Measuring and Field-Building

ArtPlace’s second year saw the organization striving to answer some important questions:

Just how would the organization know that creative placemaking was making an impact, how much of an impact it was having, and in what areas?

Developing measures for the practice could help serve two goals. First, Coletta and her team wanted to lay a firm, results-centered foundation for the embryonic discipline of creative placemaking. Second, measuring outcomes would allow ArtPlace to demonstrate to funders that this cooperative consortium was allowing their pooled funds to achieve a scale of outcomes that no single foundation was able to on its own.

APR 2012
Vibrancy Indicators Launched
ArtPlace team and Impresa Consulting launch Vibrancy Indicators at Municipal Arts Society event

JUN 2012
2012 Grants Announced
2012 ArtPlace grants are announced to 47 projects totaling $15.4 million

The central concept that the team landed on was the idea that creative placemaking could drive “vibrancy” and in turn broader economic development. To that end, Carol Coletta worked with the Portland, Oregon–based firm Impresa Consulting, led by Joe Cortright, to develop metrics that would indicate creative placemaking was activating measurable changes in three dimensions — people, activity, and value in a place — as proxies for vibrancy.
That’s how the organization’s Vibrancy Indicators were born. They were announced at a meeting of the Municipal Art Society of New York in April and became a central focus for conversation in the burgeoning field over the coming year.
The Vibrancy Indicators were not a definition of vibrancy, but simply data from publicly available data sets that would allow ArtPlace to observe how the communities in which they were invested were changing over time alongside the investments. However, the indicators quickly garnered criticism for being rooted largely in economic factors as dimensions of change. Some of these included rate of employment, job opportunities, percentage of locally owned businesses, and the growth of “creative” businesses and occupations, such as media, information, and the arts.
After the explosion of “creative class” conversations and critiques in the 2000s, arts sector and community groups were concerned about the pervasive narrative that the arts were a major driver of gentrification and displacement. ArtPlace’s Vibrancy Indicators were critiqued as perpetuating that notion by suggesting that the change that mattered could be measured largely in dollars and cents.
As ArtPlace continued in its role of facilitating creative placemaking, these early conversations in the field about what change looks like and how to understand it, measure it, and communicate it would become a critical catalyst for involving more of the field in determining how to define its own success, and on whose terms.
A Building in Harlem
If some of ArtPlace’s critics were worried that creative placemaking promoted gentrification and displacement, community members in Sugar Hill, Harlem, might well have voiced the same concerns as they watched a remarkable structure taking shape: a striking new sculptural apartment building designed by the internationally known Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye OBE, RA. Was this a haven for moneyed newcomers to the neighborhood?
Not at all. The residential component of the Sugar Hill complex, at the intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street, is distinctive for the depth of its affordability, with 70 percent of its 124 apartments accessible to households of very limited means, including 20 percent who have experienced homelessness. In a neighborhood challenged by unemployment, disinvestment, and poverty, it’s a deliberate statement of hope, sophistication, and beauty. It’s also home to a tuition-free, arts-oriented preschool, and to a remarkable arts institution: the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling (SHCMAS), whose planning was supported by ArtPlace funding in its third round.
The mixed-use residential building, the preschool, and the museum taken together are the most ambitious project to date of Broadway Housing Communities (BHC), a nonprofit that’s been on the scene in upper Manhattan since 1983, rehabbing vacant and abandoned buildings to give formerly homeless people and others who need it a beautiful, dignified place to live. It’s a housing-equity organization with a love for art.
A Different Kind of Children’s Museum
As for the SHCMAS, unlike what one might expect from a regular children’s museum, this is not just a high-concept play space. It’s a serious art museum, displaying sophisticated work by contemporary artists, many from the neighborhood — a neighborhood made legendary by Harlem Renaissance figures such as Langston Hughes and later luminaries like Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and baseball great Willie Mays. Today Sugar Hill is mainly home to families with roots in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and other Latin American countries.
The museum reaches out to its intended audience — kids from three to eight — in special ways. There are, as the museum’s name suggests, storytelling sessions, but they’re enlivened by theater, dance, and music, along with artmaking by the children. The museum’s artist-in-residence (AIR) program resembles those in other major cultural institutions: the artist selected is given workspace and asked to spend a year creating a new body of work. But they also share the work with kids by holding get-togethers during which the children ask questions and explore artmaking in response to the artist’s work. The preschool’s children are instrumental to the selection process during demonstration sessions with each AIR finalist.
An “Aspirational Leap”
The overall Sugar Hill Project — the building and its amenities — represented a bold venture for BHC, which had rehabbed and developed six other properties, two of which ended up with art galleries where community artists showed their work. But it had never before attempted a build-from-scratch project, let alone one that included a full-fledged museum.
The initial Sugar Hill plans had called for a gallery much like those in BHC’s other properties. But conversations between BHC founder and executive director Ellen Baxter and noted Harlem artist Faith Ringgold, with whom BHC had collaborated on a book of children’s artistic responses to 9/11, upped the ante. Ringgold believed that Sugar Hill should honor its residents with the permanence and dignity of a museum, and Baxter agreed.
“Our two community art galleries had been sponsoring exhibitions since the mid-1990s,” Baxter says. “It was a real aspirational leap that we were making from sponsoring community galleries to creating an established cultural institution. ArtPlace’s support was crucial for the planning of the museum and the hiring of the initial staff to conceive how we were going to actually operationalize our dreams for this new form of museum. We weren’t exactly sure what this all meant — to make a museum in an economically disadvantaged community.”
But Baxter and her colleagues were determined. “It was the principle of it that we believed in,” she says, “and in the history of the Sugar Hill neighborhood, its heritage. A museum represents something permanent; it’s a symbol of a society that protects its treasures — a symbol of civility. ArtPlace supported our dreams and our leap.” The ArtPlace award, she adds, “also really catapulted our visibility and identity. The money was important, but what was equally important was making the cultural arts field aware of the project.”
An Architect Who Listens
When the time came to choose an architect for the Sugar Hill Project, BHC sent out an RFP to 26 New York firms, including Adjaye’s, which had just opened a New York office. “We had a panel of architects we’d collected to help us make this decision,” Baxter says. “What that design committee said was ‘Ellen, you’ve got to be out of your mind if you don’t pick David Adjaye.’ And working with him turned out to be absolutely delightful. He’s very hands-on in terms of decision-making and he’s an exceptional listener.”
For his part, the architect was excited and challenged by the multiple uses the building would incorporate. “It presented an opportunity to tap into what I call an ‘urban system,’” Adjaye says. “A building that was not just about housing, but brought together elements of education, generational interchange, commerce, and culture. For me, it’s incredibly important to think beyond the physical building and to ask how it assists in the life of the people.”
A Laboratory
One major way the Children’s Museum “assists in the life of the people,” according to one analysis, is that sustained art exposure creates pathways for learning. Baxter prefers to put that in more personal terms. “The most magical and unusual impacts that we’ve witnessed, and that continue to be revealed, are what happens between the artists and the children,” she says. “Especially the artists in residence. They work with the children for a whole year. The kids sit on the floor and make things with them that are inspired by the artist’s materials and their work — and they really come to understand that particular artist’s practice, their personality, the materials they work with, what they think about.”
As for the museum as a whole, Baxter calls it a laboratory. “The museum is really a laboratory between the preschool, children coming in when it’s open to the public, artists in residence and art educators, school groups... It has so many different dimensions.” The complexity of this “laboratory”’ idea has intentionally worked to destigmatize (from an urban design perspective) who goes into such a building, who belongs there, and who is welcome. It could no longer be seen as simply a low-income housing project, but something multidimensional that could be used and loved by anyone.
Toward Field-Building, and a Summit
As projects like Sugar Hill were continuing to gain momentum and recognition, the ArtPlace team was also beginning to make plans to expand its activities beyond regranting and the Vibrancy Indicators and into broader field-building work. The goal? Amidst the criticism of the Vibrancy Indicators and concern that creative placemaking was just another trendy term, ArtPlace sought to establish a base of practitioners and advocates who would help advance the practice.
To that end, Coletta and her staff began planning a gathering of the funded projects to kick off the next year with a significant goal: to create a sense of commonality, a common language, and shared interests and aspirations centering on creative placemaking, and to bring practitioners together for the first time to say who they were, what they were doing, and how they could together inspire a broader movement for arts in place.
The idea of field-building: foundations love that. I think it really helped ArtPlace, because people felt like they were building a field, and that’s a big deal. It’s been quite remarkable; there is a firmly built-out field of creative placemaking: stakeholders and norms and standards and understandings about what this idea is all about. There’s good research and scholarship. I think you’ve got a lot of funders who understand this area who didn’t before, and who didn’t fund in this area before. A lot of goodwill has been created because of it.
— Darren Walker
Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation. He is a member of Governor Cuomo’s Reimagining New York Commission and co-chair of NYC Census 2020. Previously he was vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation and COO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, Harlem’s largest community development organization.