What does a city need in order to have a successful arts scene?

Do we have one in Waco? If not, what do we need to do to get one — one that really invigorates the city with music, visual arts, sculpture and drama?

It’s a tough question, but it’s one a lot of very thoughtful people are grappling with these days.

And that’s a good thing because how that question is answered will help determine the success of the arts in Waco — and the vibrancy of our community as a whole.

Contrary to the wishes and perhaps the assumptions of a lot of people, an arts scene isn’t something that can just pop up unattended.

To have a flourishing arts scene, four distinct ingredients have to be in place, and each one needs to be cultivated purposefully.

First, there needs to be a sizable community of working artists.

Second, there need to be numerous venues where these artists can regularly show their works or perform.

There need to be dedicated patrons: people who come out and watch, listen to and see the arts as they’re put forth; and, moreover, actively support them with their pocketbooks by buying their works and buying tickets and season subscriptions.

Finally, there needs to be people who write about the arts and who maintain a serious and ongoing conversation about them.

Conversation for the arts is like oxygen is to fire. Ignore them and they slowly wither.

The debut of my column this week seeks to contribute to that fourth element by regularly drawing attention to what’s going on with the other three.

I wrote a book recently about public funding of the arts, and amid all the great stories of wild controversy, political infighting and inspiring success, one of the things I came to appreciate was the civic role the arts play — that is, just how much the arts can contribute to a community.

I saw this in city after city.

I saw Greensboro, N.C. grow more enthused by the day because a local theater group had moved into a long-vacant building in the struggling downtown and was converting it into a state-of-the-art, 300-seat theater.

In St. Louis, the city, along with private investors, took two blocks and turned them into a public sculpture garden with an impressive array of art that today is without peer in a comparable-sized city.

The mayor calls it “one of the great cultural attractions of St. Louis,” and everyone from families to workers downtown to St. Louis Cardinal fans after a game, now gather there.

Closer to home, Fort Worth’s lovely Bass Performance Hall and Dallas’ impressive new performing arts district have energized those downtowns, bringing people into the city on an almost nightly basis.

All of these speak to a civic commitment to the arts. And Waco has the potential do any number of similar things.

Yes, it’s sometimes hard to put into words just what having sculptures in public places, or several interesting and active art galleries in close proximity to one another, or lots of live theater and music of different sorts precisely brings to a city’s life.

But the head of the National Endowment for the Arts recently put it very simply: “The arts help create the sorts of places where people like to live, work, and play.”

I look forward to exploring how that can be the case here in Waco.

David A. Smith is a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University and is a member of the Waco Cultural Arts Festival Board of Directors. He can be reached at www.davidasmith.net