Can Arts Organizations Become the “Third Place?”

Nearly 30 years ago, a curious and keenly observant urban sociologist named Ray Oldenburg wrote about the “anchors of community life”—café’s, pubs, bars, libraries, bookstores, main streets, barbershops, beauty salons and the post office— and called them the “third place.” Dr. Oldenburg, author of the book, The Great Good Place, identified these as neutral, public places where people gather, hang out, informally interact, put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversations around them. “Third places,” in contrast to first places, which Dr. Oldenburg identified as home, and second places, which he identified as work, are the heart of a community’s social vitality. He says they provide the foundation for both a civil society and the grassroots of democracy, and they are essential for the health of the community, as well as the health of its residents. Dr. Oldenburg notes that the most effective “third place” for building real community seems to be physical places that have the feel of home and people can easily and routinely connect with each other. He also says the “third place” fosters creative interaction and is a source of psychological comfort, because it’s a place where people can have the opportunity to know and be known by others.

I recently read an article about what it takes to establish a “third place,” and I began to wonder if one of the keys to community engagement might be transforming our arts organizations and cultural institutions into “anchors of community life;” a viable “third place” that consciously seeks to break down the walls of isolation, desolation and disparity. Can they become places that truly welcome everyone to enjoy the company, arts and conversation going on around them. What would that look like?

First of all, the concept of “placemaking,” emphasizes the importance of directly involving the community we’re seeking to engage in deciding how best to create public and shared spaces and how they will operate. This process takes in to account the needs of the existing community and gives them a sense ownership. And as Roberto Bedoya wrote in an essay about “creative placemaking,” it’s important that our process “understand and accommodate cultural difference in matters of civic participation… enhance the community’s understanding of citizenship beyond the confines of leisure pursuits and consumption.” “Creative placemaking” also helps “the citizens of a place achieve strength and prosperity through equity and civility, (and have) a sense of belonging.”

Dr. Oldenburg writes that there are eight qualities associated with a “third place,” and I’ve adapted the expanded definition to apply to our line of work.

     Neutral ground

  • People are motivated by desire and excitement to participate.


  • Everyone is treated equally—an individual’s economic or social status is unimportant

     Conversation is main activity

  • It’s important to provide opportunities for people to ask questions and dialogue, without judgement, about their experience.

     Accessibility and accommodation

  • All participants feel as if they have equal access and their needs will be fulfilled.

     The regulars

  • The definition of “regulars” expands beyond patrons and donors and makes all newcomers feel welcome.

     A low profile

  • The environment is never snobby nor pretentious; it is accepting of all people, from different walks of life

     The mood is playful

  • The tone of conversation is open, inviting and highly valued, and is never marked with tension or hostility.

      A home away from home

  • Participants often have the same feelings of warmth, belonging and fulfillment as they would in the place they call home.

Dr. Oldenburg was once asked in an interview whether social media was a new form of “third place.” He replied: “Third places are face-to-face phenomena. The idea that electronic communication permits a virtual third place is misleading. ‘Virtual’ means that something is like something else in both essence and effect, and that’s not true in this instance. When you go to a third place you essentially open yourself up to whoever is there. And they may be very different from you. If you don’t know your neighbors, you will be suspicious. And if you are suspicious, you will act accordingly. You don’t get neighborly on that basis. If you spend time with people you’re not going to hate them, it’s just that simple.” Dr. Oldenburg’s answer was a sobering reminder that we need to do more than “post” if we truly hope to cultivate and meet the needs of our audiences.

I hope you will consider taking the time to seek community input into how your organization or institution can become an “anchor” or “third place.” The community needs may be as simple tables and chairs with nearby outlets and Wi-Fi access or making a space available for monthly community-arts engagement activities. Dr. Oldenburg writes: “Both the joys of relaxing with people and the social solidarity that results from it are disappearing for want of settings that make them possible.” Let’s open even wider our doors and expand the parameters of our mission to become the bridge that provides both a context and “third place” for social solidarity, multicultural exchange and humanistic understanding.