Road Trip!

Last Friday, Allison and I took a road trip to Providence, Road Island, for the final day of the annual conference for the Alliance of Artist Communities. From what I could tell, the whole conference was wonderfully engaging and useful, but the session that convinced us to drive all the way from Middletown was a panel on “Creative Placemaking and Community Transformation.” The panelists included Maria Rosario Jackson (Senior Advisor/Arts & Culture Program, The Kresge Foundation), Jason Schupbach (Director of Design Programs, Visual Arts Division Team Leader, National Endowment for the Arts), and Jayson Smart (Program Officer, Rasmuson Foundation). If anyone knows creative placemaking, it’s these panelists. …Except, of course, if you think historically about arts and culture, which leads me to the first of four main takeaways from the session:

1. Techniques of creative placemaking and community building through arts and culture have been around for a very long time. This is just one of many important points that Maria Rosario Jackson made about creative placemaking. As much expertise as we as artists and funders might accrue over many years of work in the field of creative placemaking, there will always be communities who have been doing it on their own for far longer. It never hurts to be reminded that it’s really those communities who know creative placemaking, even if that’s not what they call it, and we can always learn from them.

2. Creative placemaking doesn’t lend itself to generalizations. As Jane Chu, Chairman of the NEA, said in her opening keynote Friday morning, “If there’s anything I’ve learned [from traveling around the country to see various NEA-funded projects], it’s that if you’ve seen one community, you’ve only seen one community.” Creative placemaking, when done well, engages with the specificity of a certain place and community; the creative placemaking strategies that are successful in one place, might not have the same impact in another. On the one hand, this lack of replicability makes me worry about the sustainability of the field. On the other hand, though, it reminds me that what creative placemaking needs is not a more defined process, but a larger of collective of individuals and organizations that are deeply committed to thinking about and engaging communities.

3. Because each community has a distinct character and set of needs, evaluating creative placemaking projects is really, really hard. When Caitlin Strokosch, Executive Director of the Alliance of Artists Communities and moderator of the panel, asked the panelists about what they’ve found to be successful ways of evaluating creative placemaking projects, I was ready to scribble down every bit of wisdom they had to offer. But the essence of what they were saying mostly echoed what we at Forklift have found in trying to evaluate our projects: no one is quite sure how to do it. But what is clear in thinking about evaluation is that there is a difference between outputs and outcomes. In the arts world, we’re well versed at measuring outputs: number of shows or events, number of people in attendance, etc. But we’re not so great at answering the outcomes question: so what? And this is not just in creative placemaking work, but in the arts in general. Those who “do” art know it matters, but we haven’t quite figured out how to explain why (or what to measure in order to demonstrate it). Above all else, Jason Schupbach from the NEA encouraged those of us in the audience to “measure what we value.”  I would extend this and say that maybe the best we can do in evaluating creative placemaking work is to measure what we value and what the community values. Still, if there’s anything I’ve learned from the start of the evaluation process I am working on for Forklift, it’s that the list of stakeholders and their myriad priorities can be almost never-ending. There’s just no way around it–evaluation is a long and intensive (and often expensive) process, and it is certainly one of the major hurdles to overcome in the field. Not the most uplifting takeaway of the day, but it is nice to know we’re in good company trying to figure this one out.

4. Creative placemaking matters! Maria Rosario Jackson posed a really important question to emphasize the powerful role of arts and culture in social justice: if throughout history the act of stripping communities of their arts and culture (and thus history and sense of unity) has been a primary tool of oppression, why then would investing in and developing arts and culture not be a primary tool of empowerment and enfranchisement? Even for those of us who do this work and know how much it matters, I found this to be a great reminder of why creative placemaking and community-based work exists and why it matters.

Image: Shepard Fairey’s Providence Mural (2010)

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