It’s been nearly two years since the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released How to Do Creative Placemaking: a 200-plus-page guide to cultivating, nurturing, and sustaining all the elements necessary for successful creative placemaking efforts. The guide has since been read and referenced by thousands of people and communities across the country.
ArtPlace recently caught up with Jen Hughes, the agency’s director of design and creative placemaking, about how the guide came about, the impact it’s had, and what’s next for creative placemaking at the NEA.
ArtPlace: The NEA marked its 50th anniversary with a concert at the White House, the Imagine Your Parks partnership with the National Park Service, and the publication of the guide How to Do Creative Placemaking, among other initiatives. Why did the agency want to produce this particular guide as part of these proceedings?
Hughes: For us in general, the 50th was a celebration of and reflection on the NEA’s contributions to the greater arts and culture field, and the guide was a wonderful publication to mark and denote them. But beyond that, the field had been clamoring for how-to guides, so we also thought it was important to make something that could physically be in someone’s hands: a compendium of perspectives on this work. It includes the voice of a mayor, a housing authority leader, artists, people in the transportation community... We wanted to bring out that diversity of perspectives on creative placemaking, and help introduce new audiences to it.
2016 also marked a moment in time for the field of creative placemaking. The Exploring Our Town digital storybook was also very successful; that was launched in 2014. This guide put some of that into print form, and updated it with more voices from different sectors and angles.
ArtPlace: How was the guide distributed? How has it been received?
Hughes: In December 2016, the Wilson Center hosted a conversation about it. That was like a launch; it was a powerful event to celebrate the work of the field. Different arts agencies have also distributed the downloadable version far and wide.
Then we started getting requests from around the country for physical copies, and did a print run of 1,000. We actually just did another print run of the same amount. We saw many different kinds of people requesting it: everyone from academics who are teaching a course on this curriculum, to foundations who are holding a summit, to chambers of commerce… People from cities and towns of all shapes and sizes. It’s been interesting to see that we keep getting those requests, even two years on.
We also use the guide in our Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which hosts five sessions throughout the country annually. We’re glad to be introducing more mayors to creative placemaking subject matter: each of them receives a copy of the book, and sometimes they request additional copies for their staff. It’s nice to have a physical artifact on the shelf that can remind people about putting these principles into practice locally.
ArtPlace: Do you want to share any of your own ‘top takeaways’ from the guide?
Hughes: Since the NEA, through Our Town, is investing so much in arts in government, I would say that chapter four [“Arts + Government”] is really compelling. Nicole Crutchfield’s essay about how a planning department can shift their focus in collaboration with an artist is great. So is Marty Pottenger’s about building trust with police through the arts. Innovative arts and government partnerships like these are really near and dear to the NEA and Our Town; they’re what we’re trying to help create and develop.
ArtPlace: Here’s a potentially hot potato. Is there anything about the NEA’s approach to creative placemaking that’s changed with the new presidential administration?
Hughes: No, there isn’t. We continue to do our work to help advance the field and support practitioners. Creative placemaking has deep roots and resonance in communities all across the country. 23 percent of Our Town grants are going to rural communities where there can be a lack of philanthropic investment. We’re an agency that serves every congressional district in the country, and we have a strong commitment to doing that.
ArtPlace: What’s next for creative placemaking efforts at the NEA?
Hughes: We’ve been working with LISC [Local Initiatives Support Corporation], The Kresge Foundation, and PolicyLink over the past two years to develop technical assistance resources for Our Town grantees. This November, we’re going to launch a webinar series that’s informed by these resources and that builds off the How to Do Creative Placemaking guide: it will continue that type of compendium, and include more tactical, specific tools that get to the heart of how to do this work. We’ll cover topics like ‘setting the table for partnership’ and ‘thinking deeply about community engagement.’
In the meantime, the materials on our site about the Our Town Knowledge Building program offer a lot of useful resources that practitioners in the field can access. If you’re ever looking for inspiration about what this work looks like in practice, you can use our Grant Search tool to search 500 projects by keyword or location. We want people to see the breadth of projects out there and expand their imagination about what’s possible. ArtPlace does this as well: they share great stories about how creative placemaking can work and resonate in local communities.
Overall, a purposeful strategy for us has been investing in these Our Town Knowledge Building grants to organizations that have touchpoints with local communities. There is material being generated out there that’s more local than what the NEA can do from our national perspective, and we want to help share it. Resources like the Trust for Public Land’s Field Guide for Creative Placemaking and Parks, and what Springboard for the Arts offers are great. We will continue to share training materials and agendas from events that folks can learn from, as the knowledge they build continues to accrue.
That’s the hope—and the challenge—for a lot of us doing this work right now, I think: ArtPlace, Kresge… How can we be the best resources for cataloguing and disseminating this information going forward? We’re all thinking about that.
- To download a free electronic copy of How to Do Creative Placemaking, visit this page. To request a paper copy, click the “add to cart” button.
- Artists as Neighbors: Happy 50th NEA!: Read ArtPlace executive director Jamie Bennett’s reflections on the “othering” of artists and how creative placemaking can serve to reaffirm that “an artist is [simply] a person in your neighborhood.” Before joining ArtPlace, Bennett served as the NEA’s director of public affairs and its chief of staff.
April Greene is an established freelance writer and editor. To learn more about April please visit: aprilgreene.com.