The Next 50 Years of Creative Placemaking: Some Thoughts

By Jason Schupbach, NEA Director of Design
A man interacts with a digital artwork installed in a storefront by writing on glass

Signal Path II: Sinister Resonance (2011) by Samson Young, 2012 ZERO1 Biennial, Seeking Silicon Valley, Participatory storefront installation at the Downtown Yoga Shala, San Jose. Photography Patrick Lydon

2015 is the year that the NEA will celebrate its 50th Anniversary, and it has us thinking about where we've been and where we are going with arts-based community development in this country. Today is an especially good day to talk about this topic as it marks the release of an important series of essays on the field from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank (SFFed). The Community Development Investment Review, co-edited by the NEA's new Senior Deputy Chairman Laura Callanan, includes articles and case studies by the NEA and some leading thinkers from the arts- and place-based fields. What most excites us about the new issue of SFFed’s journal is that some of the articles are by true leaders of the community development fields, including Xavier Briggs from the Ford Foundation and Ben Hecht from Living Cities. To have these incredibly respected voices writing about the importance of artists to communities is a breakthrough and a great kick-off to 2015 and the next 50 years of creative placemaking. 

Since the NEA was established in 1965, the arts field has developed some sophisticated community development practices (public art, artist housing, etc.) and some strong infrastructure (government agencies, foundation support, researchers, etc.). We cannot, however, rest on our laurels--we need more research into how to design and evaluate projects effectively to ensure they are in fact driving intended community impacts, including equity and neighborhood revitalization that benefits existing residents. 

Also we're finding that not enough of the people on the ground looking to execute creative placemaking projects have the knowledge readily available that they need to do the work well. There is a lot of “recreating the wheel” out there. We think one of the solutions will be to find ways to have art-based community development practices embedded within non-arts sectors, and help the arts sector better understand community development. 

For example, we know very few city-planning programs that teach arts-based strategies to students in the same way that they teach students the basics of transit, economic development, and real estate.  You could say the same for artists and arts managers--how many were taught anything about community organizing and engagement and/or urban and rural planning basics in school? 

Obviously schools aren't the only places that need to reassess their emphasis on the arts and community development. The community development community--planners, nonprofits, developers, social workers, community members, etc.--could take steps to more fully embrace the arts as partners in their work.

To address the above, here are some of our thoughts for tackling these issues in 2015:

Knowledge Building: The next 50 years of arts-based community development need to be not only about gathering more sophisticated knowledge and research about the practice of creative placemaking but also the distribution and understanding of that knowledge by the folks working to improve their communities. Fortunately, there is a lot of exciting action out there. In 2014, the NEA launched its Exploring Our Town storybook resource. (We are adding four new stories to Exploring Our Town today!) We also held a convening on the role of performing arts in transforming place, the report of which will be out soon. In 2015, the NEA will also make its first set of knowledge-building grants to arts- and place-based membership associations. We're also cooking up a few other cool, new knowledge building projects as I write this. 

In addition to our work, a lot else is going on! The Kresge and Surdna Foundations have made a series of important grants to place-based organizations like the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Community Development Finance Institutions. The Irvine Foundation just released a very interesting series of reports on community engagement.  Animating Democracy and Springboard for the Art's Creative Exchange continue to build out their resources for practitioners. Arts service organizations that have been at the core of working with community, like Alternate Roots, National Performance Network, First People's Fund, and the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, continue to support artists doing the work on the ground. Americans for the Arts just launched a new (NEA -supported) cultural districts resource. Also, ArtPlace has a new dedication to field building and will continue its work to strengthen and grow the community of people and organizations working to position art and culture as a core sector of community planning and development. The list goes on and on, and, certainly in this case, more is more.

Our Town as Leverage:  2014 was a year of continued expansion of the NEA's role as a direct provider of strategic assistance to communities (through Our Town grants, and through Design program creative placemaking expertise that we shared with cities and towns across the country), through NEA's role in the broader federal network of place-based grants delivering  technical assistance and working on policy development in the Obama administration's Ladders of Opportunity framework. 

We've been fortunate to have NEA Design Specialist Jen Hughes, assigned to work directly with Dan Lurie, our director of Strategic Partnerships, on a number of place-based interagency efforts, including the White House Council on Strong Cities and Strong Communities (SC2) and the Promise Zones initiative. Jen and Dan are working with interagency teams and local communities to leverage NEA Our Town investments and other federal place-based investments in order to better integrate arts and culture stakeholders into local community revitalization strategies. They are also working with many of the Obama administration's place-based departments, including HUD's Public and Indian Housing (Choice Neighborhoods) and USDA Rural Development (Strikeforce), among others, to expand the federal network supporting arts stakeholders in local communities.

This work is not only concentrated in the SC2 and Promise Zone communities, but also extending outward toward a wide array of communities that lack some core capacity to leverage their arts and culture assets toward community goals. In many cases, such as in Rockford, Illinois, Detroit, Michigan, and eastern Kentucky, Dan and Jen are playing a "brokering" role. That is to say they are brokering creative placemaking resources and knowledge, which has positioned the NEA as a strategic partner to locally-based federal teams and community partners, rather than just a grant-maker. Through these partnerships and with Our Town as a catalytic investment, NEA has helped local communities and our sister federal agencies learn new approaches for local leadership to engage arts stakeholders, and also higlighted where artists are already playing leadership roles in community revitalization work. As an agency, we have also expanded our internal capacity to better assist local leadership, including artists, in meeting their strategic community development priorities through Our Town and other NEA programs.   

Equity: The Design program is well aware that there are communities that are doing a good job at driving equitable outcomes for residents through creative placemaking strategies, and others that are coming up short. While we have tried our best to emphasize work in communities that is authentic to the place and its people, we need to do better. We're learning a lot about how the arts fit into neighborhood change, and how to ensure that existing residents are the beneficiaries from that change. Ensuring Federal investments support the entire community is a challenge that we do our best to attend to through investing in research, modifying our guidelines for funding, and incorporating an equitable lens into our planning for our next phase of projects. Visit our Exploring Our Town page on “Understanding Community” to find some great resources on how to respect the culture of a place.

We hope that you'll join us and our field partners for the next 50 years of work as we continue to celebrate the valuable contributions of artists and culture to building strong communities across the nation.