Who is Creative Placemaking? Some Thoughts on Inequality in Our Town

By Jason Schupbach, NEA Director of Design
an older building with a billboard that says "Who is Creative Placemaking?"
Who is Creative Placemaking? by Gaia. Photo by Ben Stone 

“Think about artists not as content providers but as real catalysts. Think not always just about what aesthetic innovations that their minds imagine…but more about the excitement of the community that they create as important voices to help us understand our situation as well as our futures.” --Thelma Golden, Executive Director, The Studio Museum 

We’re announcing a new round of Our Town grants today! Given we’re five years into this adventure, I’ve been thinking a lot about just where the conversation stands currently about the role of artists and arts organizations in community. While we know that creative placemaking isn’t for everyone, for the folks that are interested, we’ve been tracking a surge in conversation around two big topics--how to make communities more resilient to trauma, and how to deal with the very real problem of the deep inequities in our society. I’ve waxed semi-poetic recently on the resilience issue so I’d like to take this time to talk about the outcomes applicant communities expect to see and how they address the issue of inequity. I’d also like to share some new steps we’re taking to support those working in this field.  

The first half of that story is about leverage--leveraging resources to put the talents of artists and arts organizations to work on inequity issues. There are a lot of people focusing on this topic, For example, we can look at the recent Ford Foundation Art of Change initiative, or Blade of Grass’ work. What’s exciting to us this year is that many of the Our Town grantees in this round are pushing for outcomes that will address the ills of inequity in their communities (joblessness, lack of access to consistent capital and other resources, discriminatory housing and zoning policies, etc.). 

Too often people assume that all of the Our Town grants are about downtown economic development, but that is a mistake. Many communities are not only bringing the arts to the table in their neighborhood development efforts for disadvantaged neighborhoods, but are also empowering artists' talents in helping to give agency to the unique culture of a place and to create opportunities for residents. One example is the Community L.I.F.T. project in the Soulsville neighborhood of Memphis. This community development organization is leveraging local assets and relationships to do a multiplicity of activities around the theme of soul music as a way to directly address years of disinvestment in a longtime African-American neighborhood, including developing new music industry skills for residents in newly renovating art spaces like the Slim House Studio.  

In Los Angeles, the leverage is even more national in scope. The Our Town grant will join other funding support from federal agencies focused on the newly designated "Promise Zone", which includes the culturally diverse underserved neighborhoods of Little Bangladesh, Little Armenia, Koreatown, and Historic Filipinotown. While it’s notable that the NEA is funding this project alongside other agencies in a coordinated way, what’s really special about this grant is that it will use culturally resonant folklore-based techniques to map the cultural assets of the neighborhood. The native art of these communities will give voice to the previously unheard, connecting the goals of improved educational opportunities, economic development, and neighborhood safety to cultural opportunities.

The second half of the story of inequality and Our Town is how we are trying to help everyone to do this work better. We’re really excited about the new grants we made in knowledge-building to Springboard for the Arts, Alternate ROOTS, Trust for Public Land, National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations, and Art of the Rural. All of these organizations have a great respect for the residents of the neighborhoods they work within, and are partnering with a range of arts and community development organizations to assist on-the-ground artists, arts organizations, and community development practitioners in spreading the knowledge of how to engage the arts to improve places. We can’t wait to share what they learn with the rest of the country. 

We’re also excited about a couple of new projects coming down the pike--the Our Town Technical Assistance Program and an evaluation of the Our Town program. The Technical Assistance Program is about assisting grantees in a meaningful way by supporting the work of a select group of them over two years in order to learn exactly what practitioners are struggling with as they do their work. Are there common elements to this work that we could be better at addressing through our NEA support systems? What kinds of toolkits might be helpful? Is everyone struggling with effective techniques in engaging minority populations? What’s working and what isn’t? These are just some of the questions we want to investigate.  

In our evaluation, we want to learn if the Our Town program really is reaching the outcomes we’ve expected it to. We’ll select and hire an independent third party to do this work later this fall.  They will be looking closely at what’s happened with the program to date to see if those changes are meaningful to both the arts field, other Federal agencies, and other local constituents. If we find that the current version of Our Town is not accomplishing the changes communities are asking for, our next step will be to see how we can change things to better serve Our Town communities. 

We at the NEA believe strongly that the arts and artists have an important role to play as we solve the tough problems of inequity we face as a country.  As Gail Christopher recently said at the Ford Art of Change meeting, “The power of art to remind us of our humanity has always been a major component of change in our society.” Simply put, if the arts are at the community development table, it’s a change we can all look forward to.