The Higher Ground Project

Higher Ground Coalition/The Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College

Funding Received: 2012
Cumberland, KY
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
March 18, 2013

In late January, 2013, Robert Gipe of the Higher Ground project in Harlan County, Kentucky attended the Creative Placemaking Summit organized by ArtPlace. ArtPlace asked Gipe about the impact attending the conference will have on the work of Higher Ground, a community-based art project coordinated by the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College. Gipe said:

The Creative Placemaking Summit took place at the St. James, a recently renovated art hotel with porthole windows, outside couches, mango-smelling soap, and a shower stall in which I could have parked my car if the stall wasn’t on the fifteenth floor with a panoramic view of palm trees, Art Deco hotels, and the clubs of South Beach. While in Miami, I ate goat stew at a Haitian place called Tap Tap, lychee quail and key lime pie like Florida grandmas used to make at a place called Florida Kitchen. There were construction workers napping on public beaches, rum and sunshine. Miami was all that. But the beauty is that the conference itself offered great ideas, hard-working creative people, and positive energy in such profusion as to create its own lush atmosphere of tropical abundance. That sense of abundance both followed me back to Harlan and met me there.

In Miami’s Wynwood Arts District, we strolled block after block of shoebox-looking buildings, many of which were formerly wholesale shoe warehouses. Murals fill the streets—wall after wall after wall of murals of the finest graffiti-derived art to be found anywhere. Light industry, metal shops, and garages stand cheek by jowl with restaurants, bars, and galleries—all covered by art. There are so many mural-covered walls in Wynwood, it doesn’t feel real. It feels like walking through something computer-generated. And it would be wrong not to mention that there is genuine funk to the paintings of shoes on the buildings that were still shoe warehouses. In all, our trip to Wynwood gave me a very palpable sense of one definition of what ArtPlace means by “vibrancy.”

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In the conference sessions, we talked about how art and artists could engage with government. We were advised to communicate our ideas to mayors and other potentates, but to understand the vision of political leaders well enough to communicate our vision as part of theirs. Clarity of message, the importance of communication and engagement were recurrent themes, as was the suggestion policymakers had begun to recognize the centrality of the arts to the creation of the next American economy.

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The Gallup-Knight Foundation survey, The Soul of the Community, came up more than once, which is not surprising, because the study—in which over forty thousand people were asked what attached them to the place they live—found the most important answer for the majority was not their job. It is social offerings, entertainment venues, and places to meet. It is “openness”—the degree to which a place is welcoming. It is the aesthetics of place—its physical beauty, its greenness.

There was a great deal of talk at the conference about the term “creative placemaking”—what it means and whether it is the right term. It became clearer to me why there was so much talk later in February when I was on a conference call sponsored by Art and Democracy, and issues related to what happens to the cultural ecology places possess before they get “made” creatively came more sharply into focus. And it would seem that the conversation about where public and private arts money goes—and the name by which it goes—is intense and prolonged in no small part because arts funding is, as it has been, too scarce—which would not necessarily have occurred to us here in Harlan, not because we wouldn’t like to see increased funding for the arts, but because everything where we live seems underfunded.

But there were many who understood hard times at the Creative Placemaking Summit—folks in Detroit (where once we in Harlan fled to find jobs) making artspaces from empty houses—people in the shadow of the Watts Towers in South Central Los Angeles using one of the great homemade arts monuments to link art to living, to houses, to vibrancy. The existential challenges facing us here in the early 21st century America laced through the conversations from Flint to north Georgia to us here in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky.

[Gipe offers more specifics on how the Creative Placemaking Summit is fueling the work of the Higher Ground Coalition in his next blog post.]