This book is one capstone, among many, to the story of ArtPlace. The end of 2020 — including the culminating virtual Summit open to all — brought many opportunities for the staff to share lessons and ideas from a decade of work, to identify throughlines, and to open questions to be explored past its tenure.
On Creative Placemaking
The story of ArtPlace, however, cannot be complete without looking at the organization’s relationship to the definition and use of the term creative placemaking. The creation of ArtPlace by some of the largest funders in the nation and the simultaneous introduction of the term had a seismic impact at its inception. Practitioners who had been working at this intersection of arts and culture and community development long before ArtPlace were wary of this big investment. There was concern that the push for clear definitions of creative placemaking practice and standardized metrics tied to notions such as vibrancy risked perpetuating models of grant-making and development that had the potential to do harm in communities.
Every year that passed, and with a focus on being responsive to the field, ArtPlace’s approach to advancing the work grew increasingly rooted in the premise that traditional community development was not always working for many, BIPOC and rural folks in particular. Dialogue with those who work most closely in the areas of both arts and community development fundamentally reshaped ArtPlace’s definitions and standards of practice around creative placemaking, grounding it in equitable development values, processes, and outcomes. ArtPlace sought to continually adjust the language it used, the way it used resources to drive change, and the way it understood its own power in the field, in the hopes of not replicating harm.
It was not always successful at that. However, articulating a vision of equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities became a north star for the team members to better define their own practice. They identified a goal of bringing more artists as well as arts and culture organizations to the community development “table,” but also did not presume that was sufficient in driving toward their vision. They worked to develop partnerships and ways of framing that would push the systems they were working within to consider not just the ways that the arts sector could support their goals, but also where the arts sector could help address their blind spots, particularly around equitable development practices and achieving equity. They contributed to the development of frameworks such as the one offered in “Creative Placemaking Values: A Guide for Practitioners, Funders, and Evaluators,” produced in concert with Arizona State University, The Kresge Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Margy Waller to help support practitioners in equitable creative placemaking project design.
Even so, the field is still contending with the question of language and values, and inequitable practices still happen. Whatever it is called, creative placemaking means making choices about whose culture, whose values, whose visions, whose aesthetics, whose identities, whose stories, and whose ideas are shaping communities. There are many folks who will always prefer creative placekeeping or creative community development to the term creative placemaking, or will rightfully critique the kind of power that such a funder consortium can have over a whole field of work. However, as the work continues past ArtPlace’s sunset, this legacy of learning and pivoting over time and the commitment to decentering power is as worthy of examination as is the list of its accomplishments.
A Strong Field
And while this book has represented the story of ArtPlace, it does not represent the story of the field. The idea of decentering ArtPlace over the long term was a critical design strategy by the entity itself. While most would agree that ArtPlace’s programs, relationships, and resources had a defining role in the field of creative placemaking, its role was always intended — particularly given the built-in sunset — to be a catalyst for others to take up the work. The constellation of institutions and practitioners that touch the work is deep and complex and has been bolstered by this decade of concentrated investment, but it extends far beyond ArtPlace’s reach.
Community leaders of all kinds — artists, community organizers, community development organizations, local government staff, arts and culture organizations, as well as practitioners in public health, community safety, transportation, and more — are regularly advancing local projects, deepening their practice, building valuable knowledge with each other and in systems, and serving as the core of a strong, decentralized, multifaceted, and resilient network that is the heart of the field.
The infrastructure around advancing practice in the field has also deepened, as has the sharing of knowledge around how to do this work. Higher education institutions, researchers, intermediary organizations, trainers, conveners, and more are centering the experience of creative placemaking practitioners in building new ways to advance the work with new and seasoned audiences alike.
In particular, this work has now also become deeply embedded in many of the national systems that make up the field of community development. The original design of ArtPlace’s cross-sector research work became a model for the whole institution in how it approached field-building: compiling work happening across the country and interviewing field leaders to understand the interests and needs of another sector; gathering together practitioners and field leaders to build relationships and a shared framework for work at the intersection; and investing in partners to develop targeted resources and interventions that will help drive new, arts-integrated practices within the sector. This approach has led a wide number of national service organizations, policy groups, and collectives that didn’t formally have knowledge and skills around arts and culture to build capacity institutionally and among their members, embedding the work in ways that are not dependent on ArtPlace.
The establishment and strengthening of these relationships and intersections is also helping to inform a wide range of new local, state, and federal policies that incentivize and support this work. Philanthropic funders, too, are finding ways to support outcomes and methodologies that cross traditional grant-making silos — allowing more funds from community development to support arts-led processes, and more arts-based funding to support work that drives community outcomes.
Altogether, the field is robust. While ArtPlace played many roles, often leading from behind, thousands more have had, and will continue to have, an even greater role in ensuring this work continues well into the future. At the core, whether embracing the term creative placemaking or calling this work by another name, what unites all of these entities is a belief that bringing arts and culture into equitable community development creates an opportunity to better address the places where our existing systems are falling short, and to find new ways to steward the building and preserving of healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities.