On Art and Economic Development: Tapping Artists’ Potential to Drive Post-COVID Healing

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

Joanna Castro ’98 helps revitalize communities by supporting artists and programs that educate, inspire, stoke pride and drive economic development. She calls her work “life in the ACE”—referring to the ways in which the arts, communities and economics (ACE) can intersect in service of the common good.


Born in NYC and raised in Venezuela and Washington, D.C., Castro double-majored in international studies and Spanish at Dickinson. She loved art, but never considered a career in that arena. Then she served an internship at the Picasso Foundation, during her junior year abroad in Málaga, Spain.

“It was my first arts internship and the first time I saw arts managers in action,” Castro recalled. “It planted a seed.” Back on campus, she wrote an honors thesis on the Picasso Museum and, as a member of the Student Senate finance committee, dipped her toe in arts funding work. Returning to Spain after graduation, she immersed herself in the European arts culture and earned a master’s degree in arts and cultural management at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid.

As part of her master’s program, Castro conducted research on cultural diplomacy and tourism. That led to a job in Manhattan, promoting Spanish language and culture on a global scale at Instituto Cervantes New York. A Manhattan-based career “in the ACE” had begun.

As longtime program director of Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA), and in her new role at West Harlem Development Corporation, Castro has worked to strengthen local organizations, develop community spaces and increase access to public resources. She’s launched a hospital exhibition series; developed panel discussions on arts and social justice; partnered on arts initiatives with elected officials, government agencies and economic-development corporations and dramatically expanded community arts programs. She also has helped artists and community leaders sharpen their skills, led youth-development programs and advised the Emerging Leaders Program at the New York Foundation for the Arts.

“Art really is the economic engine of the community,” she says, “and I think there’s been a greater appreciation in recent years of what artists do, which is to empower and reflect community and galvanize.”


Given the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented during the past year, Castro notes that arts role in community-building is more critical than ever. Art that addresses issues exacerbated by the pandemic, such as housing and food insecurity and racial justice, she says, can help move the needle on social justice.

“Change is needed, and it’s possible. … Nimble, community-based organizations can and will quickly pivot and do exciting new programming that will be great for the community, ” Castro explains. “Artists are incredibly resilient. They have the tools in their toolbox to change perceptions, build relationships and foster action.”

Castro recently discussed her work in a public lecture about how community-based cultural and arts initiatives can help heal and unite during challenging times. Delivered via Zoom, her talk was a part of The Clarke Forum’s The Good Life series.

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