A Culture of Convening

From its beginnings, ArtPlace has valued and promoted relationship building in the field through convening. Peer learning has been a natural result, all in service of helping relationships and ideas spread as core to the foundation of a healthy field of practice.

The organization’s annual summits have set the tone for its concept of collaborative partnership; they have been forums in which to generate and exchange ideas about creative placemaking and to support the building of communities-within-communities. ArtPlace set up the summits to create a space where people from many different professional and community backgrounds could connect in meaningful ways: artists, housing developers, funders, researchers, health practitioners, and more. They came from every corner of the United States and from tribal, rural, suburban, and urban communities.

MAY 2018
ArtPlace Summit
The ArtPlace community gathers in Louisville

OCT 2018
Working Groups: Public Health
Univ. of Florida Creating Healthy Communities initiative convenes over 250 leaders in 2018 and 2019

DEC 2018
NTI Course Launched
First “Leveraging Arts and Culture for Affordable Housing and Equitable Community Development” at NeighborWorks Training Institute

With its national grant program ended, 2018 became a year of increased focus for bringing communities together, including ArtPlace’s ongoing work with the six CDI organizations; its working groups, rooted in the ten sectors of the Community Development Matrix and the field scans of the sectors; partnerships emerging from the working groups; and a new series of regional events focused on creating new on-ramps for local practitioners interested in joining the conversation.
Intimate Connections
A major evolution around the summits had happened the year prior, with Adam Erickson’s first national summit. The 2017 gathering in Seattle had a new feature: small, intimate sessions focused on values and inspired by readings.
“We thought about how we could make the summit look and feel a bit less like a traditional conference and more like a community-building opportunity,” says Erickson, director of communications at ArtPlace. The small gatherings were modeled on the Executive Leadership Seminars of the Aspen Institute, where Erickson had managed the arts program before coming to ArtPlace. Summit attendees sat together in small groups, reading and responding to excerpts from authors, like critical race theorist bell hooks and poet Claudia Rankine, who epitomized values that were important to ArtPlace.
“In these seminar discussions, we decided that we would talk about why we do what we do, and what drives us,” says Erickson. “It wasn’t about titles. There were no name tags saying, I’m the president of this foundation or the executive director of that organization. It was really about a truly national, diverse group of people who were doing or supporting similar things, coming together to make deep human connections.” The 2018 Summit in Louisville, Kentucky, and the 2019 Summit in Jackson, Mississippi, would continue this format as a signature ArtPlace offering.
Regional Confabs
In this year, too, ArtPlace developed a new partnership with the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking (NCCP) that would see an explosion of activity around the country in the form of regional leadership summits.
“We were thinking that it’s going to be really important that people who are in similar regions or in the same state get a chance to get to know each other in better ways, deeper ways,” says Erickson, “to share information and foster a community of practitioners, funders, and researchers. So we started to think about hosting regional summits.”
At about the same time, the NEA announced a grant to the New Jersey–based NCCP to support multiple regional creative placemaking gatherings. “I started to talk with the NCCP’s executive director,” says Erickson, “and soon we on the ArtPlace team decided that we would like to support their efforts, which we hoped would help build a long-term capacity beyond us and serve as a useful platform for new conversations.”
The 2018 regional summits, each of which had between 150 and 300 participants, were held between March and October in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Denver, Colorado; the Newark, New Jersey area; Charleston, West Virginia; and College Park, Maryland. Rural and urban communities were represented, and presentations and discussions covered many of the community-development areas that had become keystones for ArtPlace, including public safety, gentrification, equity, and economic development.
Hidden Gems
After working in philanthropy and training leaders in cross-cultural understanding, Hanmin Liu and his wife, Jennifer Mei, began doing grassroots community organizing of a special kind when they founded the Wildflowers Institute in 1998. Wildflowers studies the informal ways that communities organize themselves, then works to channel support for these under-the-radar networks of community power. ArtPlace had funded Wildflowers’ San Francisco–based project, Hidden Gems of the Tenderloin, in 2014. But after the 18-month funding period ended, the ArtPlace-Wildflowers connection continued in the realm of convening.
By 2018, ArtPlace was regularly finding new ways to engage its grantees and other practitioners in the field, and designing and contributing to fieldwide conversations. For example, when ArtPlace inaugurated its small-group seminars, it asked several distinguished people in its various spheres of cooperation and influence to be moderators. One of them was Liu.
Besides moderating at its summit seminars, Liu has spoken at plenary sessions and contributed to project-planning sessions. He and Mei presented workshops on their approach to preventing the displacement of artists during gentrification. The Wildflowers connection is a prime example of ArtPlace’s partnership-building as a means of field-building.
Looking back on 2014 , Liu says, “What was as important as, perhaps even more important than, the funding was that ArtPlace promoted our work consistently over the years that we’ve been with them — it’s six years now. It started with the funding but then it really moved towards a much richer relationship and a sharing and a building together that I think was absolutely vital to our success of a new way of community organizing.” By doing this kind of building from straightforward grant funding to network support, ArtPlace has fostered learning and sharing among national colleagues.
In the Hidden Gems project, Liu and his colleagues did a grassroots census of artists in the Tenderloin, a San Francisco neighborhood whose large concentration of single-room-occupancy hotels and other relatively affordable living spaces makes it one of the few enclaves in a rapidly gentrifying city where people of limited means can find homes (although gentrification is nibbling away at affordable housing there as well). For many who know it only in passing, it’s little more than a “bad neighborhood,” and Liu, too, warns against romanticizing it; but Wildflowers’ door-to-door canvassing discovered a rich culture of creativity, powered by artists who have made permanent homes in the Tenderloin.
As Liu put it in a report on the project, “Our most important accomplishment over the past eighteen months is uncovering a sustainable creative force in the Tenderloin. The six hundred and fifty artists we have identified in the Tenderloin are internally driven to create and express themselves. This galaxy of artists constitutes a self-organized community art incubator.”
From Census to Celebration
The Tenderloin artists that Wildflowers found were, for the most part, creating for themselves or a small circle of friends rather than for the art market or the other commercial creative spheres. Some have struggled with addiction, homelessness, or involvement with the justice system. Some are refugees or the children of refugees. All have found ways to create and express themselves in the midst of all of the challenges faced by people whose material resources are limited.
Liu, Mei, and their collaborators were initially focused on simply locating and identifying the artists. As they met with them and saw their work, it became clear that many of them were depicting or otherwise expressing their relationship with the Tenderloin. The artworks were so powerful, so illuminating of the lives and the values of Tenderloin residents, that Wildflowers decided to turn what had been mainly a census into a celebration. The project included grants to support some of the artists, and Liu and colleagues decided that the grants should be formally awarded in a public ceremony, a ceremony that would also act as a fresh look at the Tenderloin and what it meant to some of its most imaginative interpreters.
The ceremony, which was supported by Marion R. Weber, Kalliopeia Foundation, and friends of Wildflowers, took place in the auditorium of the Kelly Cullen Community, a former YMCA building converted into low-income housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness.
The awards ceremony marked the end of the ArtPlace-funded project, but Wildflowers remained committed to Tenderloin artists. They organized a culture lab for a group of the award winners, in which they were encouraged to develop their personal visions and narratives of the neighborhood further. At the end of 2016, community leaders from different neighborhoods, elected officials from around the Bay Area, funders, and artists were invited to a town hall gathering at which the culture lab artists presented and performed.
The Message: Care and Healing
Then, in June 2018, Wildflowers announced Hidden Gems II — a second awards program, with a ceremony to be held in 2019. Artists were invited to submit work that specifically reflected stories of the neighborhood and illuminated its unique characteristics.
For Liu and Mei, the messages delivered by these works, and by their interviews with the artists, were clear and moving. “They expressed a longing to be with others who insist on caring with an open and tender heart, on protecting others and being protected, and on being free to be themselves,” says Liu. “They were telling us, ‘We know the homeless on our street, and we take care of them. We know the drug dealers on the corner, because we went to school with some of them, and we also know that they know us and they actually protect us.’ This notion of caring and protecting others and being protected is very, very strong; it’s the informal code of the community, how they actually create safety in the neighborhood.”
Healing was another theme that emerged vividly, as refugee artists, artists of color, and others revealed the traumas they were dealing with — racism, incarceration, memories of war, and other pain. “What Tenderloin people are creating,” says Liu, “is an environment, a cultural environment that nurtures healing, and the artists are revealing it and contributing to it.”
Looking Ahead
When Liu and Mei invited city officials and national funders to the town hall to experience the artists’ work, they were hoping to affect policy, and that hope continues. “But it will take time for policymakers and funders to shift from planning change to being attentive and receptive to what is working in the neighborhoods,” says Liu.
It’s crucial, Liu and Mei say, that policymakers understand how the community works through the lens of the artists — how Tenderloin residents create safety by protecting one another. “How do we heal?” Liu asks. “Healing isn’t about medication, right? Healing is about coming to terms with yourself and the trauma that you’ve experienced. In the Tenderloin they’re making it happen.”
Residents have created what Liu calls “a culture of necessity. Elders and young people and drug dealers and homeless come together and are conscious of one another and help one another; they get and give a helping hand. And that happens every day.
“Our policymakers need to know that when they think about safe conditions, when they think about health and healing, they need to ask, how are people doing it themselves, and how do we strengthen that? How should public spaces be designed to mirror what is healing others? How should neighborhood developments illuminate and foster a culture of caring and protecting in public spaces?”
Gatherings About Health Health, healing, and policy were central themes in ArtPlace’s research strategies, too, as it continued its Translating Outcomes work. In 2018, ArtPlace announced a major research partnership with the University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine for an initiative called Creating Healthy Communities: Arts + Public Health in America. The two-year project sought, in the words of the official announcement, “to accelerate innovations at the intersections of the arts, creative placemaking, community development, and public health.”
As with other sectors, the health research would rely on traditional academic research paired with deep participation and engagement from artists, practitioners, and policymakers. Under the leadership of director Jill Sonke, however, the Center for Arts in Medicine held not just one cross-sector working group, but nine. Groups convened in Cincinnati, Ohio; Austin, Texas; Athens, Georgia; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles, California; Portland, Oregon; Lexington, Kentucky; and Orlando, Florida, in formats ranging from intimate focus groups and policy roundtables to multi-day conclaves and major conferences. Additional organizations such as the Alliance for Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) and the National Organization for Arts in Health (NOAH) partnered on several of these gatherings, with over 300 individuals lending their personal and professional perspectives to the research.
One gathering, in March 2019, was particularly notable as it represented a culmination of all that came before. Twelve researchers, with wildly diverse expertise ranging from social work and behavioral science to urban planning and neuro-aesthetics, convened for a weeklong writing retreat in Micanopy, Florida, to mine the learnings from prior gatherings and co-author what would become the public health field scan. After incorporating feedback from another nineteen external reviewers, the Creating Healthy Communities Through Cross-Sector Collaboration white paper was jointly published by the Center for Arts in Medicine and ArtPlace America.
The University of Florida partnership would deepen even further in 2019, when the Center for Arts in Medicine received seed funding, as part of ArtPlace’s investments in higher education, to support a special issue of Health Promotion Practice with the Society for Public Health Education — modeling precisely what ArtPlace focused on in its final two years: embedding creative placemaking in organizations and networks that could assure its ongoing sustainability.
Toward Embedding
The strategic planning process that began in 2017 continued in 2018 largely behind the scenes. The Community Development Investments program finished up its three-year term and work had begun in earnest by PolicyLink to capture the big ideas from that initiative. Slowly, a new strategy emerged as the staff worked together on a vision that would bring additional resources to audiences ArtPlace had not yet engaged.
Within that new vision, ArtPlace was also poised to make one final evolution to its grant-making philosophy. As long-time staff member Javier Torres departed, ArtPlace brought on staffer Maura Cuffie with a new charge: to determine, in its final years, how ArtPlace could direct resources that de-center its role and free up the power residing in the practitioners and places that make up the field of creative placemaking.
Artists, activists, community developers, council members, public health professionals, tribal leaders, and economic developers are just a few of the diverse actors convened over the years by ArtPlace. Their participation in ArtPlace-led national summits, panels, and facilitated gatherings has seeded a movement that is here to stay: a movement that acknowledges that arts and culture play a critical role in the well-being of communities everywhere; a movement that, thanks to ArtPlace, will live well into the next decade and beyond.
Creative placemaking practice has evolved significantly since the term was first coined in 2010. ArtPlace’s annual summits and other field gatherings presented a forum for lifting up ground-breaking practice and supporting the field’s evolution. They offered a unique and profound space for artists and local leaders to reflect on their practice while simultaneously connecting with peers from across the country. A space to learn, ponder, and celebrate the unique role that arts and culture play in community transformation.
Via field working groups, community development investments, and other gatherings, ArtPlace invited new allies to join the movement. From transportation officials to public safety leaders, these allies have become key champions of arts and culture as a powerful tool to advance equitable communities. Through convening these meetings, ArtPlace has forged lasting cross-sector relationships on both the national and hyperlocal levels. New relationships and connections were seeded across geography, inclusive of rural, tribal, urban, and suburban places.
The sheer diversity of the creative placemaking field is perhaps the most notable legacy of ArtPlace’s leadership in convening and connecting. This moment in our nation’s history demands a future that has yet to be imagined — a future that will require collective action to advance racial justice, and ingenuity to overcome the devastation of a global pandemic. Thanks to ArtPlace, the arts and community development sectors have forged collaborative relationships that hold the power to boldly and creatively chart a way forward.
— Jen Hughes
Jen Hughes is the director of Design and Creative Placemaking for the National Endowment for the Arts. She oversees grant portfolios that support the design and creative placemaking fields, as well as leadership initiatives that include the Mayors’ Institute on City Design and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design.