Mural, Artist Gaia

Envisioning the Project

The vision for each creative placemaking project comes from how the arts can respond to a local need.  Here are lessons from project managers on how to create a vision for your project.

Lessons Learned: 
Have One Vision, But Express It in Many Different Ways

Strong projects have a core central vision, but project managers should assume that this vision will most likely be interpreted differently by each of the many stakeholder groups and partners who will approach the project from their own perspective. Successful project leaders are able to communicate the same core idea in ways that are tailored to different people and connect it to their needs.  

As Olga Garay-English from Los Angeles’ Watts Historic Train Station project said, “Keeping a clear goal for the project while letting the project evolve organically is always the tension that you have to be aware of. Clearly we had an overarching issue we wanted to address, which was the lack of economic activity in the area, and our goal was to figure out how the arts could be our change agent. I would say that the challenge is keeping that goal present but realizing that you’re going to be learning things from yourself, from the partners, from your neighbors, from the community. The challenge is to figure out how to integrate that all into the overall scheme of the project so that people feel like the have a stake in it and ownership of it.”

How To: Establish a Clear, Flexible Vision

  • Tina Watkins from the Watts Labor Community Action Committee said, “we balanced a clear vision that was able to evolve by having it documented.  We had the vision written down clearly and simply, in a way that allowed for enough flexibility to unfold while the project was happening, that we could be creative about how we got there.  So our original agreement with the Department of Cultural Affairs was very straightforward, but it provided enough flexibility to really allow us to figure out how we would arrive at that end goal.”
Artists Have the Capacity to Address a Broad Range of Community Issues

Artists can help to affect community change in a number of ways. Integrating art, and artists themselves, into the center of large-scale projects often means expanding traditional notions about what art is and the role it can serve.  Not only can art help to aesthetically enhance an area, but it can also be used to create community dialogues, inspire a new understanding about an issue, or empower youth to become actively involved.For example, in Los Angeles County's Project Willowbrook, project partner Letitia Ivins remarked, “The success of Project Willowbrook has positioned Los Angeles County Cultural Affairs Commission to play a more collaborative role on multidisciplinary and cross sector County initiatives such as the interdepartmental Healthy Design Workgroup charged with developing health promoting design policy and programming.  [This project has demonstrated] the role of art not only as a noun, but as a verb: art as a vehicle for attracting audiences, activating people physically, increasing public safety, testing future planning ideas, empowering the public to evaluate their public spaces critically, drawing out and featuring the distinct character of a place and engendering mutual understanding.”

How To: Integrate the Arts into a Project

  • Americans for the Arts' Animating Democracy Initiative provides many resources for artists and projects managers looking to integrate the arts into projects of all different types.  Working from the idea that art has a critical role to play in encouraging active civic dialogue and supporting a vital democracy, they offer many case studies, tools and resources that help to outline how the arts can become more actively integrated into community development projects.  One such resources in the INROADS: The Intersection of Art and Civic Dialogue paper which outlines the different roles art can take in support broader public dialogue around issues of concern to communities.
Strong Visions Have a Strong Evaluation Plan

Evaluation of community based investments is not easy, but if evaluation plans are aligned with the vision from the beginning of a project, it can make a big difference. In the Art and Design Plan for the Village at Market Creek project in San Diego, the project team developed a clear vision for how the arts could address the broader social, economic, and cultural issues that were important in their community.  Specifically, they saw the arts as taking on a critical role of changing peoples’ perceptions about the neighborhood and thus fostering the ability of local residents to feel more empowered to take an active role. In talking about they types of effects they were looking to measure, project manager Victoria Hamilton listed those effects as:

  • Strengthening community identity through ownership of public art and cultural landmarks and enhanced understanding of how arts contribute to a thriving community,
  • Gaining support for the value of connecting people of all ages with arts and culture education opportunities;
  • Engaging cultural communities to build upon existing cultural exchange and dialogue;
  • Building resident pride in the community, which studies have shown to increase self-esteem and, by extension, overall health;
  • Strengthening the overall fabric of the community through ongoing dialogue and exchange among neighbors and neighborhoods, cultures, and local agencies and organizations.

How To: Create a Successful Project Evaluation Process

  • Americans for the Arts' Animating Democracy recognizes that one of the greatest challenges for arts-based community projects is creating a successful project evaluation process.  Their Impact initiative offers a broad array of resources, case studies, and tools that can be used by project managers to help guide them in thinking about and implementing project evaluation processes that will support the project’s overall vision and respond to the need to illustrate what effects a particular project is having and why.
Dream Big – But Carry a Clipboard (or Tablet)

One of the biggest challenges that face creative placemaking project is their complexity.  Bringing together different professions, public and private organizations, and community groups is never easy.  Successful creative placemaking projects combine a clarity of vision with a constant attention to detail.  As project manager Rodger Schmidt in Sitka, Alaska said, “Dream big, fuel enthusiasm with idealism that can be shared and be cold, logical, and strategic about the logistics behind the success.”   In San Angelo project manager, Rick Weise reflected, “Make sure you’re project is well planned and well thought out before you start turning ground. The project was so well planned at the beginning that when difficulties came up – and there were a number of them - we were able to handle it. Had we not planned so thoroughly it would have been harder to keep to the original goals.”

It is important to understand that often one partner will understand a task differently than another based on the profession they are in.  In Casper, WY project manager Lisa Hatchadorian remarked, “We realized that because we were dealing with four partners that our communication had to be clear. When the art installation started we saw that we understood the tasks differently – even though we had everything specified in the contract – because of the different way we each thought about the task.”

How To: Successfully Implement a Project

  • Successful projects balance inspired leadership with methodical implementation.  Making sure at the beginning of a project that the project vision aligns with community goals, that roles are defined, that a communications plan has been put in place, and all the numerous tasks of project management have been addressed, is critical to later project success.  A helpful tool in project planning is the Cultural Planning Toolkit by the Creative Cities Network of Canada.  Though the document is specific to cultural planning endeavors it provides a strong overview of how to create a project that is focused on the creative community and lays out the needed steps for identifying project leaderships, aligning project and community goals, identifying key stakeholders – elements that are key to all successful projects.
Visions Might Meet Resistance

Although most communities are eager to embrace creative placemaking efforts, there are times when they are challenged by some. Community members can be resistant to the potential changes that are proposed for their area. Other times, community leaders might feel their perspective is threatened by the new ideas that emerge through the mulit-sector partnerships that characterize these projects. Resistance can arise out of specific fears, and genuine concerns. So, it is important to create community dialogue processes that can structure a conversation around key issues and enable a project to respond to concerns and move forward.   

As learned by the community in Berea, Kentucky “start with lots of community input….leave your personal agenda at the door ….. and carefully identify and get consensus from your audience.” It is important as well not to be deterred by community resistance even though at times the process of working through concerns can seem daunting.  Many creative placemaking ideas are new and therefore entail risk.  In Independence, KY said project manager Peter Ellenstein said, “nothing happens if it isn’t attempted.  Failure is only assured by not trying.” 

How To: Effectively Engage the Community

  • Many times project teams that are new to community engagement assume that simply asking a community what they think about an issue or an idea is enough.  What they quickly come to realize is that both community stakeholders and project managers alike can become confused.  Do project managers just need to tell the community information about the project, or do they need a more open conversation about what the community would like to see? Or do they in fact want the community to help make certain project decisions?  A good resource to help project managers think through the level of engagement they are looking for from the community is the International Association of Public Participation Spectrum of Participation.  The Spectrum lays out different levels of participation (Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate, Empower) and helps to clarify the underlying agreement that’s being made with community with each different level of engagement.
Work with Diverse Groups to Build Strong Ideas

By their nature, Our Town projects are collaborative endeavors and supported by partnerships that span many sectors and industries.  The cross-disciplinary conversations that form the foundation of these project efforts often are able to formulate creative and strategic ideas because project partners are able to frame similar goals from differing perspectives.

In Fort Collins, the ideas for the Arts Incubator of the Rockies originally emerged from a process of listening to the creative community about their needs.  What city officials heard was that many artists were in need of basic business training.  When staff spoke to business leaders they were surprised, and excited, to find out that the business community was also interested in working much more closely with the creative community to help them with their goals of finding innovative ways for reaching customers.  What arose was the creation of an arts incubator that helped to bring about conversations between the two communities and foster more collaborative partnerships.  As Jill Stillwell, from the City of Fort Collins said, “The more folks we asked for ideas outside of our industry the more creative we got.”   

How To: Establish Cross-Sector Partnerships

  • Working in cross-disciplinary or multi-sector groups is both rewarding and challenging, as different professions rely on different sets of knowledge and work from varying sets of assumptions about what to prioritize.  Professional practices that work well for convening community conversations with complex stakeholder audiences can work well for cross-disciplinary conversations too, including carefully framing the issue at hand, and making sure the terms people use are well understood by everyone at the table.  The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation offers many resources that can be helpful for learning how to frame conversations and create strong opportunities for stakeholders to learn from each other and build on different perspectives.