Creative Placemaking: Template for Cultivating Arts and Cultural Policy at the Local Level

Posted by Jim Clark, May 30, 2014 0 comments

"Creative Placemaking" as described by Anne Gadwa Nicodemus and Ann Markusen offers artists and arts administrators a template to engage business and civic leaders in the articulation of new cultural policies at the local level. In her paper, “Fuzzy Vibrancy: Creative Placemaking as Ascendant U.S. Cultural Policy,” Nicodemus states that one of the hallmarks of creative placemaking is the development of cross-sector partnerships to promote “arts-centered initiatives with place-based physical, economic and/or social outcomes.”

Does this widespread interest in creative placemaking present an opportunity for us to expand and develop cultural policy at the local level?

The role of arts in community and economic development is broadly accepted; for years, arts leaders have proclaimed the arts build strong, healthy and, yes, vibrant communities. The arguments of quality of life, job attraction, and retention are so well-used, I am sure our intended listeners have grown deaf to the data we vomit out year after year.

However, there is something different about this iteration of arts and economic development. Motivated by large grants from ArtPlace America and the NEA’s Our Town program, civic leaders have embraced creative placemaking as a legitimate urban planning tool. Here in Lexington, Kentucky, the Mayor called together representatives from LexArts (United Arts Fund and Local Arts Agency), the City’s Departments of General Services and Planning, the Downtown Development Authority and the Blue Grass Community Foundation to find a way to secure one of these grants.

We were successful in obtaining $425,000 from ArtPlace for a creative makers project—transforming shotgun houses into artist housing and/or studios while also turning vacant lots into community gardens and venues for art projects. Not really a new or radical plan. The only thing that was new was the people gathered around the table seeking to work together on a project that would be mutually beneficial. Because we were successful in securing this large grant, it emboldens my conviction that we need to find a way to sustain the cross-sector partnership to tackle arts-centric initiatives.

Granted, ArtPlace America has already told us it will phase out in the next few years and other funders will, as they always do, change their focus. But perhaps the learnt behavior of silo jumping can be built into our collective consciousness now that we see how the arts, business, civic institutions, and government can work toward a common, arts-centered goal. Creative placemaking, and these large grants, have secured a place at the civic table for arts leaders. I believe it is our responsibility to hold on to that seat as our business and civic leaders contemplate other forms of community and economic development.

Let’s put this brain trust to work on how the arts can play a role in workforce development, moving STEM to STEAM, or even revamping how we fund the arts.

“How Cities Can Nurture Cultural Entrepreneurs,” a paper authored by Professor Ann Markusen for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, provides another compelling argument for an enhanced role for the arts at the civic table—the incorporation of artists and creative entrepreneurs into economic development strategies. This requires locales to know their artists and their strengths in order to develop distinctive strategies that build on the authentic culture of that city, town, or borough.

This is especially relevant for those of us who live in small or mid-size cities. Our mayors are in active pursuit of “creative professionals;” however, most traditional economic development offices are not exploring how artists contribute to publishing, design, architecture or other accepted cultural industries—they are looking for people who will directly contribute to advanced manufacturing and related fields.

While it is important for the arts community to play a relevant role in these broader issues that affect the economic health of our community, we too must be willing to examine our own practices and determine if they are supportive of creative entrepreneurism. Creative entrepreneurs are not interested in the status quo and they are not particularly patient with “how things are done.” As a result we are seeing an increasing number of arts and cultural groups which prefer not to incorporate as a 501(c)3 organization. Instead, they pursue commercial activities as a means to support noncommercial ventures. Because of this we are seeing an increase in transactional exchanges, rather than philanthropic acts, supporting arts projects. Kickstarter is a great example of this new kind of market place for the arts.

I believe creative placemaking has opened the door to new conversations and partnerships that could lead to the development of a new dawn in cultural policy at the local level. Our job as arts leaders is to stay at the civic table and be recognized as community leaders representing a significant sector of the local economy.

Jim Clark is Americans for the Arts’ 2014 Michael Newton Award Honoree for developing strong private sector partnerships with the arts. Every year, we honors individuals, organizations, and programs committed to enriching their communities through the arts at our Annual Convention. This week, we are featuring a series of blogs by our award recipients on their projects or an arts policy issue of their choice. Follow the tag Annual Awards 2014!

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