Transforming Community Development through Arts and Culture

January 16, 2020

By: Lyz Crane, Deputy Director

This article was originally posted on the National Endowment for the Arts blog on January 16, 2020. 


The start of a new year is always a time to reflect on growth and evolution, as well as a time to set intentions for how to move forward. If there’s one thing we collectively tend to feel during this process, it’s that change is hard.

This is just as true professionally as it is personally, and certainly even more true when we think about our organizations and systems.  And yet, as agents of change, we can’t just imagine the world as we want it to be and expect to magically get there; we have to—in large and small ways—learn new practices, shift our mindsets, and adjust our systems and protocols to enact this vision.

The growth of creative placemaking as a serious practice is not just about how many creative placemaking projects happen in the world—it is also about how we shift the relationships between and operating systems of artists, arts organizations, and the field of community development.

In November 2019, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco published a second, seminal journal issue of their Community Development Innovation Review entirely dedicated to the question of what changes when we invite arts and cultural strategies into the practice of community development (the first, “Creative Placemaking,” was released five years prior in 2014).  Titled “Transforming Community Development through Arts and Culture,” this issue of the journal collects a series of essays and reflections that together seek to showcase why and how key community development leaders, organizations, intermediaries, and funders are learning to partner with artists, incorporate cultural lenses into their thinking, and address some of the most challenging issues in communities with newfound creativity.  The journal issue was co-edited by the San Francisco Federal Reserve, ArtPlace America, and PolicyLink, a national research and action institute dedicated to advancing economic and social equity.

Chairman Mary Anne Carter delivered remarks at the journal’s kick-off event at the Yerba Buena Arts Center in San Francisco to reinforce her essay in the journal—and celebrate the success of the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant program. Since 2010, Our Town, the signature creative placemaking program of the Arts Endowment, has helped diverse community leaders and organizations build partnerships to help transform communities into lively, beautiful, and resilient places with the arts at their core, and, in the spirit of the journal, have also helped community development institutions to do the systems change work of being able to regularly and sustainably partner with the arts and culture sector long-term.


You can read it all here—but what’s in it?


Clocking in at 202 pages, reading the journal cover to cover may seem like an ambitious undertaking, but the journal has something for everyone—first-person accounts from community development organizations, essays by artists, commentary by researchers and leaders around the field, and analyses of policy and funding. Collectively, these articles show us that when artists are invited to help co-design processes in community development, the results are extraordinary.

The first and largest section is focused on the ArtPlace Community Development Investments program, which has invested deeply in six community development organizations, from the Cook Inlet Housing Authority in Anchorage, Alaska, to the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi, to the Fairmount Park Conservancy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Through three-year investments, ArtPlace challenged each of these organizations to work in a new way—and discover how arts and cultural strategies can help support and expand their missions and relate to the communities they serve in deeper and more inclusive ways.  For example, in Zuni, New Mexico, local artists helped the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project design a new park to promote cultural resilience; in Southwest Minnesota, artists are helping the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership to further incorporate new voices into community planning and design processes; and in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, California, artists are helping the organization to design new anti-displacement strategies in a climate of rapid development.  As the voices from these organizations and communities show, arts and cultural strategies have the potential to deepen community engagement and organizing practices; strengthen the social fabric of communities; and achieve key housing, health, and neighborhood goals.

We know this kind of work isn’t just a passing trend, and it isn’t just happening in the arts sector. It is taking hold both in community development organizations and in the systems that serve them. Major national community development agencies that drive conversations about national best practices are making deep investments to ensure that arts and culture become a part of community development long into the future. For example, recognizing the value of arts and culture to the community development field, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) has incorporated creative placemaking as a key pillar of its Catalyzing Opportunity approach to economic development as a way of elevating community identity and power.

Now imagine the possibilities in a world where all community development begins with the visions and values of artists, culture-bearers, and our collective creativity rather than having to figure out how to include them down the line.  In the final section of the journal, Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation and Michael McAfee of PolicyLink help us to understand that culture is a lens that helps us understand and process the world through our humanity, and that artists are an essential ingredient to have at the table in building equitable futures.

The key lesson throughout all of these pieces is that as a growing field, we need to continue to find ways to provide the space and resources not just for collaboration on individual projects, but for deep learning processes that brings new ways of working and knowing into all of the systems that are imagining and enacting new futures for communities.  As that happens, the question no longer becomes, “Are the arts valuable investments in communities?” but rather, “How could we ever imagine doing community development without these lenses and practices informing every step of the way?” 

In their article on Creating Process for Change, the Center for Performance and Civic Practices provides this logic for doing so—and inspiration that can take all of us into the new year!


If place is geography bound by shared meanings,

if place plus time equals change,

what does change do to meaning?

How is meaning shaped? By whom? For whom?


Artists keep, make, and transform meaning. It is what they do. Their relationship to place, in addition to inhabiting it, is to see it and listen to it. Whether intentionally or not, every creative act, every moment of imagination and expression in a place, contributes to that place’s shape.


To read the journal, visit and join the conversation on twitter at #SFFedArts! 


This is the first of a series of essays celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Arts Endowment’s Our Town program. Register for the Design + Creative Placemaking newsletter to catch the full series.