The Partnership Principle

In 2017, the last year that ArtPlace would grant individual projects under the National Creative Placemaking Fund, Leila Tamari, senior program officer at ArtPlace, and F. Javier Torres, director of grantmaking, were administering the grants in line with the new guidelines they’d developed in the previous couple of years. And, as elsewhere in ArtPlace’s work, the grantmaking was focusing more on partnership and attempting to upend the potentially damaging power dynamics of a national funder making local investments.

MAY 2017
ArtPlace Summit
The ArtPlace community gathers in Seattle

MAY 2017
Working Group: Environment
Co-conveners: Grist and the Sierra Club (Seattle, WA)

JUL 2017
Working Group: Transportation
Co-conveners: Transportation for America/Smart Growth America and Big Car Collaborative (Indianapolis, IN)

DEC 2017
2017 (Final) Grants Announced
Final round of annual grants; 2017 ArtPlace grants are announced to 23 projects totaling $8.7 million

“The partnership effort really started with geography,” says Tamari, “because many of our funders were committed to supporting work in specific places. So, to encourage strong applications from those places [and others we hadn’t funded previously], we had to do a lot of outreach — we had to act like organizers.” They began by setting up outreach sessions, bringing together multiple stakeholders who might never have previously been in the same room. Some of the very first conversations with people who might later become finalists and grantees would begin at these outreach sessions.
The emphasis on partnership was also reflected in the application questions and the overall process. There was a need to better understand the intentions, values, and truths behind each application, which often hid behind a veil of “grant-speak.” The semifinalist process was a next step in relationship building, and simply an opportunity to learn more, via video call, about the work and people steering the proposed project.
Seeing the Sites
Once the finalists were selected, Torres and Tamari visited each of them with an external panelist. A site visit, Tamari recalls, in advance of making a grant, is “incredibly important for any kind of place-based work, because you might not be able to get an understanding of the actual relationships and dynamics of the people and the place until you’re together in person.”
She and Torres supported the finalists in preparing for the site visits and in submitting their full proposal. Whether clarifying the application questions or conversations from the site visits, or being a sounding board and helping brainstorm and forecast what kinds of questions the panel might ask, speaking with honesty about the process was important on all sides, because ultimately, everyone was learning together.
Taller de Permiso
One of the projects funded in this last NCPF year epitomized just how multifaceted creative placemaking had become over the years. Three artist-organizer-activists combined their talents to address a neighborhood challenge in the border city of Brownsville, Texas. Many residents of the Buena Vida neighborhood supported themselves in the informal economy — selling street food, clothes, and other things, often without permits from the city, which were costly and time-consuming to obtain.
Celeste De Luna, Nansi Guevara, and ChristinaMaria Xochitlzihuatl Sukhgian Patiño Houle responded by constituting themselves as Las Imaginistas and launching a program they called Taller de Permiso, which can be translated either as Permit Workshop or Permission Workshop. The double meaning was important, because the project sought both to help informal-economy workers navigate the municipal permitting process and to encourage people in the community to give themselves broader and deeper permission to dream, to know, and to act. Taller de Permiso unfolded as multiple projects under those three permissions. The group intended to question the colonial framing of permitting — who has the right to give permission. A Zapatista saying, “The people command and the government obeys,” informed some of their thinking around power.
Patiño Houle, a visual and media artist, theater director, and choreographer, was running an artist residency as part of a 2016 NEA Our Town project in downtown Brownsville called the Activating Vacancy Arts Incubator, administered by the Dallas-based community-design nonprofit buildingcommunityWORKSHOP (bcWorkshop). De Luna, a printmaker, and Guevara, a visual artist and illustrator who also works with textiles, were two of the resident artists helping community members create works of art about life in the Rio Grande Valley and the political, economic, and social issues that shaped that life. As the three collaborated on the six-month project, they became aware of the Buena Vida neighborhood, adjacent to downtown and right on the border with Mexico.
As part of their Our Town work, the trio were interviewing small business owners downtown and connecting with Buena Vida residents. “The thing that was really compelling to all three of us from the beginning was immigration,” Patino Houle says, “because it’s something that’s very important to each of us in our personal lives. But as we were working, the thing we would hear from immigrant community partners and from immigrant advocacy groups was that, of course, they were frustrated with the difficulties in getting citizenship. But what was really getting in the way of their survival on a daily basis, and keeping them from having the quality of life they envisioned, was that their entrepreneurial spirit was being blocked by the city’s regulations.”
One small business owner told her that it had taken him so long to get his permit to open up that he had paid months and months of rent without having any income. “He didn’t have a clear way to understand what precise list of permits he needed, so every time he would get a permit, the city would say okay, fine, now you need this other permit. He would wait for that permit, only to be told, you can’t even get that permit until you get this other permit.”
The trio decided to address the dilemma — with imagination — and Las Imaginistas were born.
They connected with ArtPlace when the organization did an outreach presentation at bcWorkshop. “Following that presentation we had a conversation about continuing our work together by designing a project as collaborators,” says Patiño Houle.
Under the rubric Permission to Dream, they organized a “Dream Parade” in 2018, in which Buena Vida vendedores (vendors) and other residents marched with signs that displayed, in words and images, their dreams for their small businesses and their community as a whole. The marchers voiced traditional activist chants that the Imaginistas rewrote to refer to dreams about the future.
A second Dream Parade followed the next year, and in place of one in 2020, the Imaginistas and their vendor collaborators joined the big parade that headlines the Charro Days Fiesta, a beloved cross-border celebration in February.
“There’s a lot of cultural understanding here of the idea of dreaming,” says Patiño Houle. “Immigrants come to the U.S. because they’re dreaming of something better and investing their lives in that, so that’s been really resonant with people for them to continue to connect to their dreams, even as we’ve moved into the Permission to Know phase and the Permission to Act phase of the project.”
Know and Act
The “Know” phase comprises multiple projects from 2018 to the present: small-business incubation workshops in cooperation with the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley; printmaking and civic-engagement workshops for young people; and a vendor guide, distributed throughout the Brownsville region, with information about how vendedores and other emprendedores (entrepreneurs) can sell their wares under existing law. The guide is adorned with art produced by traditional Mexican block-printing processes, which the young people studied in the art workshops.
“And then we’ve had a number of mercaditos, little markets, where our vendors have been selling on a semiregular basis,” Patiño Houle says. “The vendors have also made a mobile market stand that has done some pop-ups. Then at the end of this year we’ll release a video that helps explain some of the challenges with the current permitting system and how people can get involved to change it.”
To wrap up the “Know” phase, Taller de Permiso issued a report, co-authored with ArtPlace partner Civic Arts, about how permitting for mobile vendors works in Brownsville and how the laws could be changed to better accommodate the vendors. It also initiated talks with city commissioners about creating a pilot vending zone where vendors could sell with a special permit tailored to their needs.
The “Act” phase focused around cafecitos (“little coffees”) — gatherings where vendors, Imaginistas, and Taller staffers exchanged ideas about what to do next, and how to bring their concepts and needs to city council members. “Then COVID happened,” says Patiño Houle. “So we went through a re-strategizing for the current moment and have created a co-op incubator in collaboration with Border Workers United. Twelve vendors will work over a year to launch the region’s first co-op, and it’s the only women-led co-op that we have heard of in the entire state.”
From “Why Can’t I?” to “Why Do They?”
Patiño Houle is proud that the Imaginistas and the Taller did more than just train people in small-business practices—they created a community within the community. “Now community members talk to one another and help one another,” she says. “And they end up imagining and dreaming their own ideas.”
One of the challenges of colonialist thinking and economic injustice, she adds, is that it feels personal. “It feels like I can’t pay the rent. I don’t know how to get money for food. I’m getting a ticket for vending illegally. But then you hear a bunch of other people having the exact same experience, getting a ticket for vending on the street, and you begin to ask, why are they giving tickets for selling food on the street? We need a permit, but none of us can read it because it’s in English. Then the question becomes, why is it in English, as opposed to why don’t I speak English?
“When community members come together the questions change and the community becomes so much more powerful.”
Where Are the Gaps?
While the NCPF projects were continuing to ask questions around how local communities come together, ArtPlace was busy looking at its own national community and how to support its long-term sustainability.
The research strategies were continuing to add field scans, working groups, and partnership investments across the sectors of the Community Development Matrix, with the 2017 release of the environment field scan and working group and the transportation field scan and working group in Indianapolis, Indiana, in partnership with Transportation for America. This process of identifying a critical audience rooted in a community development sector, analyzing its frameworks, and forming partnerships to advance practice that were embedded in existing infrastructure within that sector was by that point proving to be a valuable model for how ArtPlace could make strategic investments at the field level.
Indeed, as ArtPlace’s signature National Creative Placemaking Fund was culminating, the organization was seeking to expand its notion of what it meant to foster the field of creative placemaking. With its 2020 sunset in mind, it seemed evident that winding down the national grant program would allow ArtPlace to start putting more of its time and resources toward answering the question: How will creative placemaking continue to thrive and grow without the large node of activity that ArtPlace has represented in the field?
This third phase of work would seek to build on what the staff had learned from major investments in projects (NCPF) and organizations (CDI) and continue to develop and expand on the deep work happening through its research strategies in supporting knowledge and networks. Meanwhile, with Communication hires Marirosa Garcia in 2015, Adam Erickson in 2016, and Sarah Westlake in 2017, ArtPlace was ready to begin significantly expanding its storytelling and convening functions.
Together, the staff embarked on a strategic planning process that would prove foundational for a suite of new strategies in its final three years.
The power of ArtPlace is that it has described arts and culture as something important and central in contemporary American society. Across a host of community development sectors, it’s influenced real decisions affecting neighborhoods and communities, and through that work it’s supported a wide range of creative initiatives and the practitioners whose artistic practice helps us see problems and solutions differently. I think that is a major achievement.
Philanthropy should have more time-bound initiatives. The time constraint is both a productive challenge and an opportunity; the limited time period gives permission to be brave and take risks. It focuses attention on progress and innovation rather than on the balance necessary to make an organization last.
— Judilee Reed
Judilee Reed is program director of Creative Communities at the William Penn Foundation, overseeing its arts, culture, and great public spaces grant-making portfolios, as well as national initiatives. Previously, she led the Thriving Cultures Program at the Surdna Foundation and was executive director of Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC).