Where's Your Head At? Creative Placemaking in 2014

By Jason Schupbach, NEA Director of Design
Mural on a brick wall

A mural by the artist Doodles in Baltimore's Station North neighbood. The mural was erected as part of Open Walls Baltimore, which received support from a 2011 NEA Our Town grant. Baltimore Star Gate photo courtesy of flickr user Tyler Merbler

To those that have been following what is going on in the creative placemaking corner of the arts world, there are probably a lot of questions at the moment about what the NEA's next steps will be regarding our creative placemaking work. In the spirit of openness and oversharing, I want to let you know about our ambitious plans to continue to grow and support the creative placemaking field. We have been spending some time thinking deeply about what the next steps are and laying plans, not all of which are yet in place. Also, do not forget that we have been working on a number of different initiatives that will come to fruition this year: the Our Town e-storybook of 75 case studies from the program (I must say, it’s going to be fabulous) and our indicators/evaluation project.  

So here’s where my head's at:

·      Nail down the field map. The last three years of funding have given us a very good sense of what creative placemaking work "looks like"who's doing it and what the project types are. That’s useful information, but it doesn’t capture exactly who is leading the field and how we should engage both the practitioners (artists and arts organizations) and the partners they need to do the work (governments, planners, economic development organizations, neighborhood organizations, etc. ) in a way to make it easier for folks to be successful. We've been tracking a lot of these activities, but we still need a field map to help us understand who the current players are and how better to engage them. The map will enable us to target those non-arts partners who have a lot to give to and get from the field, and to understand who in the arts field should be part of certain efforts. We're talking to partners about getting this map done soon.

·      Non-arts partners are key. While we still need to do work in the arts field itself on how to do creative placemaking effectively, we also need to figure out how to more seriously engage the ton of non-arts national community development organizations and industry associations. For example, let's say we want to understand more about how community development corporations (CDCs) are supporting creative placemaking as neighborhood developers in their communities. Does the average smart, ambitious employee working at one of these organizations understand how or where to access contextual information/resources on how to build artist space, engage artists in community planning, map out cultural assets, procure public art, and host arts events? Which national organizations supporting CDCs can we partner with to help get this information out to their constituents? What's the best way to help those interested to learn and the uninitiated to have access to the relevant concepts? Would convenings be most effective? Online? Mentoring? There's a ton of work to be done here, especially in partnership with other federal agencies.

·      What about artists? At the end of the day, this work is all about artists who want to work to improve their communities. But what do we really know about what experienced artists/craftsmen/designers themselves need to do this work well, including how to be sensitive to local cultural needs? Do artists understand community development language/processes? There are a lot of research and lessons learned about this out in the field, but it needs to be codified and redistributed to help artists avoid the need to recreate the wheel. We've started at the NEA on putting together a list of the leading orgs and initiatives supporting artist-led community development as a first step, and as part of conversations going forward, we will look for where we and others can support this essential field-building work. For example, we've got to start talking to the major teaching institutions about how they define the required toolkits that students will need to do this work.

·      Let’s get together. Speaking of partnerships, we want to do this work fully engaged and in conversation with the field. While we'll be pushing out a lot of current, topical information shortlythe Our Town stories plus our guidance on how folks might measure the impacts of these projectswe also want to start listening and talking to other folks about what they require to do the work well and continue to build the national conversation. These conversations might be through webinars or convenings; we're piecing through the best ways to do these and with whom. 

·      Turn the ship. Through Our Town, we've funded a lot of local important work, and we'll have all kinds of lessons learned for the field soon from our storybook project. What I've been hinting at is that now that the ship is built and has been sailing a bit, it's time to turn towards the hard work outlined above. While we still want to fund local projects, we are looking at how to adjust the Our Town guidelines to allow national leadership organizations (arts industry associations, national community development organizations, etc.) to come in for funding to support efforts to instill creative placemaking practices into local work across the country. For example, X organization might want to create a program to educate city planners on how to do this work; Y organization wants to develop mentorship programs for artists to work in communities, and Z wants to help real estate developers build excellent public art. We want to support that kind of work. Maybe they should even work together?    

·      What about equitable development? Certainly we want to support opportunities to advance work in diverse communities in our society. The NEA has consistently reinforced its goal of supporting equitable development in communities through our grants processes, which require an assets-based approach and demonstrated support from the communities. There is still a lot of work to be done to seriously look at the long-term impact of our catalytic investments and ensure balanced and equitable process and outcomes. This topic must be a consistent thread throughout all of the work we do going forward.

The truth is that creative placemaking activities are not rocket science. There are known methodologies to doing much of this work. For instance, we know how to build artist space and public art, it's just that we've got to work a lot harder to inculcate creative placemaking practice into the hands of folks who are interested in learning more and want to do it. On top of that, different folks will require different strokes. Helping an artist do this work might require different initiatives and supporters than helping a transit agency.

Where exactly all of the above efforts are going to land and how they will land isn’t set in stone. It will change based upon who steps up to the plate and how the next few months roll out. The good news is there are a number of national organizations (funders, arts industry orgs, policy leaders, federal agencies, etc.) that are piloting a bunch of new initiatives to support the field, with funding from various places. I hope you are all willing to join us on this journey and be patient as we deal with all of the changing outside factors currently happening. Stay tuned and as Barry from the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) saysdon’t quit!