SALT LAKE CITY — If you spend time downtown, you may have seen the words “THE BLOCKS” — written just like that, all in caps — on numerous buildings, billboards and sidewalks. If you haven’t, chances are you’ll see it soon. And if the city has its way, you’ll be seeing the term for at least the next two decades.
None of this explains what The Blocks actually is, though. The answer is less self-evident than the city’s current marketing implies.
According to some folks in downtown’s arts community, The Blocks could potentially be a big deal — one that shapes that community’s future. In that spirit, here’s what The Blocks actually is, what it entails and why it might impact downtown for years to come.
What it is
“We really want to push up these legacy arts organizations, some of these smaller dance companies, local artists, buskers, whatever it may be,” said Ryan Mack, the Downtown Alliance’s communication and marketing director. “We want to brand it and push it as The Blocks.”
Essentially, The Blocks is a rebranding of the “Cultural Core” — an initiative launched almost a decade ago to raise the profile of downtown’s many arts organizations. According to Mack, this Blocks rebranding includes a more intense marketing strategy, a new website providing expanded info on downtown’s many arts resources and a new agreement between the city and county to funnel additional sales tax revenue into The Blocks’ marketing campaign.
The Downtown Alliance, a longtime Salt Lake City non-profit, is contracted to oversee the initiative for the next five years. Mack said the city and county will jointly devote up to $500,000 of new sales tax revenue every year to this initiative, for the initiative’s 20-year duration.
According to Mack, the city’s goal is to have a more recognizable arts district. This new approach, he said, has more marketing power behind it than what any individual theatre or gallery could provide, “Because sometimes they do a great job at marketing their own events, and they have their own niche groups, but with this, we can really pull everyone together and be effective in our marketing,” Mack said.
The accompanying website, theblocksslc.com, will be a centralized “one-stop shop” where arts patrons can find info on downtown arts organizations, events and artists, Mack explained.
“Before The Blocks, you’d have to really know a specific arts entity well to know what they’re doing,” he said.
Why it matters
Jerry Rapier, the artistic director for downtown’s Plan-B Theatre Company, said the term “Cultural Core” was known internally among downtown’s arts community, but that the Cultural Core years were “a laborious process” marked by indecision. Ultimately, however, he thinks those years were necessary: They helped diffuse the long-held territorialism that kept the arts community from intermingling. Changing that mindset was in many ways a first step to what’s happening now.
“It’s the mindset of the performing arts in general, of holding on tightly with both hands to those who support you, for fear of that support going away,” Rapier said.
“And we’ve gone through this process over the course of the very long incubation period of the Cultural Core — getting to know each other in a different way, getting to know each other’s work in a different way, in a more intimate, insider way,” he continued. “So we’re not just acquaintances, we’re friends now. How can we expect the community at large to have that kind of relationship with our work if we don’t have it with each other?”
On the patron side, this familiarity has a ways to go. People may know about their favorite arts venues, but have no knowledge of the other arts organizations on the same block.
“We live in a community where everybody wants to park by the front door,” Rapier explained. “These are incredibly walkable venues, but we don’t necessarily think in those terms.”
Kristian Anderson, the executive director at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, chalks up this current rebranding to downtown’s particular life cycle — he’s previously worked in larger markets like Denver and Seattle, and thinks the timing of The Blocks fits into Salt Lake City’s own evolution.
“It’s just the right place at the right time,” Anderson said. “I think a lot of these arts entities have been working together, it’s just that the branding dollars and the messaging dollars probably haven’t been there, so it perhaps hasn’t been quite as apparent.”
Unlike arts/humanities grants, money raised by the new sales tax agreement won’t go directly into the arts organizations’ pockets. Mack said the sales tax funds go back to the Downtown Alliance, which then dedicates that money to continued marketing for The Blocks. Taxes, he said, were not raised by this initiative, and in 2010 the city and county reached an agreement to distribute sales tax funds up to $500,000 yearly.
“None of us receive direct compensation. It really is a rising tide raising all ships,” Anderson added. “I think a lot of these arts entities have been working together, it’s just that the branding dollars and the messaging dollars probably haven’t been there, so it perhaps hasn’t been quite as apparent.”
Drew Erhgott, the Leonardo Museum’s creative director, said he’s hopeful about The Blocks’ future impact on downtown’s arts organizations and patrons.
“It’s so young. It’s a 20-year initiative,” Ehrgott said. “And I’m sure the program will grow and mature as time passes. I’m sure the future is really going to bring a lot of organizations together.”
Initial efforts have done just that. As part of The Blocks rebranding, the Downtown Alliance is organizing occasional free community events that bring different arts organizations together. Its first event, a free block party, happened July 13 and drew hundreds of visitors. According to a recent press release, upcoming events include a 150-foot public mural at the underpass of the 200 West corridor behind the Salt Palace Convention Center, as well as a plein air painting festival.
“People tend to assume that if I’m going to a concert at The Complex, I’m not interested in Ballet West,” Rapier said. “But that isn’t necessarily true — I might just not know about one.”