Reflecting on the Past and Future of Creative Placemaking with Jason Schupbach

By Jennifer Hughes

A group of girls in a workshop pose infront of a large sign that says_ FEAR LESS BUILD MOREpose

Participants from Teen Design Build Program by Girls Garage; an arts, design, and building program for young girls supported through Art Works/Design grants to Project H Design in Berkeley, California. Photo by Emily Pilloton

It’s the end of an era! That is the sentiment that many of us feel (me included) as we bid Jason Schupbach goodbye after his seven years as director of design and creative placemaking at the NEA. This July, he’ll be starting his new gig in the southwest as the director of the Design School at Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University (ASU).

Before Jason departed the NEA on June 9, I had the chance to sit down, reflect, and pick his brain on where he sees the creative placemaking field heading in the future, and what have been some of his proudest accomplishments. This moment of reflection is timely as the NEA announces another round of Our Town grants, totaling a $6.8 million investment in communities across the country. These grants represent one of the largest amounts released in the seven years of the program. The geographic swath and diversity of these projects confirms that local leaders and residents are taking seriously the role of artists and arts organizations in helping improve their communities.

What are you most proud of accomplishing during your time at the NEA?

Without a doubt, I am most proud of the extraordinary community of practitioners that we have assisted with our grant programs and leadership activities. It is inspiring to support those who both believe in and demonstrate the power of the arts to change communities for the better.

The fact that government, foundations, and nonprofits are all collaborating to fund work on the ground and to clarify how to do creative placemaking is mind-blowing for me. It’s about the people, and I feel we’ve built a set of colleagues who are working their tails off to help make America better. That includes the team at the NEA. You will continue to do great work!

What do you regret not getting done or wish that you had more time to do?

I have a bee in my bonnet about why more community development and planning students don’t learn any cultural policy. If you ever ride on an airplane and look at the airplane magazine, there’s always a special section where a city is marketing itself and half of the items are about cultural things. If this is the primary way cities market themselves, why don’t more of the people doing community development understand the policies that shape these culturally unique places? Also, we still have more work to do to help artists and arts organizations do creative placemaking. There aren’t enough professional programs for artists to learn the skills they need to do community work.

What are you excited about for the future of creative placemaking?

I’ve always said that to build a field can take a 100 years, and we’re only in year seven! So if you think about it as getting from A to Z—Z being the full understanding and acceptance of creative placemaking as an art and community development practice—I’d say we’re probably at ‘H.’ I’d love to see us get to ‘K’ in the next few years.

From NEA’s Knowledge Building grants to Kresge Foundation’s big investments in national community development networks to the research led by ArtPlace America, there are an enormous number of projects underway to help us understand creative placemaking better. Everyone is working hard to coordinate these field-building tasks, and it will take more effort to get these materials out into the community development and arts worlds in useful ways so this work can sustain itself.

Jumping ahead 40 years from now, what is your dream for creative placemaking?

My dream is that any artist who wants to do a community-based project will be supported and welcomed to do it. I would love to see working with artists be something that city planners and rural development people understand as second nature. We know the immense value that artists, designers, and culture bearers bring to their local communities, and I’d like to see every other sector acknowledge that value too.

How will you apply your NEA experience to your new role at ASU?

Steven Tepper, the dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, is working with team members who are all committed to creating the design school of the future. My job description is literally to “redesign the Design School.” I’m very excited they have chosen me to be part of this effort. I plan to bring the community I spoke about earlier to the table to help us figure out what that means. How do we make the school equitable and relevant to the current needs of the design field and the needs of communities? We want it to be a place that produces students who are trained in skills the world needs today and for the future. The number one lesson I learned at the NEA is that the world is too complex to try to solve anything on your own. Partnerships are key to the success of any institution.

Any departing advice or words of wisdom for all of us who care about helping artists work with communities?

I’m not giving up and neither should you.