What are Cultural Districts, and what is their value? Arts leaders in Wabash and Fort Wayne weigh in

Growing up in Door County, Wisc., Andrea Zwiebel was “surrounded by art” from a young age.  

After earning her visual arts degree at Hillsdale College in Michigan, she and her husband moved to the Northeast Indiana city of Wabash in 2007 for its cost of living and for her job in nonprofit arts administration at the Honeywell Center. 

Today, about 15 years later, they’ve carved out a niche for themselves as artists in Wabash, running Small Onion Studio, where they sell handmade pottery at local farmers markets. He teaches art at a local high school, and she has become Executive Director of the main street organization, Downtown Wabash, Inc. Andrea Zwiebel

In June 2021, Zwiebel led Downtown Wabash’s efforts to achieve its Cultural District designation—the same year the Arts Campus Fort Wayne earned an official Cultural District designation of its own from the Indiana Arts Commission (IAC). 

Now, Wabash and Fort Wayne are the first two regional communities representing Northeast Indiana among 12 recognized Cultural Districts statewide.

So what are Cultural Districts, and what is their value? 

According to the IAC, Cultural Districts are mixed-use areas within cities, which have a dense cluster of authentic local art amenities and cultural identity. In many ways, they help cities cultivate the types of creative environments and talent needed to grow. In doing so, they report impact points like the number of creative jobs available, the creative industry’s earnings, and the revenues of cultural nonprofits (see Fort Wayne’s data and Wabash’s data here).

having a Cultural District is about creating an environment where people of many backgrounds see creativity around them and feel “surrounded by art.”

If you ask Zwiebel, the value of a Cultural District is deeper than facts and figures. It goes back to her first job at the Honeywell Center, managing and curating the organization’s art gallery. In this role, she took an interest in acclimating rural Indiana residents to different styles of visual art, from the classics they were comfortable with to experimenting with more contemporary, avant-garde expressions. In many ways, she sees the role of Cultural Districts and artist colonies in cities as much the same. They help introduce residents to more expressions of art and broader definitions of what “art” or “creative businesses” can be.

The main lobby of the Honeywell Center in Downtown Wabash. 

In Zwiebel’s experience, the “arts” aren’t just venues and galleries, paintings and performances. Sometimes, they take shape in restaurants or products, like those created at Wabash Woolen Works, the only manufacturing mill in Indiana producing luxury yarn, roving, and felted pieces. Ultimately, having a Cultural District is about creating an environment where people of many backgrounds see creativity around them and feel “surrounded by art,” much in the same way she did growing up.

Wabash Woolen Works is the only manufacturing mill in Indiana producing luxury yarn, roving, and felted pieces.

While Wabash is home to about 10,000 people, it has the arts and culture amenities of a much larger city thanks to the ongoing endowments of private investors, like Richard Ford and Mark C. Honeywell. Cathy Gatchel acts as the Chief Development Officer for the Honeywell Foundation, also known as Honeywell Arts & Entertainment, which supports many forms of arts and culture in the area, from hosting events at the Honeywell Center to reviving historic community assets, like the 13-24 Drive-In and the Eagles Theatre.
 
She sees a Cultural District designation as both an honor and a key element of creating a stronger ecosystem of support for artists and creative entrepreneurs.
 
“It’s not just a designation that says ‘good for you; you’ve got great amenities’,” Gatchel says. “It’s also to recognize how cities can create the type of communities where artists want to come and live and contribute to an artist colony atmosphere.”

Shoppers browse small businesses in Downtown Wabash during First Fridays.
 
Paige Sharp, Deputy Director of Programs at IAC, says Wabash and Fort Wayne have developed these types of creative environments—each in their own way.
 
“The cool thing about Cultural Districts in the state of Indiana is they all have their own unique vibes and energy,” Sharp says. “They’re all so different.” Paige Sharp
 
Fort Wayne has a strong contemporary and visual arts emphasis with its Downtown alleyway murals and installations by Art This Way and its Cultural District rooted at the Arts Campus. On the other hand, Wabash has a vaudeville vibe courtesy of its emphasis on performance arts and events rooted at the Honeywell Center and the recently renovated historic Eagles Theatre.
 
Sharp notes that both Fort Wayne and Wabash are recipients of funding from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation’s Regional Cities Initiative. It has been supporting community development since 2015, focused on projects that “enhance and enrich communities’ arts, culture, recreation, innovation and connectivity.”
 
“That’s a steep state investment, and you can see the results of that in the creation of these Cultural Districts,” Sharp says.

The fully renovated Eagles Theatre at 106 W. Market St. in Downtown Wabash.
  
Dan Ross, Vice President of Community Development at Arts United, says a Cultural District designation has been a long time coming in Fort Wayne. If you’ve lived in the city for the past few years, you might not have even realized the Arts Campus technically wasn’t a “Cultural District” until now.
 
“Fort Wayne has long had a very active arts and cultural scene, but the way our amenities were connected in the past didn’t quite align with IAC’s definition of Cultural District,” Ross says. “The conversations we’ve had over these past dozen years have helped us think about how we connect our amenities and activate them.”

Art Campus Fort Wayne’s Cultural District includes 17 resident arts and culture organizations and seven venues.
 
For about 12 years, Arts United has led an effort to achieve a Cultural District designation with various organizations in Fort Wayne. The successful pitch in 2021 was made by a collaboration with Visit Fort Wayne, the Downtown Improvement District, and the City of Fort Wayne’s Parks and Recreation Department.
 
In many ways, Ross sees the designation as a culmination of these organizations’ efforts as well as many individuals, connecting the arts to Downtown’s growth. Art Campus Fort Wayne’s Cultural District includes 17 resident arts and culture organizations and seven venues. As the area around the campus has added lifestyle amenities, like restaurants and urban housing, the community has been able to fill some of the gaps it needed to earn its designation.
 
“Those are pieces of the puzzle we didn’t have fully in place a dozen years ago, but we do now, with the addition of nearby amenities like the Landing,” Ross says. “What we have now in the Fort Wayne Arts District is a more dense congregation of cultural amenities than anyplace else in the state.”

Riverfront Fort Wayne and the Landing nearby have contributed to Downtown Fort Wayne's growth in recent years.
 
Cultural District designations can help communities continue to grow and foster the arts and culture, too. Since Wabash achieved its designation last summer, it has used the achievement to successfully apply for two grants, Gatchel says. She’s a member of a 10-person volunteer committee led by Downtown Wabash Inc. that plans to keep rallying support around the district and help more business and community members get plugged into it, starting at an upcoming First Friday event in June. 

Both Fort Wayne and Wabash are working to engage more local businesses of all types around what it means to have a Cultural District and how these designations can aid economic growth.

“Instead of being this hidden gem, we hope the Cultural District will make people even more proactively interested in visiting or starting a business here,” Gatchel says. “It helps us shine that light just that much more to let people know we have a whole ecosystem of opportunity.”

Shoppers browse small businesses in Downtown Wabash during First Fridays.
 
As part of their designations, both Wabash and Fort Wayne also get to participate in the IAC’s statewide Cultural District Consortiums. These virtual meetings allow leaders in the state’s Cultural Districts to connect and share ideas and best practices.
 
Gatchel says Fort Wayne and Wabash have been collaborating more closely on their own to build off each other’s assets, too.
 
“It gives us a commonality in that we’re on the same team,” Gatchel says. “It creates this connection that what’s good for Fort Wayne is good for Wabash, and what’s good for Wabash is good for Fort Wayne.”

Downtown Wabash has a vibrants arts scene with creative small businesses.
 
Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic—which put a pause on many arts and culture events globally— Gatchel believes it’s the sometimes-elusive feeling of having an active arts and culture scene that is becoming more valuable in Northeast Indiana.
 
Having two new Cultural Districts in the region is a physical reminder of that value.
 
“I think what we found during the pandemic and the absence of a lot of arts and culture is this: Art does serve a vital need in our community, and its absence can negatively impact people’s relationships and their overall mental wellness,” Gatchel says. “Having a Cultural District is one more way we can demonstrate that art isn’t just a luxury or leisurely pastime. It’s a need, and it has real economic development advantages.”

Meet Fort Wayne’s Cultural District
Fort Wayne’s  Arts District is a more dense congregation of cultural amenities than anyplace else in the state.

Its seven venues on the campus include:
  1. Arts United Center
  2. Auer Center for Arts & Culture
  3. Fort Wayne Museum of Art
  4. Hall Center
  5. History Center
  6. Parkview Physicians Group ArtsLab
  7. Rankin House
It also has 17 resident and presenting organizations that either have their home office on the Arts Campus or offer programming there.
  1. All for One
  2. ARCH
  3. Artlink
  4. Arts United
  5. Audiences Unlimited
  6. Cinema Center
  7. FAME
  8. Fort Wayne Ballet
  9. Fort Wayne Children's Choir
  10. Fort Wayne Civic Theatre
  11. Fort Wayne Dance Collective
  12. Fort Wayne Museum of Art
  13. Fort Wayne Philharmonic
  14. Fort Wayne Trails
  15. Fort Wayne Youtheatre
  16. History Center
  17. YLNI Farmers Market
Meet the Wabash Cultural District

Wabash will celebrate its Cultural District Designation at Downtown Wabash Inc.’s First Friday event in June.

Date: June 3
Time: 5-8 p.m.

The streets of Downtown Wabash will be filled with vendors, food trucks, family-friendly activities, and live music. The theme is Downtown pARTy to celebrate the dedication of the Wabash Cultural District. The ribbon-cutting is at 5:30 p.m. on Miami Street. Other activities include a large-scale kids painting opportunity and artisan demonstrations.

Wabash is the focus of a Partner City series in Input Fort Wayne underwritten by Visit Wabash County and Honeywell Arts & Entertainment. This series will capture the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.