Community event in Art Garden

Mid Sized Urban

Mid-Size Urban refers to communities between 50,000 and 200,000 in population.

Lessons Learned: 
Building Local Leadership Support

At the heart of creative placemaking efforts are the diverse, and often complex, relationships that are needed to support the implementation of large-scale projects.  From businesses, to foundations, to the nonprofit sector, each partner brings particular perspectives and resources to bear.  Central to these are the  governmental partnerships that define most Our Town projects. 

Working with city staff and elected officials is essential for aligning project goals with public priorities and for garnering the larger community backing needed to see projects succeed. Working with them, however, is not always easy and the priorities of elected officials are not always transparent.  Often persistence and determination are needed to move through the numerous conversations that need to happen to persuade policy makers. 

As one project manager of a mid-sized city stated, “There are always going to be politics, and you’re not always going to understand what those politics are.  But if it’s important to you, stay determined and keep hitting the point home. Eventually persistence can pay off.”

When working with elected officials, it is important to bring information that touches on both the dry facts of the issue, but also information that more fully illustrates the impact of how the community is being impacted.  Policy makers and advocates have found that nothing does this better than through the communication of clear, evocative personal stories.  Working with artists to capture first-person stories, and re-present them in a compelling manner, can help policy makers (who work through large amounts of issues every day) connect more quickly with the ideas and information that are brought to them. 

Understanding an Artist’s Contribution as More than Just Their “Work”

Artists have the capacity to contribute more than just an “event” or their “work” to the creation of a project. 

In the Arts in the District project in Dubuque, IA, project managers knew that their project, which aimed to repurpose some of the historic district’s key buildings into arts- and culture-related spaces in order to increase economic development in the city and to increase access to the arts, was helping to pave the way to grow different partnerships with arts organizations throughout the community.   These growing partnerships helped city stakeholders see the arts not just in terms of the products that were being created but how artists were contributing to the overall economy.  Having artists at the table for conversations about larger policy issues was key to the evolution of the conversation within the city about the role that the arts could play within the community. 

As project manager Cindy Steinhauser said, “Each component of this project was a creation that necessitated the involvement of a variety of artists.  Artists were challenged to think about their contributions to the project as more than just their "event" or their "work" but rather to understand and contribute to other items (policy discussion, etc.) that could help sustain our vision for the city as an arts/cultural hub.” 

Similarly, project mangers in Bethlehem, PA described how artists are problem solvers – but in different ways. “By nature of their purview, project managers and engineers are problem solvers, often in a straightforward, most efficient fashion.  Artists are also problem solvers but in a very distinct fashion taking into consideration visual aesthetics and emotion.  The insertion of these elements positively influenced our project process and the final outcome.”

Affordable Space to Fight Against Gentrification

Although the causes of gentrification are often found within the much larger economic and demographic forces that occur at the national and state level, the arts, and artists’ presence in an area is often seen as both a harbinger of gentrification.  The typical story then ends up with the arts being pushed out of the gentrified area.  Many Our Town projects work hard to fight against it and maintain artist and the arts in the community.  Just one of the ways they do this is by creating affordable live/work spaces for artists.  

In the Hamilton Lofts project in Hamilton, Ohio, project managers tried to engage these issues directly. “The major design element of this project was for the express purpose of designing space in separate buildings set aside for the arts and create systems for on-going advocacy. In our conversation with developers, policy decision makers and funders, we keep it top of mind that the vitality the district is experiencing is because this area is seen as where the arts are happening and it is what is driving traffic (and commerce).”

Gentrification and the arts is a complex issue that warrents much further discussion beyond the Exploring Our Town Storybook.  This article by Anne Gadwa Nicodemus is a good starting point.

In Tuscon, the Tuscon Pima Arts Council wrote an excellent report on how to directly address issues of equity which can be found here.  Be sure to read the section on 'belonging.'