Defining and Launching

At the end of 2010, with funders on board and federal authorities gaining interest in creative placemaking, ArtPlace didn’t yet have a leader. In January of 2011, renowned urbanist Carol Coletta, who had served for years as the head of Chicago-based CEOs for Cities, was hired as the organization’s first executive director, and a year of organizing — including staffing up — and self-definition began.

JAN 2011
NEA Our Town Launched
The NEA publicly launches its first grant program focused on creative placemaking

JAN 2011
Carol Coletta Hired
National urban influencer Carol Coletta is hired to lead the ArtPlace initiative

JUN 2011
White House Meeting on the Arts
Funders participate in first-ever White House West Wing Meeting on arts and community development

JUL 2011
First Round of Grants
ArtPlace awards its first round of grants to 34 projects totaling $11.5 million

SEP 2011
NY Times Announces ArtPlace
The New York Times announces ArtPlace creation on the front page of its arts section

ArtPlace wanted to put the idea of creative placemaking on the map, and that meant clarifying and demonstrating what the practice looked like all over the country. To that end its first round of funding was by invitation. Coletta and her new staff—Bridget Marquis, Tim Halbur, and Shreya Parekh—looked at applicants for grants from the brand-new NEA Our Town program, along with other people and groups in the ArtPlace funder network who were doing work in line with the new paradigm, and sent them requests for proposals. The idea was to highlight initiatives that reflected both the current reality and the potential of the approach—a portfolio of projects that would help illustrate the work and then serve as a launch pad for the public debut of ArtPlace.
The 34 first-round projects included a wide range of geographies and partners: from an Office of Planning–driven project to support temporary art interventions in public space and vacant buildings in Washington, D.C., to a farm/art collaboration to spur economic development and solidarity in rural Wisconsin, to a unique multi-artist initiative in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Springboard for the Arts Presents “Irrigate”
The Irrigate project, piloted by Springboard for the Arts in Saint Paul, invited hundreds of local arts practitioners to take part in a wildly varied “ecosystem” of artworks and art happenings, all aimed at bringing fun, joy, and uplift to neighborhoods challenged by a disruptive construction project.
When construction began on the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line (later dubbed the Green Line) linking the downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, many rejoiced; the Twin Cities, which had scrapped their streetcar systems in the 1950s, were going to have a second mass-transit rail route, eventually connected to the already-operational Blue Line linking downtown Minneapolis with the airport. At the same time, the transit line planning was full of contention as communities along the route fought for stops in their neighborhoods that have suffered a long history of displacement, disinvestment, and insufficient resources.
Regardless of whether one was feeling excited or had trepidations, the reality would be three years of highly disruptive digging and building, much of it down the middle of University Avenue. In Saint Paul, University runs through the Frogtown neighborhood, and on it Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese, and other immigrants have, since the light rail’s inception, established a flourishing business district, with restaurants, hair and nail salons, groceries, garages — small businesses operating on narrow margins. Years of reduced access could be fatal to many of them. At the time it was a stretch of small buildings dotted with vacant car dealerships that had moved to the burbs, and full of small, locally owned businesses that give great flavor and authenticity to the area.
A majority of people of color owned businesses here, and in particular Black- and Asian-owned businesses were also threatened all along the 11-mile Saint Paul stretch, from the Midway neighborhood to downtown. Rondo, an historic African American community, had been through this before. In the 1930s it was a vibrant, vital community that was in many ways independent of the white society around it. The construction of I-94 in the 1960s shattered this tight-knit community, displaced thousands of African-Americans into a racially segregated city and a discriminatory housing market, and erased a now-legendary neighborhood. This time around, news reports and editorials anticipated loss of business and economic turmoil.
With funding from ArtPlace, Springboard for the Arts leveraged community connections to train over 600 local artists and foster nearly 200 artist-led projects over three years — projects that helped alter the media narrative and bolster community spirit and cohesion.
In downtown Saint Paul, Laura Zabel, Jun-Li Wang, and their colleagues at Springboard were on the front lines. “We started seeing the effects of the construction firsthand,” says Zabel, executive director of Springboard. “There was a huge hole in the ground outside our building. That was the spark: just witnessing in our own neighborhood what a large disruption this was going to be and thinking, what could artists bring to the table to help neighborhoods and communities?”
For most of its life, Springboard had concentrated on helping individual artists develop their careers. But they’d also been looking to expand their self-identified mandate into community development and building reciprocal relationships between artists and their communities. Wang, an experienced community organizer, was brought on board by Zabel to lead the new direction in 2010. She first piloted the concept of supporting artists to engage with community issues and creative placemaking by collaborating with the Friendly Streets Initiative, an effort to help residents conceive how to make their street more bike- and pedestrian-friendly. So in 2011 Wang was ready to spearhead a much more ambitious project, funded by ArtPlace, and in partnership with Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the city of Saint Paul, and eventually titled Irrigate.
The plan was to engage local artists to support businesses in the construction zone by creating projects that called attention to the shops, restaurants, and organizations, and celebrated the neighborhoods they were part of. In an atmosphere of apprehension about the immediate economic future of the avenue, the projects would remind everyone that the area was still vibrant and would continue to be so.
Springboard had other goals as well. “At this moment of building huge physical infrastructure in the city,” says Zabel, “we asked if we could build a parallel infrastructure of relationships, between artists and businesses and neighborhood organizations. We wanted to provide the conditions for artists to develop new skills in working in community development and big community issues; for neighborhood organizations and small businesses to experience the value of artists; and to create opportunities for people to come together and have moments of joy and surprise in a time that was pretty challenging.”
Wang called upon her close connections with the area’s district councils — organizations that foster residents’ engagement in community and with city planning processes — who then collaborated with Springboard to reach out to artists who lived and worked in the affected neighborhoods. “The district councils know their neighborhoods,” Wang says. “They can talk at a granular, grassroots level. For Irrigate, the question was: how do we support what’s and who’s already here?” Other community and cultural organizations partnered and provided connections as well.
The result, says Zabel, was that a broad cross-section of artists applied to do an Irrigate project. “Some had been comfortable calling themselves artists for years,” she says, “and others maybe had never called themselves artists before, but had a creative practice or a cultural practice or tradition, and were interested in what they could do in their own community.”
Springboard held free workshops for artists in collaboration and creative placemaking, and pretty soon neighborhood residents and the wider Twin Cities community were getting glimpses, one after another, of just how much was happening under the Irrigate banner: primarily through nearly 200 modest artist projects. Alliances between artists and businesses were forged; murals were created, outdoor dance classes were held, photography exhibits appeared in store windows, and concerts popped up in restaurants.
The Narrative Shifts
Over time, the doom-and-gloom media atmosphere was invaded by activities to do and see, stories of excitement, innovation, cooperation, and hope. Wang notes that it wasn’t just the economic-disruption narrative that began to shift — for instance, the image of Frogtown, an inner-city neighborhood with multiple challenges, began to alter too. “For people in the neighborhood, it was suddenly, ‘Look! I have cool neighbors, they’re active, they’re doing beautiful things.’ And for outsiders: ‘That’s a neighborhood where cool things happen.’”
“Doing lots of little projects, instead of focusing on a single big, iconic piece of art, created multiple opportunities for media attention,” Zabel says. “That created an alternative, positive media narrative. Each project was its own little story about something interesting, unique, or fun, and about the people and the cultures in the neighborhood.” The dizzying final count of positive mass- and social-media mentions was over 50 million.
“It turns out,” Zabel says, “that if you pay people who live and work in and understand and care about a neighborhood to do creative things, you can have a much bigger impact than hiring a PR firm to try to create an ‘outside’ narrative.”
Just as important were the connections made. Zabel points out that the district councils and other organizations have continued to work with artists, and many Irrigate artists have continued to work on community-based projects. “Irrigate unearthed or made more visible a whole new set of leaders in the neighborhoods,” she says. Artists started going to city meetings and proudly identifying themselves as “Irrigate artists.”
People in the neighborhoods began seeing artists differently, too. “They began to say, ‘An artist can be anybody,’” says Wang. “‘This is my neighbor, this is somebody down my block and they’re doing an Irrigate project.’ People started to become much more aware that there were these artists all over and these artists wanted to engage.”
An Organization Arrives
Meanwhile, ArtPlace’s funders were busy laying the groundwork for creative placemaking to become a conversation that would transcend its origins in the arts sector. Funders took part in a meeting on arts and community development in the West Wing of the White House in June with a number of cabinet secretaries — a major opportunity to bring the creative placemaking message to federal officials at a variety of agencies, especially those where its founders believed artists could play an important role in federally funded programs.
“One of the major foundational ideas of ArtPlace early on,” says ArtPlace Deputy Director Lyz Crane, “was to align with different federal programs that were focused on place to think about how arts and culture strategies could support their goals. For example, how could there be a better connection between practitioners applying to the NEA and programs and funds that were available from the EPA or USDA?”
As 2011 progressed, ArtPlace became poised to launch more publicly. In September, the New York Times heralded the advent of ArtPlace on the front page of its arts section: “ArtPlace likens its role to providing venture capital,” wrote Robin Pogrebin, “seeding projects that already enjoy strong local support and connecting with an area’s development strategy to attract more private and public dollars.” Pogrebin quoted Carol Coletta, summing up the strategy: “We’re doubling down on the investments a city has already made.”
The New York Times article coincided with the announcement of $11.5 million in ArtPlace’s first round of 34 grants all across the country, as well as an open call for its second round of grants, designed to begin surfacing ideas and projects outside of the early founders’ networks.
With these values in place — collaboration and support for what was already working — ArtPlace was established as a funder of projects aimed at the economic revitalization of communities across the nation.
When I was appointed ArtPlace director, I was looking for something that would create excitement for others. I wanted great spokespeople, demonstration projects—something that wouldn’t just look good for a year but rather would be a model for others, change-making enough that people would follow the lead. When you’re trying to establish a thing, you have to get it off the ground quickly and know you’re going to make some mistakes, without being afraid to leap with great imagination. That involves risk taking, but also some rigor about the outcomes.
The thing that always blows my mind is that nobody really cares about the outcomes. People care about stories, so you’d better do something early on that gives you good storytellers, people who are charismatic and charming, people that others look up to and want to emulate.
It was really all about trying to catch that lightning and get others to buy into it. I wanted us to create enough sparks that the fire would catch in lots of places that we never control. Let’s get as much attention as we can and create a set of metrics so that lots of people can use them, or that at least it will frame a discussion about why this stuff is important to you even if you don’t care about art or placemaking.
I thought we, along with the NEA Our Town work, did a good job of seeding the concept, and making enough grants and making enough noise with those grants that we put the idea of creative placemaking on the map. I think we started a very robust discussion that was well worth having.
— Carol Coletta
Carol Coletta is president and CEO of the Memphis River Parks Partnership. Previously, she served as executive director of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and ArtPlace America.