Placemaking, Public Art, & Community Process: A Folklorist’s Perspective
Invoking placemaking inevitably demands a description of process, a term with both positive and negative valences and connotations. (Process art, processed foods, an excruciating process.)
In some essential sense, resident in the word itself, placemaking virtually prescribes process, an action, enaction. When we speak of placemaking, rather than places already made, we are describing a process, though that process can vary enormously from program to program, project to project, collaboration to collaboration.
We are describing a process of evaluating an extant site from a variety of perspectives—aesthetic, environmental, historical, cultural, socioeconomic, etc.—and formulating a strategy to clarify, transform, and enhance that place in terms of a variety of enmeshed contexts: aesthetics, identity, and design integrity; integration with the surrounding built and natural environments; environmental sustainability; livability and local use value; accessibility and safety; cultural relevance to the community and extant place; potential appeal to tourists and visitors; and ultimately (with time and luck) viability as an engine for local and regional economic development.
There is no placemaking without first, a compelling place and second, that particular place’s ingrown, community-inscribed cultural meanings—those are the necessary ingredients that inform a concept and a plan.
Articulating and resolving the latter, the community-inscribed cultural meanings, is often more difficult than finding and designing the former, the place itself. The challenge is to knit together place and sense of place, to make them manifest as an impactful integer through community work, design, and project implementation.
Successful, sustainable placemaking demands the distillation of place-based cultural meanings and the negotiation of contested meanings attributed by different communities. I like to think about a given place as a palimpsest—a document inscribed over and over, and then erased or effaced, and then re-inscribed with different meanings that are important to different groups and perspectives for different reasons, ad infinitum.
You have to figure out and resolve sometimes oppositional senses of place in order to establish a resolved meaning upon which to build. This can be a vexing process requiring diplomacy and dialogue.
At the North Carolina Arts Council, because of our staff’s expertise, our organizational structure, our values, and the requisite prioritizing that comes in these lean economic times, we emphasize a very specific process-oriented approach to placemaking, an approach that incorporates the perspective of folklore and folklife. That is by no means the only right way to go about the placemaking process; it is just one of many.
At the arts council, the folklife and public art programs happen to cohabitate. My background is in folklore studies and curation, I work closely with two other folklorists, and folklore offers a useful lens for determining the cultural assets a community most values and for engaging sensitively and collaboratively with diverse communities to discuss issues of heritage, identity, place, and the impact of changes to their neighborhoods.
It is not always easy to engage local communities, and collaborations always seem initially thornier than unilateral projects. I’m not suggesting that placemaking by unwieldy democratic committee is a wise idea—because it’s not—or that artists shouldn’t be able to express their own vision and aesthetic in such projects—because they should.
I’m not saying that curatorial oversight by experienced arts professionals isn’t crucial to placemaking projects involving public art components—because it is, absolutely.
But I am saying that folkloristic techniques are one tool for ensuring fruitful community outreach, for figuring out how to make and sustain places before, during, and after the involvement of professional artists.
So what is folklore? One famous scholarly definition from the 1970s deems folklore “artistic communication in small groups,” which enticingly and carefully frames it as a communicative process. When we discuss folklore at the arts council, we’re discussing a methodology and a set of tactics as much as we’re discussing content or a set of traditions or practices—again, it’s the process that concerns us most.
It’s the approach that’s relevant here—collaborative, sustained efforts to engage a community on its own terms about what is important about their culture and their place, through cultural inventories; through extensive and intensive interviews, oral histories, documentary photography and film projects; archival research; the collection, archiving, and application of community artifacts; and public workshops, discussions, and charrettes with artists, architects, designers, folklorists, et al.
The process of negotiation takes time, planning, sensitivity, and training. Help from professional folklorists or community arts organizers, especially those with an objective outsider’s perspective, can be extremely beneficial, but ultimately it’s common sense and not as unusual or provocative as it sounds—many savvy arts administrators are already involved in folkloristic work without necessarily calling it that.
In order to make places that matter and continue to matter, places with meaning to those who use them daily, to residents of those places, to local workers, in order to achieve their input, support, and buy-in and to guarantee some degree of sustainability, you must make the effort to engage them.
In order to make places, you have to make outreach efforts, you have to make friends, you have to make compromises; you have to participate in due process to determine a common sense of place, a shared vision, and an achievable plan.
Now, none of this guarantees consensus—public art and placemaking are not about consensus, but rather about discourse, dialogue, discussion, and productive compromise. But the process of community engagement does tend to inscribe communal discourse, dialogue, and discussion into the history of the project, hopefully catalyzing ongoing education, participation, and broad-based buy-in and support.
In my next post, I will examine how the arts council enacted some of these strategies in specific cultural tourism and community arts development projects, including the African American Music Trail, the Historic Happy Valley Byway, and the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project.