Bringing Together Arts and Community Development

February 1, 2017

By: Miriam Axel-Lute

What does Creative Placemaking achieve?

Who has been behind the large increase in financial support for and attention to what has been termed “creative placemaking” over the past couple years, and why? “Not every community is lucky enough to be anchored by a hospital or a waterfront. But every community has artists,” says Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America. “It’s the one asset already present in every community.”Jason Schupbach, director of design programs for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), agrees. “When you want to repress or take away freedoms in a society, the first thing you do is take away its culture,” he says. “It is a representation of people, and it matters to people. Every community has artists, has culture, and many artists have [the] capacity to help people think about a future and how it could be different.” Artists have supported movements for social change and the building of healthy communities for thousands of years. But around the early part of this decade a few things happened that launched an intentional look at how arts and culture work could be harnessed for place-based goals. 

There was the formation of NEA’s Our Town program, the coining of the phrase “creative placemaking,” and the creation of ArtPlace, a 10-year funding collaborative focused on place-based arts and culture work. Early in the first Obama administration, recalls Schupbach, Austan Goolsbee, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, pointed out that the Great Recession was different from previous recessions because the huge number of homeowners underwater on their mortgages meant people were not able to sell their homes and move to better economic conditions. “He asked all the agencies to think differently,” says Schupbach. “How can we help Americans where they already live? Because they can’t move.” Out of that effort grew NEA’s Our Town program, which “invests in projects that contribute to the livability of communities and place the arts at their core.”

Our Town grant applications require a partnership between a local government and an arts organization. “That was on purpose to grab the attention of local political folks and say ‘This matters,’” says Schupbach, who has managed the Our Town program since its inception in 2010. “The response was enormous and amazing. Mayors’ offices were saying, ‘Why are all these arts organizations calling us and wanting to work with us?’ and arts organizations were calling us to say, ‘How do we work with the government? We’ve never done this.’ There are lots of groups we didn’t fund who are now working together [because of this process].” Through 2015, Our Town had awarded over 325 grants, totaling $26 million.


Terminology and Pushback

The term “creative placemaking” was coined in a 2010 white paper for the NEA written by Ann Markunsen and Anne Gadwa. The paper is largely devoted to making the case that investments in arts and culture projects focused on “animating” a specific place do in fact constitute economic development, and contribute to “livability, economic revitalization, creative entrepreneurship, and cultural industries.” The term—and some of the work that has happened under its auspices—concerned many people, some taking it as the latest funder buzzword they were going to have to adapt to, or a more dangerous cover for outside-led projects that encourage gentrification over equitable development.  Kenneth M. Reardon, reviewing Place-Making in Legacy Cities: Opportunities and Good Practices, wrote “Several of the projects presented as good practices featured the use of public funds and zoning regulations to advance a public space improvement plan crafted by powerful business and institutional interests with little, if any, input from low-income communities of color directly affected by these projects.”


Who benefits and who’s it for?

In a 2012 Next City article, Neeraj Mehta wrote, “Revitalizing an old building, turning it into a theater, and attracting new artists and audiences are all great outcomes. But if you can’t show me that a large percentage of these artists and audiences are from within the community, then I’m not so impressed.” Mehta suggested that to increase its focus on equity, ArtPlace should add “Who benefits?” to its list of criteria, and that Our Town should add a “for whom?” component to each of its goals. The concern could extend back to that original white paper, in which the term “equity” only shows up once in a single paragraph, in a not very sympathetic section titled “Countering Community Skepticism.”

“Art forms, organizations, and neighborhoods that feel left out may complain of inequity and oppose public support,” it warns. The narrative of gentrification, in which the presence of artists, public art, and art scenes helps pave the way for an influx of new residents in a poor neighborhood, lurks underneath many of these concerns. It is one that people working in all of these places both take seriously and are a bit frustrated by. “Successful creative placemaking projects are not measured by how many new arts centers, galleries, or cultural districts are built,” clarifies ArtPlace’s website. “Rather, their success is measured in the ways artists, formal and informal arts spaces, and creative interventions have contributed toward community outcomes.” And indeed, ArtPlace’s description of successful creative placemaking projects starts off sounding rather like a community organizing manual: “Define a community based in geography, such as a block, a neighborhood, a city, or a region; Articulate a change the group of people living and working in that community would like to see; Propose an arts-based intervention to help achieve that change.”


Creative people are everywhere

Victor Rubin of PolicyLink is adamant that arts-based strategies need not increase displacement risk if they are “done right.” Doing it right, he says, includes focusing on artists and culture bearers who are representative of the community in question. “Where outside expertise and talent is brought in,” he says, it has to be “in service of a community-driven agenda.” It also involves taking a broad view of arts and culture, “really mapping all the assets, not just the formal assets,” cultural humility and cultural competence on the part of artists, planners, or designers; a real commitment to inclusion and diversity; a real respect of local culture and vernacular; and fair allocation of public resources for arts and culture. Finally, he says, avoid language that implies that the revitalization of communities is reliant on attracting new people.

“There’s creative people everywhere.” Jamie Bennett of ArtPlace suspects that that idea of a “creative class” that is separate and apart from existing residents of lower-income areas does a lot to drive suspicion about arts-related strategies. There is a lot more to examine about that intersection, but when you get into the projects that are currently being funded by Our Town, ArtPlace, and others working in this space, such as the Kresge and Surdna foundations, you certainly find little talk of trying to attract a savior class of creatives with trendy art. Instead, you find projects like New Hampshire Ave: This Is a Place To…, in which a dance company uses art to strengthen bonds and culture within Tacoma Park, Maryland, a diverse community that has long been overshadowed and fragmented by a commuter arterial, and is now worried about displacement. Schupbach describes it as “using dance as a way to conduct community meetings.” Or you find the Made in Opa-locka project of Opa-locka CDC in South Florida, which turned individual houses into public spaces in a community that lacked any, and supported existing small business with design services.

As with so much about community development, the needs will be unique and the projects will vary from place to place. What’s important is figuring out how to have arts-related tools in the toolbox. “Having an artist as part of the community development process . . . prevents planners of a community development project from taking cognitive shortcuts,” says Woodruff. “The nature of an artist is to create, do something that hasn’t been done before. That can be scary for community developers. Sometimes they want to maximize efficiency rather than something new that hasn’t been done before. Artists create a healthy tension between the known and the unknown.”


* This is an edited exceprt shared with permission from Shelterforce. This article appeared in their Arts & Culture Magazine on Jan 10, 2017. It can be viewed in full here.