NEA Our Town and the Practice of Creative Placemaking

By Jen Hughes
Two men wearing red carve a totem pole
TJ Young (left) adds the finishing touches of paint to the house post. Photo by TJ Young

This past Wednesday, the National Endowment for the Arts announced 63 Our Town grants totaling $4 million. This announcement and the recommended projects offer insight into the state of creative placemaking. Conceived in a year marked by profound hardship, trauma, and grief, each of the recommended Our Town projects offers hope. These arts-led, engagement-based, inclusive initiatives rise to the multiple challenges of this moment with creative approaches to heal, rebuild community, and work towards a more equitable future. 

The Our Town portfolio this year is diverse in every respect. Grants will support creative placemaking projects in 28 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Northern Mariana Islands. Sixteen recommended projects will take place in rural or tribal communities across the country. From a theatre-led, intergenerational story sharing project on the impact of climate change in Alaska's North Slope to the design of a rural cultural district in the Belgrade Lakes region in Maine, the projects span all artistic disciplines. As in previous years, applicants comprised a wide range of cross-sector partnerships with a shared goal of catalyzing local economic, physical or social change; ultimately laying the groundwork for longer term systems change. 

This year was unique, however, in that the deadline fell just months after the nation was shocked and outraged by the tragic death of George Floyd. An overwhelming number of applicants put forth proposals with powerful visions for how arts, culture, and design can light a path toward reconciliation and meaningful change, often by elevating marginalized or erased narratives and centering the experience of communities of color. For example, along the Lake Street corridor in Minneapolis, where local businesses sustained extraordinary damage in the wake of the protests and clashes with law enforcement, Pangea World Theater is organizing theater workshops, story circles, and other arts engagement activities. Residents will collectively reflect on their experience of the uprising and its aftermath, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. In Mississippi, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission will engage MASS Design Group to plan a memorial honoring Emmett Till, the young Black boy whose lynching helped galvanize the Civil rights movement, at Graball Landing. The artist- and designer-facilitated planning will inform the memorial's design and ultimately serve as a model for other communities to acknowledge past violent histories and initiate dialogue that advances understanding and healing. 

Another notable trend among recommended projects this year is the reassertion of Indigenous culture and history through a variety of approaches elevating its presence in the built environment. In Washington State, the Nisqually Indian Tribe will lead a project to carve and install a Welcome Figure, a Coast Salish traditional sculpture. The sculpture will be installed in a new state park and will pave the way for the inclusion of Indigenous art installations and cultural events on public lands throughout the state. In Alaska, the Anchorage Museum Association will lead a project to install public art, establish architectural guidelines, and create a new Indigenous font to increase the visual representation of Dena'ina culture in downtown Anchorage. These projects, along with others that demonstrate deep partnerships with Indigenous communities, will establish new models and approaches for acknowledging Indigenous culture and including Indigenous perspectives as ongoing practices in the development of our nation's communities. 

A key tenet of the Our Town program remains partnership with local government, and several proposals put forth novel partnerships that will lay the groundwork for long-term systems change. ArtsWestchester will partner with White Plains Housing Authority and the City of White Plains, New York, to deploy artists to engage with residents of an 850-unit public housing community currently being redeveloped. Leveraging their unique skills to connect with community in creative ways, artists will work with residents to develop a public art plan and prototype arts and cultural programming to inform the site's redevelopment. In Princeton, West Virginia, the RiffRaff Arts Collective is partnering with the city, and other local nonprofits to initiate multi-media arts program that will foster discussion within city hall on critical issues such as homelessness, mental health, and drug abuse. These recommended projects highlight just some of the ways that arts and culture can influence how local governments engage with and respond to their constituents. 

Over the past decade; the understanding and practice of creative placemaking has evolved, as has the Our Town program. In February, the NEA published Our Town: A Framework for Understanding and Measuring the NEA Creative Placemaking Grants Program, offering a way to understand how these local projects ultimately advance longer-term systems change. Over time there has also been a shift in the community goals that these projects strive to achieve. Nothing better illuminates this than the Our Town projects recommended this year, many of which are focused on addressing social change outcomes, employing arts and culture as a way to build collective power and voice in community; a marked shift from earlier projects that overwhelmingly focused on physical change. Even the projects that result in physical impact (such as the design of a new public space or installation of public art) are conceived in a way that they acknowledge the power of a community-led or engaged process in seeding lasting change in how the community works together. 

In December 2020, the field reluctantly bid ArtPlace America farewell as the organization sunset. ArtPlace’s remarkable contributions to the ever-evolving field have laid the groundwork for its continued growth by investing in research, field convenings, annual summits, and exemplary local projects. We are immensely grateful for ArtPlace America’s leadership and remain committed to building on its legacy and the NEA’s continued support of the Our Town program. We look towards the future as these newly announced Our Town projects unfold across the country, with a deep belief that arts and culture have the potential to drive meaningful and inclusive local change that ultimately strengthens our nation. 

Jen Hughes has been the NEA's director of Design and Creative Placemaking since 2018. She oversees grant portfolios that support the design and creative placemaking fields, as well as leadership initiatives that include the Mayors’ Institute on City Design and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design.