Finding Rural Arts Magic at ArtPlace Summit 2016

April 21, 2016

By: Pilar McKay, Rural Arts Weekly

­­This week we are lucky to have Pilar McKay, one half of Rural Arts Weekly, joining us for a guest blog post about her thoughts, findings, and questions that came up from our ArtPlace Summit. Without further ado, take it away, Pilar!


What is the magic of creative placemaking? During ArtPlace Summit 2016, I was determined to find an answer to share with my fellow rural artists. Arriving in Phoenix, I found myself inspired quickly by magic (cue self-driving Phoenix SkyTrain!).

The Summit was a conference of ArtPlace grantees and interdisciplinary creative placemaking professionals. Introducing people to the field, I often describe it as artist-driven community development that turns spaces into places. A more detailed creative placemaking conversation is contained in this Jason Schupbach interview of Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus.

Sessions were full of creative ideas and magic from around the country. We watched rural projects present alongside urban ones, which was inspiring to see ourselves (rural artists) included in the creative placemaking field alongside everyone else. Currently, ArtPlace America has funded 233 projects with around 23% identifying as rural and 6% of the 233 identifying as Native.

At first, I was overwhelmed by all the magical formulas that I heard at grantee presentations. Eventually I discovered a theme: the dynamic combination of people and place was where the “magic” of creative placemaking was made.

This revelation made me nervous for rural creative placemaking: with our declining populations, how will we continue to make magic in our communities?

Our rural population challenge was highlighted in the last session when Jamie Bennett, Executive Director of ArtPlace America, asked: “what community does not have issues of displacement?” Displacement, the act of economic or human forces causing groups of people to be moved from their community and being replaced by another group of people, was a theme in nearly every session I attended.

Several rural-based creative placemakers approached the microphone saying the displacement cycle was not being completed in our communities. Similar rural experiences were shared: our populations left, they were never replaced, and we want people to move back to our communities.

This exchange reminded me that displacement in its current context has an assumption that population was replaced in some way. For rural communities, our populations were displaced – people moved to other regions or cities in hopes for more favorable economic, social, and cultural conditions – and few returned or were replaced by other people.

I found that the magic creative placemaking formula included people, but as I mentioned before I was nervous for rural communities. I needed a new perspective to help me address the rural population challenge.

Enter Jamii Tata from Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition in Detroit: his creative placemaking approach challenges people in his community to think about what assets they have – not about things they don’t have. His project teaches young artists to create art with what is available in the neighborhood like making pallet furniture and vegetable gardens. They create something in an area typically defined by its “nothings” – changing the perceptions of people inside and outside of the community about place.

The ArtPlace Summit was indeed magical to place an urban creative placemaker like Jamii and me (a rural arts advocate) in the same space. His model of asset framing is exactly what rural artists could use to address our rural population challenge.

If rural artists take Jamii’s lead, then we can show our local communities and cities in our region the assets we already have. What if we challenge ourselves to spend a day, month, year or lifetime of seeing what we have, instead of what we don’t have? Then we would be able to see communities full of opportunity, not spaces absent of everything.

Perhaps then, we can be defined by the people who still live in our communities and not by the people who left.

Several rural-based creative placemaking projects use this approach of thinking in developing their assets and approaching challenges. Here are highlights of two rural creative placemaking projects doing this work:

Artists in our Midst: Imagine driving down the highway, and then all of a sudden a mobile banking and arts classroom zooms past you, on its way to teach artists new skills to help them build their businesses. The First Peoples Fund and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation’s Rolling Rez Arts bus is just that.

The asset: a large percentage of reservation residents identify as artists.

The challenge: lack the entrepreneurial skills to market their art. The reservation consists of 30,000 Oglala Lakota tribal members, many of whom live off the reservation and are spread across 70,000 square miles of South Dakota and Nebraska. To address these challenges, the community decided to create a mobile classroom that brings learning opportunities to where artists practice their art. They also partnered with a bank to have basic financial resources on board as well. Rolling Rez Arts is mobile magic.

Space: When populations decrease, neighborhoods are hallowed out and buildings become vacant. Based in Ajo, Arizona, International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) uses an asset-framed approach to revitalize vacant spaces. Two former schools have been re-developed: one as an affordable housing space for artists, developed with artists in mind so they can be part of Ajo’s future; and the other was transformed into the Sonoran Desert Conference Center hotel and event space.

After meeting Jamii Tata, I realized that asset framing is what many rural creative placemakers, like the Rolling Rez Arts and ISDA, use successfully. Applying the approach to our rural population challenge may help us create magic in our creative placemaking projects.

I encourage rural artists to listen in to the HowlRound coverage from the 2016 ArtPlace Summit for even more magic. And on behalf of rural artists, I invite practitioners from all types of communities to come visit our rural areas, learn with us, and see the magic in our places. 

Pilar McKay is one half of Rural Arts Weekly, a communication network for rural artists and creative placemakers. @RuralArtsWeekly (on twitter) hosts a weekly chat (#RuralAW) on various topics of interest to Rural Artists. She is based in Western New York where she works on a variety of creative placemaking projects. She also teaches public communication at American University’s School of Communication.


Thank you so much, Pilar!