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Understanding Creative Placemaking
Carol Coletta and Joe Cortright

Creative placemaking is generating a lot of excitement among people who shape communities large and small across America.  People increasingly see the arts as a means of bringing new value and new investment to the places where they live.

Some of the most persuasive writing on this subject has been done by Ann Markusen and her colleagues.  Her paper, “Creative Placemaking” commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, outlined the rationale for the creation of ArtPlace, a collaboration of national and regional foundation funders, banks and federal agencies.

It is therefore surprising to find Markusen making ArtPlace the target of her criticisms about the limits of data to enrich our understanding of creative placemaking.

Let’s start by acknowledging an indisputable fact: While it has generated great interest, defining creative placemaking and its results is still a work in progress.  The concept of vibrancy, which ArtPlace is using to understand what happens in the neighborhoods where it makes grants, requires an especially detailed drill-down into its meaning and its metrics.

Both concepts draw Markusen’s criticism.  Her concerns can be generally summarized as follows:

1. Creative placemaking and vibrancy are ill-defined, fuzzy concepts, and therefore cannot be measured with data.

2. Even if you choose to use data to measure creative placemaking and vibrancy, the data available are not perfect and therefore should not be used.

3. Even if the data were perfect, funders are using them incorrectly to evaluate their grantees.

4. Even if a funder decided to use them for evaluation, creative placemaking metrics are suffering from a lack of important arts outcomes.

We disagree on all counts.

The Art of Creative Placemaking
In an effort to advance understanding of creative placemaking and its effects on communities, ArtPlace has developed a set of Vibrancy Indicators that will be used as measures of whether a neighborhood in which ArtPlace invests becomes more vibrant over time.

The Vibrancy Indicators are not measures of creativity. They are measures of place.

The ArtPlace theory of change, expressed in the three-part term creative/place/making, is that creative stuff (like the arts) produces effects in places, making them better.

ArtPlace isn’t measuring the creative “input.”  It’s measuring the place “output.” How does the place change?  How successful is the making as a result of the creativity ArtPlace supports?

ArtPlace is not attempting to narrowly define the possible creative endeavors that one might pursue to influence place.  Nor does ArtPlace intend to judge the success of the art practice after the fact.  (We accept that implicitly.)

The ArtPlace argument is that beyond their intrinsic values, these arts activities have other, non-arts impacts on places.

As a result, the effect of art on places cannot truly be tested if by definition arts are equated with vibrancy or a successful place.  If creative placemaking has an outcomes problem, it isn’t solved by redefining inputs as outcomes.

That artists will regard arts as a condition of vibrant places is not surprising.  But we’re not trying to convince artists that art can impact place.  We’re trying to provide evidence to those who do not already share that view.

If we define arts as vibrancy, we’re peddling a tautology, not testing a hypothesis.

“Definitional Challenges” and the “Dearth of Good Data”
In being confined to measuring things for which data are actually available, the Vibrancy Indicators necessarily fall short of an imaginary and unattainable ideal.  All such indicators do.

However, ArtPlace has adopted the strategy used by Markusen in her paper on the Artistic Dividend of using indirect proxy indicators – phenomena that are likely to be correlated with or reflect vibrancy, even if they are not vibrancy itself.

The Vibrancy Indicators are measures or proxies that move in tandem with improvements in vibrancy.  They are the shadows on the cave wall or the footprints or echoes we observe in vibrant places.  When they increase, we have evidence of an increase in vibrancy.

Markusen mentions a couple of ArtPlace indicators and suggests that they may unfairly penalize some group or activity.  One example is the use of cell phone counts.  In her view, that misses the poor, the elderly and minorities.  She worries that measuring racial, ethnic and income diversity but not age structure will cause creative placemaking to promote ageism.

While it is true that cell phone use is not evenly distributed throughout the U.S. population, the disparities are not what most people assert.  Eighty-eight percent of Americans own cell phones today.  African Americans and Latinos own cells at exactly the same rate as non-Hispanic whites.  Eight-two percent of low-income households, and 67 percent of those ages 65 and older own cell phones.  The key advantage to using cell phone data is that it measures the use of space by people by time of day, a critical element of vibrancy that to our knowledge, no other source provides.

Although each individual indicator, by itself, has limitations and is an incomplete reflection of vibrancy in all its aspects, the 10 different indicators read as a group give us a credible way of measuring positive movement in placemaking.  Do they capture every nuance?  No.  Will there be other idiosyncratic and unmeasurable qualities that contribute to the sense of place?  Of course.  But to eschew measurement entirely is to blow out the few candles we have and curse the darkness.

Although Markusen is concerned that the data to measure vibrancy are lacking, her solution is to build sophisticated, longitudinal causal models.   The guts of any such model would be a great mass of data and careful statistical analyses of the relationships between inputs and outputs.  How one would build such a model without vastly more of the same kind of data that have been used to construct Vibrancy Indicators she does not explain.

“Political Dangers”
ArtPlace has a responsibility to applicants to provide its rationale on why certain projects receive grants and others do not. These guidelines are laid out clearly on the ArtPlace website.

The Vibrancy Indicators aren’t a substitute for these guidelines.  They were developed to evaluate the kinds of projects that over time seem to have the biggest impacts on place as measured by changes in the people, activity and value in a place – what we call vibrancy.  They are not intended to pronounce the success or failure of individual projects, especially in artistic terms.

Contrary to Markusen’s implication, neither are the Vibrancy Indicators a substitute for in-depth third-party qualitative evaluations of creative placemaking. These indicators are a vital complement to that important, but expensive work.  For example, ArtPlace is funding the University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts project because this kind of deep dive can be illuminating.

But the cost of that kind of evaluation actually exceeds the median size of an ArtPlace grant.  It’s simply cost-prohibitive to rely on that tool alone.

To supplement the use of data-driven metrics and deep dive evaluation, ArtPlace also provides a web platform for creative placemakers to share stories, ideas, successes, and failures with each other and the world.  These posts are mined for information and lessons learned that can be shared.  To accelerate the information sharing among practitioners, ArtPlace grantees are convening in January to create a well-connected community of practice.

Charting a Path
ArtPlace is intentionally working with a set of metrics collected regularly and ubiquitously by others.  We also chose metrics that can be reasonably applied to small geographies.  Our goal is to make the system of metrics available, not just to the communities where ArtPlace invests, but also to those everywhere who want to understand what’s happening in the neighborhoods where they are working.

In addition to the Vibrancy Indicators, ArtPlace has developed two additional and separate sets of measures to understand what happens in places where arts are present – a fact Markusen seems to have missed.

Separate measures of core arts businesses and arts nonprofits (drawn from the same NCCS database that Markusen has relied on in her own research) are being used as part of a new identification of “America’s ArtPlaces”.

ArtPlace has also developed a Diversity Index that measures racial and ethnic diversity, along with income diversity.

Markusen conflates the three – Vibrancy Indicators, America’s Most Animated Arts Places, and the Diversity Index — as all being Vibrancy Indicators.  But they are distinct—and for an important reason.

There are many important questions that can be investigated further because these three concepts are separated.  The correlation of the Vibrancy Indicators with the core arts indicators can be analyzed to see whether the presence or increasing presence of the arts is correlated with changes in vibrancy.  Likewise, we can look at neighborhoods that have high levels of vibrancy (or are experiencing increases in vibrancy) to see how this relates to neighborhood income mix and racial and ethnic diversity.

Like any arts endeavor, measuring the outcomes of creative placemaking is challenging.  We welcome the opportunity to clarify our approach. Efforts to promote creative placemaking can only be improved by constructive conservations about how to understand creative placemaking and its effects. There are a wide range of methods and approaches that can provide insights and enrich our understanding and enliven the discussion of creative placemaking, and ArtPlace is open to considering the evidence from all of them.  This wouldn’t be an issue if we had perfect data and fully fleshed out causal models, but we don’t.  Until we do, we will continue to gather, analyze and reflect on the best objective data we have to find important clues on the best ways to improve communities through creative placemaking.