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The people in the place

I was fortunate enough to be asked to attend a summit of ArtPlace grantees in Los Angeles last month, where Jamie Bennett, ArtPlace’s new executive director, noted that in a few short years we’ve been able to remove the “air quotes” from around creative placemaking.

Creative placemaking has become an established concept and is gaining momentum. It has captured the imagination of funders and community-based organizations alike and is reaching a new critical mass.

The "Really Big Table" is a 25-foot, portable project created by Amanda Lovelee and Colin Harris in St. Paul, created as a part of the Irrigate project.

Photo courtesy Springboard for the Arts

It’s an extremely exciting time. Yet we must proceed with intention, particularly if we want maximize the power of creative placemaking to benefit those traditionally left behind, such as communities of color and lower-income families.

In LA, Don Howard, Interim CEO at the James Irvine Foundation, gave a fascinating presentation on a report they recently released called “The Strong Field Framework,” which outlines five components to strengthen a field to achieve large-scale impact—shared identity, standards of practice, knowledge base, leadership and grassroots support, and funding and policy support (to watch, see “Opening Plenary & Strong Field Conversation”).

I think this is an incredibly useful list for creative placemaking practitioners as we think about our work at the intersection of arts and culture and community development. One reason I find it so useful is because it’s an opportunity to think about where local residents are involved as creative placemaking continues to grow.

Shared identity and standards of practice

A friend of mine, DeAnna Cummings from Juxtaposition Arts in Minneapolis, recently quoted Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses in Houston  as saying "It's pretty easy to come to [a] place. It’s much harder to come to the people." 

I think this is a critical consideration for creative placemaking as we frame our “shared identity” and the standards of practice for our work. For me, while creative placemaking is necessarily about place, it must be, at its core, about people.

There is no place in this country without a history, without some form of people inhabiting and interacting with a place. There are no “blank canvases.” Creative placemaking must concern itself with the people, not just the place.

To this end, we must be clear that not all creative placemaking is created equal. There’s a continuum of types of projects and who is involved.

At one end, an artist from outside the community parachutes into the neighborhood, does his or her project based on his or her vision, and leaves. The neighborhood is merely a place for the work to occur, a background.

"At the other end of this spectrum, residents and other local stakeholders choose what the project will be, they make the art, and the entire process speaks to the history, culture, needs and strengths of the neighborhood."

At the other end of this spectrum, residents and other local stakeholders choose what the project will be, they make the art, and the entire process speaks to the history, culture, needs and strengths of the neighborhood.

There are obviously plenty of variations between those two ends of the continuum. But on the whole, I like to say that there’s art that’s done in or to a community—and there’s art that’s done with or by the community.

I’m not going to judge different neighborhoods or programs on what they choose to do. When I was visiting different cities at the end of last year to learn more about the state-of-the-art for creative placemaking, I saw programs that fell all along that continuum, sometimes in one day. Art and culture in our communities is a good thing, and there are legitimate reasons to pursue different approaches.

As we think about standards of practice, though, a big step will be to recognize this continuum of types of creative placemaking and to be clear on what a project will accomplish and who’s involved. As the field adds sharper language and clearer examples, communities can recognize that they have choices in how they approach the work.

A “both-and” proposition

On the continuum, I’m most excited about work that is done with or by the people in a community. And that’s where I think support for creative placemaking should be focused —by LISC and the other public, nonprofit and philanthropic institutions building the field. Creative placemaking needs to be about people—it can’t just be about the place.

I was very excited that ArtPlace chose to have USC professor and sociologist Manuel Pastor talk about people who are in our communities. As Dr. Pastor pointed out with clear statistics and trend analysis, communities of color are growing rapidly across the United States (to watch, see “People and Place, People in Place”).

If we define creative placemaking as being about the people as much as the place, we necessarily must move beyond the Western canon of “what is art” and accept a much broader and more inclusive definition of arts and culture.

Low-income and communities of color/cultural communities need to be the ones defining the standards of practice that work for them. It is not okay for mainstream outsiders to define the models, resources and technical assistance that are imposed on low-income and people of color.

The movie in many people’s heads when you talk about art in communities is about gentrification, about how SoHo in New York City has gone from an artist’s enclave to a high-end shopping mall.

To be clear, I absolutely want new investment in the communities I care most about. There is space for new housing and new businesses.

What I don’t want is for creative placemaking to lead to displacement—either financially or psychologically. Residents must be able to afford to continue to stay in their community and must be able to continue to recognize it as their own because it reflects who they are and their values.

Community pride and identity on display in Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.

I’ve seen lots of places where creative placemaking is inviting new investment while not spawning massive displacement. In LA I was fortunate to add yet another example to my list.

In the Boyle Heights neighborhood, the design of the new transit stop at Mariachi Plaza reflects the community’s Mexican-American roots. Mariachi bands hang out in the public square, waiting to be hired. The community’s public art, stores and murals all connect to the neighborhood’s ethnic heritage.

Mariachi Plaza is a vibrant, distinctive place where people gather and meet. It is an example of new investment that honors and respects the people and the values of people from the neighborhood.

As creative placemaking defines our shared identity and standards of practice, I hope we adopt a “both-and” approach that embraces people and places. Western definitions of art and non-Western forms of cultural expression. New investment and non-displacement of existing residents and businesses.

The good news is I truly believe we can have “both-and” for these issues. The first step is for us to understand the full set of possibilities, and then we have to plan and act in ways that will get us there.


See the whole Thinking Out Loud series on creative placemaking here.


Posted in Leading, Arts & Culture, Thinking Out Loud

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