ArtPlace's Origins, Twentieth Century Innovation, and an Economic Crisis

ArtPlace was created in 2010 by a consortium of private funders in conversation with the National Endowment for the Arts to advance the field of creative placemaking, the current ArtPlace definition of which is “the intentional integration of arts, culture, and community-engaged design strategies into the process of equitable community planning and development. It’s about artists, culture-bearers, and designers acting as allies to creatively address challenges and opportunities. It’s about these artists and all of the allies together contributing to community defined social, physical, and economic outcomes and honoring a sense of place.” As the organization has grown and developed, the term creative placemaking has become increasingly familiar to artists, community development professionals, local government officials, and others concerned with the health of American communities.

JUL 2010
NEA Assembles Funders
Chairman Landesman convenes private foundations, federal agencies, and banks to explore collaborating around creative placemaking

DEC 2010
ArtPlace Is Born
Initial group of funders formalizes an agreement to collaborate on a new endeavor

While the term creative placemaking emerged in the twenty-first century, the concept is much, much older. Art has shaped places ever since people have lived in them. Cultural evolution has always been driven by human creativity, and that creativity has birthed the art that has inspired and shaped communities. Long before Columbus’s arrival, people had already occupied these continents for millennia. Many Indigenous peoples, not only in North and South America but around the world, see their lifeways, including their arts, as intrinsically connected to the places they inhabit.
A New Relationship Between Government, Art, and Place
The year 2010 was a tense time in the United States. Despite the Great Recession’s “official” end the previous year, when gross domestic product (GDP) finally began a slow rise, much of industry and most Americans were still reeling economically. The budgets of many federal agencies remained stagnant, and some of them, like the NEA, saw their funding cut by more than 7 percent. The NEA’s newly appointed chairman, Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, recognized the need to figure out a new way to operate, founded on connecting the arts and government on the basis of place. In the recession’s aftermath, the two-year old Obama administration had been advancing place-based strategies — measures that addressed entrenched community challenges by looking at the livability of the communities as a whole, rather than just focusing on, say, education or public health. Landesman began making the case to his new colleagues that art could — and should — play a much bigger role in shaping and strengthening communities and thus enhancing livability. Drawing on the work of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, Landesman began laying plans for what would become the Our Town grant program, which would make significant investments in arts and culture projects with the specific purpose of shaping the future of places in the direction of greater livability, while incentivizing various sectors of local government, artists, and arts organizations to work together.
But the agency needed help. “We felt the resources at the NEA were very limited,” said Landesman in a 2014 Aspen Institute interview. “And we wanted to greatly leverage up and increase those resources and create an entity in the private sector that would work alongside the NEA in creative placemaking.” This is how ArtPlace was conceived. With contributions from his wife, philanthropy professional Debby Landesman, and NEA Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa, he sketched a plan to put the public-private partnership to work on the task of revitalizing communities through arts and culture. He hoped to eventually create a new field where artists, arts organizations, culture-bearers, and designers would all have a seat at the community planning table. With the help of Luis Ubiñas and Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation, Landesman convened a group of the heads of the nation’s largest foundations and pitched the idea, to which they enthusiastically agreed. Jamie Bennett, the current executive director of ArtPlace, often refers to this coalition as a “big bag of money and an idea.”
From Ancient America to the WPA, and Beyond
The influence of creative placemaking, an idea rooted in pre-colonial Native practice, can be found throughout the twentieth century. Beginning with the City Beautiful movement in the 1890s and early 1900s and the establishment of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, art and artists have been a deliberate part of modern U.S. urban policy. The establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the middle of the century, along with the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973 (CETA), which supported artists to work in community settings in the 1970s, helped a burgeoning community arts movement grow and deepen.
As these community arts movements were taking hold, there was an ongoing effort by artists and the arts sector to be recognized for their role in community and social change work. By the 1990s and early 2000s, urban economists had caught on and were heralding the value of arts and the creative economy, just as a broader movement back into cities began to spur new investments in urban spaces, and as cultural heritage tourism began becoming more popular, creating a renewed platform for rural revitalization. Moreover, in the latter part of the century and the early 2000s, in urban planning and community development spaces, conversations were deepening about the role of amenities, design, and creative economies in building communities.
Community organizing, which had a sporadic but meaningful history of layering in the work of cultural organizers and artist-activists, was gaining new prominence with Obama’s historic election, while at the same time the broader art field was increasing its discourse around “social practice” — the idea of artistic practice that focuses on engagement with people and communities. Some of these movements have at times been in conflict and sometimes in dialogue with each other. For example, creative economy work has different drivers than cultural equity work. Nevertheless, while there is not a cohesive, unified movement, there is a shared ability to draw on many different influences. With the NEA and ArtPlace, creative placemaking was to more formally position artists and their work as a vital resource for local engagement and community development.
Santo Domingo’s Opportunity — and Challenge
In 2010, the people of the Santo Domingo Pueblo (also known as Kewa Pueblo) in New Mexico found themselves with an opportunity and a challenge. The Rio Metro Regional Transit District had just installed a Rail Runner commuter rail station near the pueblo, giving tribal members easy access to Albuquerque to the southwest and Santa Fe to the northeast. People living in the pueblo had been creating artwork for centuries — distinctive pottery from the clay of the region, turquoise inlay work, and more. The intimate relationship between the pueblo and its artists has continued to the present, where more than 75 percent of its people earn the main part of their living from art-making. The Rail Runner would provide much-needed access to art markets in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
But access to the Rail Runner station itself was difficult and dangerous. The station was located about two miles from the pueblo’s main village, and, since few residents had vehicles, getting there involved walking along a narrow-shouldered highway posted for 25 miles per hour, but which many cars took at twice that speed.
ArtPlace would eventually play a role in supporting the Santo Domingo community in solving this problem — and in honoring the deepest roots of arts and placemaking in the Americas. But first, of course, it had to come fully into being.
Art and Planning in the Pueblo
When the Knight/Gallup Soul of the Community study was first published in 2010, asking citizens across the United States what elements of community life made them feel most attached to theirtowns and cities, respondents cited “social offerings, openness, and aesthetics” as more important than a strong local economy, good schools, or safe streets. It looked like Americans as a whole were already enthusiastic — and hopeful — about what arts and culture could do for them. Of course, the people of the Santo Domingo Pueblo already knew what arts and culture did for them. It was their lifeblood. And that’s why the pueblo’s Planning Department wanted to make certain that art was an integral part of a new vision for the pueblo. The department began collaborating with architect and member of the Northern Cheyenne nation Joseph Kunkel, embedded in the Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority as an Enterprise Rose Fellow, to develop a master plan for the entire pueblo, along with a number of other community-development projects. In many ways, Kunkel’s work was an early guidepost and indicator of the emerging creative placemaking field. Working with Kunkel, the department secured one of the NEA’s Our Town grants, to create a Cultural Arts District at Santo Domingo. The point of the plan was to ease the tribe’s housing shortage while respecting its cultural values and celebrating its artistic heritage. One important part of it was to build an affordable-housing development across the road from the Rail Runner station in an area known simply as Domingo. Another was to rebuild the village's Santo Domingo Trading Post, where local artists had marketed their works before a fire gutted the building in 2001.
Joint Planning—Including the Community
Residents of the Domingo development had to make that dangerous two-mile walk along the highway — to get to the village in the opposite direction from those heading to the train station. The solution to this was the creation of a trail planned jointly with the Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority and the Santo Domingo Planning Department who engaged various organizations and members of the community, including the Tribal Council, the Santa Fe Art Institute, the local Natural Resources Department, and the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, which tracked broader health outcomes related to the trail. As a new national entity, ArtPlace would also become a key partner in 2014 by funding the integration of art into a section of the trail. That section, the Santo Domingo Heritage Trail, was laid out to cover 1.5 miles of the walkway and to celebrate the millennia-long artistic traditions of the people of the Santo Domingo Pueblo by creating six “art nodes” along the way. “The project had a layered funding structure that included support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the New Mexico Department of Transportation, and the tribe itself,” says Kunkel. “ArtPlace funded the part of the community engagement process that addressed what it means to work with local artists. It funded artists’ participation in the design of each of the art nodes, and it funded fabrication.” Given that so many community members rely on the arts as a main source of income, Kunkel notes, “it’s also about making sure that artists’ voices are involved in the development process—and, when they are involved, that they’re paid for their knowledge.”
Part of the ArtPlace funding was also used to ensure that as development moved forward, community engagement would continue to be a priority. “Typically,” Kunkel says, “there aren’t any dollars in housing budgets to do prolonged engagement processes; most funding is focused on bricks and mortar. But the thing is, it’s hard to get the bricks and mortar correct if you are not asking basic questions like what does it mean to live in your community? How did the whole housing crisis in Indian Country begin in the first place? ArtPlace’s support was crucial in helping us pose and address questions like those.”
ArtPlace funding also brought renowned public artist Mary Miss to the pueblo to support the Santo Domingo artists. “Every three months, Mary and her partner, George Peck, would host a three- or four-day workshop with the local artists,” Kunkel says. “These community members are professional artists; their art has been passed down from generation to generation — but historically they’ve worked at the scale of a wristlet, a pot, silversmithing, painting, etching. The workshops were about scaling their work up to the scale of the landscape, and Mary was great at supporting that.” A longtime collaborator with Mary Miss, the landscape architecture firm Olin Studio did much of the master planning work.
The Creative Placemaking white paper by Ann Markusen, Markusen Economic Research Services, and Anne Gadwa, Metris Arts Consulting, defined creative placemaking as “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shap[ing] the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative Placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” This summation served as the frame for the NEA’s launch of the Our Town grant program and invigorated a national conversation around the role that arts and culture played in community development in 2010.
What’s Ahead
At the time of publishing the basic infrastructure of the walkway is in place and Kunkel says that there will be “large Santo Domingo pottery work with both traditional and contemporary design, as well as paving that incorporates traditional turquoise inlay work with the Thunderbird motif into brick patterns. Mural works call out Santo Domingo culture along the path. Shade structures and seating areas allow people to sit in the landscape and enjoy the vistas.”
Considering the project as a whole, Kunkel alludes to the theme that opened this chapter when he reminds us that Native peoples have honored place since time immemorial. “The whole concept of creative placemaking has by now merged into a much larger question about Indigenous placekeeping,” he says. “But the term comes down to asking the question, what is the power of place when we think about development?”
And in the case of Santo Domingo, what is the power of the culture, of the community, of the people of the pueblo?” Cynthia Aguilar, Santo Domingo’s tribal librarian and a former board member of the Tribal Housing Authority, has some answers to that question. For her, the art that will soon line the walkway announces the pueblo’s place in space and time. “The students who come to the library where I work do not see themselves on the shelves,” she says. “Santo Domingo is not present in print. And at the same time, we are a visual people. So art is the best way to express who we are, how we are a part of New Mexico, the United States, and the world.”
I received a call in July 2010 from Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, asking if I would help develop the specifics for a new initiative just blessed at a meeting attended by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the leadership of seven major national foundations. The meeting was convened by Rocco Landesman, chair of the NEA, and Luis Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation. The overall concept was to “promote arts and culture in building livable, sustainable communities.” The challenge presented was to further define the initiative; develop a structure for funding, governance, and operations; and secure financing commitments of approximately $15 million by the end of the year.
I worked with Rocco Landesman, Joan Shigekawa, and Jamie Bennett of the NEA, and Darren Walker, with top-notch legal advice from Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, to create multiple agreements that provided the mechanisms for funding and operating the initiative. By December 31, 2010, the funders had signed these agreements and committed $12 million in grants and $12 million in loans to the program. During this formative period, the number of funders grew to ten foundations and six financial institutions. And during these intense five months, our team addressed issues and accomplished tasks relating to the unique role of the NEA in working collaboratively with private-sector organizations; the engagement of the Nonprofit Finance Fund as investment advisor and fund recipient, which allowed the ArtPlace initiative to be launched and operated without establishing a separate, formal entity; addressing funder geographic and arts form preferences; obtaining legal clearance to use the ArtPlace name; selecting Carol Coletta to serve as director of the new initiative; integrating a loan component to the financial structure; working through individual foundation grant-making processes; and developing an action plan for the period following the ArtPlace launch.
— James Pickman
James Pickman has worked for over 50 years in the for-profit, nonprofit, and government sectors, and has advised foundations, nonprofit entities, and government at all levels in developing and managing programs supporting community development, the arts, social services, and historic culture and tourism.