, new perspectives, and waves of ideas for folks to continue to add value with.”

Ouedraogo also pointed out that this community capital's short and long-term ripple effect, especially when diversity and inclusion flourish, makes one think twice before putting a price tag on art and culture as a community asset. "All this creates an infinite absorptive capacity, impacting organizations, the community and the individual; that is, it influences the quality of life," Ouedraogo concludes. 

“This process demonstrates a model of inclusive engagement that could be replicated again and again, even or especially with more difficult issues that are important to the city,” says Illinois Extension assistant dean and CED program leader Anne Silvis. “It also serves as a starting point to help create spaces to have those difficult conversations and start thinking about how this can influence community decision-making and deliberation and strengthen community voices.”

More information will be posted on UIUC’s College of Fine & Applied Arts’ Arts Impact website

Image source: "Hello Peoria Building," Heather Brammeier with Bradley University students (2019-2021). Photo by Andrew Greenlee

SOURCE: Nancy Ouedraogo, Extension State Specialist
WRITER: Herbert Chavez, Media Communications Coordinator, Illinois Extension 

About Extension

Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. Illinois Extension is part of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.