Closings and Openings

By its final year, ArtPlace’s activities looked wildly different than at its inception. Having begun as a single grant-making program with a heavy emphasis on communications, ArtPlace was now invested in a wide range of partners that hit every corner of the Community Development Matrix. The ArtPlace team, which had remained lean at nine full-time and two part-time staffers, saw these deep partnerships as the core strategy for field-building through “embedding” the work to last beyond the organization’s existence. The strategy was to build the capacity and knowledge to advance creative placemaking in organizations and platforms that would support the field long past ArtPlace’s sunset.

JAN 2020
Working Group: Workforce Development
Co-conveners: Jobs for the Future, NORC at the University of Chicago, and Sweet Water Foundation (Chicago, IL)

APR 2020
LCLF 2nd Round
Local Control, Local Fields launches in Central Valley California and Upper Midwest (MN/SD/ND + 23 Native nations)

JUN 2020
COVID-19 Response
Univ. of Florida Creating Healthy Communities initiative launches repository for arts and public health during COVID-19

AUG–NOV 2020
Working Group: Youth Development
Co-convener: Creative Generation (virtual)

OCT 2020
ArtPlace Summit
The ArtPlace community gathers virtually

NOV 2020
Working Group: Economic Development
Co-conveners: The Democracy Collaborative and Boston Ujima Project

DEC 2020
Translating Outcomes: Cross-Cutting Analysis
ArtPlace’s research strategies culminate in a comprehensive, participatory look-back across all ten sectors

In addition to these partnerships and the increasing body of knowledge and research being developed, the final years were also an opportunity to continue to innovate on everything the organization had built around both grant-making and communications.
Vesting Local Control of Local Fields
In 2019, ArtPlace announced an ambitious new initiative to disburse a final significant amount of resources through a process that would subvert many traditional notions of what grant-making looks like. The project was called Local Control, Local Fields.
The core idea and value driving the initiative was that people are experts in their own place; moreover, that it would be critical for places and regions to be able to self-organize around the work to advance the field of practice long-term. In this way, ArtPlace was adding a new lens to its field-building strategies — from investing in projects through NCPF and in organizations through CDI; to cultivating industry partnerships in the community development, arts, and higher education sectors; to attending to whole geographies comprising people and institutions who can advance creative placemaking work through many and varied roles.
“We…knew that folks on the ground absolutely have the insight required to make really big, fieldwide decisions but are rarely supported when they’re brought to the table,” wrote ArtPlace’s Maura Cuffie when the project was rolled out. “So, while one goal for us is to make space for people to practice and flex their field-building muscle, we knew that many forms of support would be required along the way.”
The program called for the creation of up to forty-person Assemblies in five locales: the city of Philadelphia; the state of Massachusetts; the six-state region of Central Appalachia; the San Joaquin Valley region in California; and the region encompassing over twenty-three Native nations as well as Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The Assemblies, made up of artists, organizers, community developers, funders, and more — people within the region who have a relationship to arts, culture, and equitable development — were charged with making decisions about how to use a pool of funds provided by ArtPlace ranging from $1.45 million to $4.5 million.
In the spirit of modeling new ways of driving resources, ArtPlace centered its role in this program away from being an initiator of transactions and instead toward being a steward of process. Cuffie, who was bringing a wide range of experience in arts-based facilitation to the mix, worked with process facilitators to, in her words, “make use of imaginative gathering spaces to guide an Assembly toward building a big vision about their local field.” As ArtPlace conveyed to each group, the funding was already guaranteed to be theirs. It was up to them to work together in a facilitated process to provide ArtPlace with just three things to transfer the resources: a big vision, a way to make decisions, and a place to hold funds.
The results ranged from proposals for Native reparations and generational ripple-gifting in Massachusetts to new models for grant-making that placed grant recipients as advisors in Central Appalachia. The Massachusetts, Central Appalachia, and Philadelphia Assemblies held five or six meetings each throughout 2019, with further coordinating activities continuing throughout 2020. They each surfaced and unpacked some of the major complexities around power, resources, and collective action that are at the heart of movement building.
A New Kind of Assembly in Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Assembly began with a simple emailed invitation and a big proposition: Would you join this Assembly, invite one other person to join, and work collectively to determine how best to utilize $2 million in the name of Philadelphia’s local field of creative placemaking? “Now, looking back, it makes sense that most of the folks we invited thought, ‘Is this a scam?’” says Maura Cuffie, a sender of long emails.
Filled with the flutter of embarking on something new and unknown, the first gathering of the Philadelphia Assembly in June 2019 was rife with generative tension. After listening to an explanation of the program’s design and intentions, the Assembly came back with big questions, like Why would ArtPlace do this now?, How can we trust that we can really do anything with the funds?, and This is an unfair amount of work on a group of people who collectively are already overburdened — how is this worth my time?
In every way, it was because of the candor shared by the members in that session that the group became more than a constellation of amazing practitioners — an actual assembly. Each gathering that followed presented a new opportunity for deepened commitment and energy toward the task at hand and more opportunities for ArtPlace to make good on its commitment to relinquish control.
The facilitation team, Esteban Kelly and Daniel Park of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), brought rigor and utmost care to the process. They worked across many modalities — play, story-telling, somatic breath and stretch work, guided dialogue, visual-thinking strategies, hardcore analysis, and more. While the first gathering was about transparency and analyzing the state of creative placemaking in Philadelphia, the ones that followed centered on visioning and values and then applying those to big ideas for using the funds. By the second half of the process a smaller core group was nominated to turn ideas into viable proposals for the Assembly to ratify in time for the final gathering.
They ended up with a suite of strategies that put the people first. For this Assembly, field-building became about supporting the folks who are already doing creative placemaking work — not forcing them to do more projects, but investing in their livelihoods and their innovations, and building power through relationships. In their words:
Philadelphia is a place of almost opportunities, boundaries, borders, and determination. Understanding this, the Assembly shares a commitment to the practice of arts, culture, and equitable community development. Some may call it creative placemaking. For us, it’s about the frontline people who have been here, been committed, and are doing the work to keep the place despite the many challenges they face.
This suite of ideas addresses immediate and long-term needs. We believe in sustaining creative practice, land, livelihoods, dialogue across neighborhoods and disciplines, and ultimately, the joy, imagination, and hope of those who keep the place.
The first of the strategies to be ratified was the formation of a cooperative organization — an entity that would build on the spirit of the Assembly’s vision for communal ownership through democratic process and power-building. This coop would generate three additional strategies: an equity-centered granting program to offer gifts of recognition to practitioners; a rotating loan fund and sou-sou (cohort-based and participatory infusions of capital that recycle the initial principal); and a mission-aligned investment portfolio to further protect and shore up the places and local ventures that make up the field. Notably, the Assembly decided to prioritize Black women, girls, and gender-nonconforming folks in the implementation of its strategies.
This brilliant vision was hard won and took incredible courage and love for the city of Philadelphia for the Assembly to get to this point. Navigating how race, class, gender, power, and the nonprofit sector inform the very reality of how resources are distributed is not easy.
Although the scheduled gatherings ended in October 2019, the shared meals, laughter, informed debate, and critical care did not evaporate. A small group from the Assembly began creating plans to realize their strategies. But as this interim core began to get its footing, the reality of a global health pandemic and the public reckoning with police brutality and systemic anti-Black racism brought urgency, crisis, and their accompanying fatigue. While the core group continued building their capacity as a team and working with the values declared by the Assembly, it was clear that some of the strategies would need to be adapted. In light of all these factors, the group decided that at this time, it needed to simply put money on the streets. In 2020, they were able to distribute $230,000 in the form of no-strings-attached relief grants to artists and practitioners, as well as honoraria putting artists and practitioners to work, and to bolster existing aid efforts in the city of Philadelphia. The results will inform how their strategies will be modified in 2021 to match the changing times.
Finding Light in Times of Disruption
If the Philadelphia story taught ArtPlace anything, it was that showing up vulnerably and transparently is key to adapting well. But nothing could have prepared the organization for what would happen when the world shut down due to the emergence of the coronavirus. For a program reliant on in-person gathering, trust-building, and planning, losing the ability to convene in person seemed like a devastating blow.
However, Cuffie quickly pivoted with the help of her facilitators, Sandy Agustin, Melissa Olson, Pato Hebert, and Daniel Park, and was able to launch the San Joaquin Valley and Midwest region processes virtually. This time, in the midst of the new kinds of challenges COVID-19 was presenting for communities and artists alike, the emerging themes around land and livelihood were even more apparent. The two Assemblies arrived at strategies that would release funds immediately using methods that center the agency of people on the ground rather than traditional funders, as well as funds that attend to what new sprouts might grow. Following the work of all of these groups will be a surefire way to learn about how practitioners are leading the charge to do philanthropy differently.
Road Warriors Grounded
The pandemic halted most travel for early 2020. Amidst the many impacts on the way work happened, this also became an opportunity for the ArtPlace staff to reflect on how much of its work over the years had depended on airplane seats, hotel desks, and rented cars, essential tools for anyone working nationally on place-based work.
While all staff had maintained a heavy travel schedule, no one had spent more time on the road than Executive Director Jamie Bennett, who had played a huge role in advancing the field as educator, representative, and connector. Bennett’s extensive networks and networking brought a constant input of ideas, people, and initiatives that the rest of ArtPlace’s activities could draw on, connect to, and advance.
Over the years, Bennett’s was a frequently seen face at conferences and meetings that sought to advance big ideas — in the arts sector, community development, philanthropy, and beyond. Tasked with communicating a complex practice in a way that new audiences could understand, Bennett’s ability to share ideas and willingness to show up to important conversations were a bedrock force for ensuring creative placemaking was constantly on the radar.
“One of the jobs of any national intermediary is ‘journalist’: part of our charge is spending time listening to and learning from those who know more than us about something and then sharing that with those who know less about it,” says Bennett. “Our colleagues at Helicon Collaborative talk about this as being ‘trans-local’ work — creating a national community of people who are each deeply embedded in a different place. Being grounded this year has forced us to be more creative about the ways that technology can be used to make some of these connections even more easily.”
Ten Sectors in Ten Years
The shift to virtual connections also had an impact on other areas of work at ArtPlace, whose cross-sector research strategies were proceeding steadily toward the goal of having a field scan, working group, and resource(s) developed in each of the ten sectors.
The year 2019 had seen the launch of a body of work focused on arts, culture, and immigrant integration with Welcoming America, an international membership organization that supports local communities working to be more inclusive of new Americans. In 2020, ArtPlace continued working closely with agriculture and food systems partner DAISA Enterprises to advance conversations around arts and culture in the food sector, in particular with the USDA, creating a renewed focus on the importance of federal agencies in the ecosystem of support for creative placemaking work.
In January 2020 ArtPlace hosted its workforce development working group in partnership with Jobs for the Future and NORC at the University of Chicago, one of its last in-person gatherings. Over the summer, the youth development sector research was launched in partnership with Creative Generation, while the economic development sector research was refined to focus on the role of arts in community wealth building — a final opportunity to move away from creative placemaking’s early roots in creative economy theory.
While the pandemic ended in-person convenings and caused the planned working groups for youth development and community wealth building to shift to virtual settings, for one sector it created an opportunity. Building on the momentum of the Creating Healthy Communities initiative, the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine worked with dozens of collaborators and partners to develop a suite of resources articulating the role of the arts in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, including an online repository highlighting arts-based strategies for communication, connection, resiliency, and recovery, and a series of policy briefs that were distributed widely to state and local government leaders.
While collaborating via video and across time and space, ArtPlace also spent 2020 finalizing some additional contributions to the field. These included an in-depth look at the ways in which arts and culture could drive social cohesion, a report developed in partnership with a consortium of funders who were all seeking to unpack a term that was used regularly in the field but frequently fuzzy in interpretations and outcomes. It also included the development of in-depth case studies focused on rural and tribal communities that could be used in academic settings and beyond to better understand the work.
ArtPlace was also partnering with The Kresge Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Drexel University on an examination of how creative placemaking projects were funded, in service of helping the field understand how to support projects after ArtPlace’s sunset. Senior Fellow Erik Takeshita, who had joined the staff in 2019, was also looking at financing from a different standpoint, helping to advance conversations at Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) around integrated capital models that can support innovative arts-infused community work.
And finally, the ArtPlace research team of Jamie Hand and Danya Sherman dedicated their final months at ArtPlace to a meta-analysis of all ten sectors, identifying patterns and themes in the research and creating a participatory process for the rest of the ArtPlace staff, all past research partners, and the field at large to reflect on what has been learned and to weigh in on a comprehensive research agenda for the next chapter of the creative placemaking field. This cross-cutting analysis, always intended to be the concluding step of the research strategies, would be a final contribution to help expand the core underlying theory of creative placemaking beyond economic development and into a space that was truly comprehensive.
The Stories of ArtPlace
With the pandemic and uprisings of 2020, and the march toward its sunset, ArtPlace’s communications team had never had a more critical or difficult job. And yet this team was well prepared to face the multiple tasks of continuing to expand the audience for creative placemaking work, ensuring the work was consistently well-situated in organizational values, and finding new ways to tell creative placemaking stories to drive national dialogue on timely topics. By 2020, the communications team had already built a lot of good muscle to prepare it for the task. Editorial Director Sarah Westlake had worked throughout her tenure to provide editorial structure, with monthly themes that allowed the organization to feature content on the blog, in video (via a partnership with DIY Docs, a free app-based video sharing platform), and across social media, from its funded projects, partners, and practitioners, that spoke to core issues and topics that were both timely and timeless.
In this final year, the team made the decision to double down on its content production with a new focus: how arts and culture were helping people make sense of the ongoing crises in public health and systemic racism. They did this by commissioning a series of blogs by BIPOC, rural, and queer artists to share what was happening in their communities and livelihoods.
The importance of storytelling had been a value for the organization since the beginning. Stories have the power to show complexity and context, as well as share lessons that can’t be captured by dry data or formal analyses. Taken together, ArtPlace’s strength over its tenure overwhelmingly came from leveraging its three main superpowers: convening people from many sectors and backgrounds who make the work happen at every level to forge robust networks; embedding the work in a constellation of partners to drive effective systems change to last beyond the organization; and telling a good story to move hearts and minds at every step of the way.
From my perspective as a facilitator of the Local Control, Local Fields process, this fascinating program has been a radical experiment with depth, nuance, success, and failure. The process, its design, and the various regional results speak deeply to the complicated nature of working toward collective liberation while being deeply entrenched in a capitalist and white-supremacist culture.
Most successfully, the program created an opportunity for culture bearers in various regions to come together, in an intentional and mindful way: to learn, to grow, to be in conflict, to share vulnerability, joy, and love. All of the Assemblies, but certainly the two I worked with, Philadelphia and the San Joaquin Valley, built ongoing connection into their plans for the usage of the funds they had access to. I believe that having a shared task that could make a long-lasting impact on their region helped facilitate and deepen this connection between practitioners.
But most importantly, this process showed (and I believe both Philadelphia and the San Joaquin Valley’s plans continue to elaborate on) the fact that communities know what to do with capital — they just need access to it. And that “success” is a multifaceted and deeply subjective state of being. Funders should not be policing, putting limitations on, or creating requirements for what it takes for our historically disinvested people and communities to get access to and utilize wealth that is intended to be shared. And that money is needed now.
But the process wasn’t without risk and failure. The participants of each Assembly were aware that even the initial proposal was imperfect, still rooted deeply in the nonprofit industrial complex. By giving these Assemblies, mostly comprised of people of color, full control over a both significant and yet also insignificant amount of funding, we saw the ways in which we have been socialized to compete against one another for funds that arise. We saw traditional power structures, particularly around gender, age, class, and race, bubble up in our work. And ultimately, we saw that this work is indeed work and needs to be compensated long-term. Distributing funds in an intentional way takes time, and all of the Assemblies are still deep in their work to figure out not what their big-picture plan is, but how to bring that plan to life.
—Daniel Park
Daniel is a queer, biracial theater and performance artist based in Philadelphia, co-founder of the worker cooperative Obvious Agency, and project coordinator with the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Deeply tied to his artistic practice, Daniel is also an activist and organizer, focusing on racial and labor justice in the cultural sector.