A Summit and a Strategic Plan

This watershed year for ArtPlace began with a press tour and its first Creative Placemaking Summit, in Miami Beach. It ended with a new strategic plan in place that would refine the ArtPlace mission and give the initiative a new shape as a ten-year program that would “sunset” in 2020.

JAN 2013
America’s Top ArtPlaces Report
America's Top ArtPlaces Report is released

JAN 2013
ArtPlace Summit
The ArtPlace community gathers in Miami

APR 2013
Jeremy Nowak Takes Lead
Jeremy Nowak’s tenure as interim Executive Director begins

SEP 2013
Creative Placemaking Roundtable
ArtPlace partners with Aspen Institute to host mayors at the Aspen Creative Placemaking Roundtable

SEP 2013
2013 Grants Announced
2013 ArtPlace grants are announced to 54 projects totaling $15.2 million

Building on the Vibrancy Indicators, ArtPlace released America’s Top Art Places in early January. The report highlighted twelve neighborhoods in eleven metro areas, showcasing places that rated strongly on vibrancy measures. They had in common dense combinations of arts and culture businesses and workers alongside independent retailers and other key kinds of street-level retail.
The release came with a six-city press tour. Later in the year, ArtPlace would release a similar list for rural places. In both cases, the goal was to ignite new conversations in the press about arts in communities by celebrating places where investments in arts and culture were driving vibrant economies.
Questions and Inspirations
The first annual Summit was a gathering of funded projects along with key external partners and funders. The goal was to help build a network of practitioners who would serve as ambassadors for the work in their communities and share stories and ideas. The Summit included a number of peer-driven conversations on how and what funded projects were doing, along with a lot of discussion on how to engage new partners. For example, how could ArtPlace and its allies engage with federal, state, and local governments? How could intersections between the public and private sector promote the work? And how could the work add up to meaningful messages and a set of meaningful models for people who deal with community change on a daily basis?
The Summit was also, of course, a chance for far-flung organizations with commitments to creative placemaking to get to know each other and each other’s work. As Maarten Jacobs, executive director of the Near Westside Initiative in Syracuse, New York, told ArtPlace at the time, “It was such a privilege to be with a hundred or so other practitioners, from around the country, all doing amazing work in their communities by harnessing the power of creative placemaking. During the Summit I took dozens of pages of notes with lists and lists of new and creative ideas based on the work of the other ArtPlace grant recipients.”
Appalshop: Rethinking a Vision
One theme that arose from the Summit was the idea that there were a number of practitioners who had been doing this work long before ArtPlace existed, but also that this new engagement at the federal level represented an opportunity to build on and validate work that wasn’t always seen by formal systems.
One organization in the heart of Appalachia that had been harnessing the power of creative placemaking — the synergy of creative arts and community — for decades before the term was coined was Appalshop. And interestingly enough, its origin story also began with federal support and with the United States’ War on Poverty.
The roots of Appalshop were first set down in 1969, when a recent graduate of Yale’s architecture school, Bill Richardson, came to the eastern Kentucky town of Whitesburg, armed with grants from the Office of Economic Opportunity and the American Film Institute and with faith in the power of film to change lives. Working with like-minded local people, he set up the Appalachian Film Workshop, with a threefold goal: to train Appalachian youth to use 16mm film equipment; to aid the local economy by offering vocational training; and, through the films the young people made, to create images of the richness of Appalachian culture — musical, artistic, historical, human. The point was to counter the dominant narrative of the region as little more than a sinkhole of poverty.
The organization soon came to be known by its foreshortened nickname, Appalshop, and as the years passed, it grew and grew into a multitasking community-service organization rooted in arts and culture. As its website says, “Today Appalshop operates a radio station, a theater, a public art gallery, a record label, an archive, a filmmaking institute, a reproductive justice program, a community development program, and a frankly dizzying array of other initiatives, all in a renovated warehouse.” But the road to today’s Appalshop had some twists and turns. In the 1980s the original film workshop became the Appalachian Media Institute (AMI) — but by the beginning of the new century, it was struggling to survive.
“In the early 2000s, documentary film was no longer considered to be powerfully innovative, and philanthropy was moving into different kinds of support, including support for more urban-centered youth,” says Appalshop Executive Director Alexander Gibson. “AMI was in a really tough place, and ArtPlace came onto the scene to help us revitalize our vision for it, as well as to support other initiatives.”
Three-Pronged Support
The ArtPlace grant, awarded in 2015 but based on work that had begun years before, was intended to help Appalshop ramp up arts, media, and technology training for youth; strengthen cultural institutions in Whitesburg and the surrounding Letcher County; and help diversify the county’s economy by developing opportunities based on local traditions and supporting entrepreneurs with plans for creative businesses. The key to it all was creative placemaking.
“The ArtPlace support to Appalshop came in the form of a creative placemaking grant,” says Gibson. “ArtPlace came in early on this concept of creative placemaking in Appalachia. Our interpretation of creative placemaking meant developing a diversified economy for where we are. The grants allowed us to do a lot of planning and thinking and strategizing, which led to everything else.”
This expansion of Appalshop’s mission, Gibson says, was rooted in the organization’s relationship with Gladstone “Fluney” Hutchinson, an economics professor and provost at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and former director-general and executive chairman of the Planning Institute of Jamaica. Hutchinson, an expert on fostering economic growth in the developing world, believes in community cooperation and grassroots resource-building rather than traditional top-down development and aid models. Hutchinson saw and admired what Appalshop had done in the cultural sphere, and he helped the organization see how it could extend its reach further to meet the needs of the local economy through cooperative ventures.
Hutchinson’s influence was felt most directly on the build-out of a network of local organizations called Letcher County Culture Hub. The alliance includes community centers in several towns in the county; Whitesburg’s farmers’ market and public library; EpiCentre Arts, a support center for artists in the region; the Letcher County Cycling Club; and Whitesburg’s Downtown Retail Association — in all, twenty-plus bodies and growing.
Supported by community organizers at Appalshop, the Culture Hub has started businesses, revived musical and other cultural events, and spurred public-policy initiatives aimed at energizing the county’s economy. Discussions among the members are guided, says Gibson, by the communication styles that Appalshop has always employed: “Story circles, respect, listening, not commenting on what someone’s saying, letting them finish, repeating their contribution back to them, making sure everyone is heard.”
It’s an approach that the Appalshoppers, who tend to be on the liberal side of the political spectrum, have found crucial in gaining the support of local residents who might not share their political convictions, but who have come to respect their commitment to the county’s future.
Performing Our Future
ArtPlace support also helped bring to birth Performing Our Future, a program that “exports” the Culture Hub approach to other localities. “Performing Our Future,” says Gibson, “is the umbrella term to describe our satellite group experiments, our proving grounds.” Created by Appalshop’s award-winning grassroots performance troupe Roadside Theater and led at the time by veteran Appalshop organizer Ben Fink, the initiative links Letcher County Culture Hub with the Arch Social Community Network in West Baltimore, Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice in Alabama, and Rural/Urban Flow in Milwaukee and Sauk Counties, Wisconsin. In the Appalshop mode, the groups combine cultural work — storytelling, music, theater, film, and more — with community organizing and community business-development and wealth-building. As the project’s website notes, “we own what we make” — the resources created by community cooperation stay in the community.
And ArtPlace’s just-in-time support of the Media Institute, Gibson says, led to even bigger things. A Boston-based video-game developer called Giant Otter Media had grown dissatisfied with the coding work they were outsourcing to India. Appalshop’s development director, Ada Smith, got wind of their problem and suggested that they hire former AMI multimedia trainees at the same rate of pay. Mountain Tech Media was the result, an LLC that did sophisticated web development right in the heart of Letcher County.
Gibson notes that most of the projects spurred by ArtPlace’s grant have now been taken up by the Educational Foundation of America (EFA) — but the support to widen its horizons that ArtPlace originally gave Appalshop made the projects possible.
“If we hadn’t had the creative placemaking dollars from ArtPlace, we wouldn’t have engaged Fluney Hutchinson,” he says. “If we hadn’t engaged Fluney, we wouldn’t have had the strategy, and the strategy led to all the rest.”
New Partners, a Change of Leadership, and a New Road Map
Leveraging new partners and funders was always a major goal of ArtPlace. Building on the foundation that had been set by the West Wing meeting in 2011, ArtPlace was interested in developing a larger strategy for the initiative that would deepen its integration around federal policy and lending activities. Luckily, it had an incredible asset to draw on in Jeremy Nowak, who was engaged to help build out a road map for ArtPlace.
Nowak was one of the original funders of ArtPlace while serving as president of the William Penn Foundation, and after leaving the foundation, he was happy to assist with his unique qualifications. Nowak had founded and led The Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia and, while there, had done a lot of thinking, writing, and investing around arts and culture and their role in community revitalization. He had also been involved in a number of federal programs, as well as another funder collaborative, Living Cities, doing significant community development work at the national level. Altogether, he brought a unique combination of experience with lending, federal policy, and foundation strategy that would soon prove to be invaluable.
In March of 2013, Executive Director Carol Coletta announced that she was leaving to take up a position with the Knight Foundation. With the future of the initiative unclear, ArtPlace’s funders saw Nowak as a logical choice to serve as interim director. The remaining staff at ArtPlace worked with Nowak and the funders over the following months to go back to basics and ask some important foundational questions: Was ArtPlace just a short-term initiative, or did it have a longer-term role to play in the landscape? Was its primary function to regrant pooled funds, or were there other measurable goals that this particular collaborative might advance with their collective might?
Meanwhile, ArtPlace was continuing to build out new programs to advance the idea of creative placemaking with new audiences. For example, ArtPlace had its eye on mayors and built a partnership with the Aspen Institute to host the Aspen Creative Placemaking Roundtable. Modeled on the earlier Mayors’ Institute on City Design, it invited six mayors from around the country to bring challenges to a body of creative placemaking practitioners who would help design new ideas for them in real time.
This kind of audience-driven field-building would be inspiration to building out a broader mandate for the organization. Over the summer, Nowak hammered out a new plan with staff and participating funders that would embody a few key changes for the next phase of the initiative.
First, it would create a set time frame for the organization: one decade. “The ten-year time horizon was critical,“ says Lyz Crane, who worked closely with Nowak on the plan, “because it would allow us to develop a strategy over a defined period, with a somewhat known set of resources, without having to create and maintain a permanent institution. We believed this would allow ArtPlace to operate with urgency and a campaign-like mentality, and to work more closely with existing infrastructure to sustain the field past our term limit, rather than becoming a new intermediary competing with many great organizations already doing good work.”
Second, the new plan embodied a stronger field-building mandate that would give ArtPlace greater license to expand its purview into new kinds of grant-making and research.
And finally, it laid out a philosophical approach to the work that rooted the idea of creative placemaking in broader notions of community development and connected it to a long history of practice that had been advancing this kind of work long before ArtPlace came to pass.
This broadening of the frame from economic development to community development would become the basis for ArtPlace to significantly expand its ways of working, revisit its mission, and articulate foundational concepts of creative placemaking in new ways. As most of the original staff departed to join Coletta in her new role by the end of the year, 2013 became a critical transition year for the organization, laying the groundwork to start fresh in 2014 with new ideas, personnel, and programs.
In 2013, I wrote a piece entitled “Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging” about this developing field and ArtPlace. I referred to the song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” as a prompt to talk about the deficiencies I saw unfolding. Subsequently, I’ve been surprised by how my critique and the concept of belonging as central to placemaking practice has become a sticky word for many who are engaged with community cultural development.
I’m still “bewitched, bothered, and bewildered” by the many ways creative placemaking operates in theory and practice. As a policy maker, my North Star in this field has been an understanding that before you have places of belonging you must feel you belong. That the built environment of mixed-use structures or spatial design operates inside the policy frame of planning is OK, but that is not enough if creative placemaking ignores the justice and social cohesion that enliven place.
In the early days of this developing field, I was often asked, why aren’t more folks of color a part of this undertaking? — as if I, as a Latino, should know the answer. After some reflection and fatigue with this question, I stated that the problem with creative placemaking is its failure to articulate whether it’s a property rights or human rights movement. In America, we POCs are repeatedly seen and treated as property without human rights, and the field of creative placemaking has not examined toughly our nation’s racist legacy and its complicity with this line of thinking — especially in the actions of placemaking and the white spatial imaginary at play in policies and practices in this field.
In recent years, ArtPlace has moved beyond this cage of thought, especially through its investments in community cultural development. It needs to move down this path with more intention and lift up arts-based civic engagement practices as manifestation of creative placemaking. It also needs to reflect on the governance system embedded in the creative placemaking stakeholders’ community: the real estate developer, the city manager, the artists, the city planner, the elected officials, the foundation program officer, and the neighborhood spokesperson who have agency in these entanglements.
In my writings about spatial justice I’ve used the term creative placekeeping, which has much traction in Oakland, California, where I reside. In the face of displacement brought on by gentrification and creative placemaking as a property rights movement, a neighborhood, a locale asserts its humanism through keeping the stories of a place alive, by keeping a beloved landmark, or by keeping the renters in their home.
As ArtPlace comes to its end of a worthy undertaking, let us set aside its policies and turn to its poetics. Let’s think of creative placemaking/creative placekeeping in the context of affect, for example, how the New Orleans Blues, the Chicago Blues, or the Oakland Blues shape and identify a place, sculpting the aesthetic speech of a locale. And how Ella Fitzgerald singing “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” speaks to the allure of creative placemaking/placekeeping and its desire for connection to land, neighbors, home, and the mess of it all.
— Roberto Bedoya
Roberto Bedoya is the Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland where he most recently shepherded the City’s Cultural Plan, “Belonging in Oakland: A Cultural Development Plan.” Throughout his career he has consistently supported artists-centered cultural practices and advocated for expanded definitions of inclusion and belonging in the cultural sector. His essays, such as “Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging,” “Spatial Justice: Rasquachification, Race and the City,” and “Poetics and Praxis of a City in Relation,” have reframed the discussion on cultural policy to shed light on exclusionary practices in cultural policy decision-making.