(Originally posted at the Fractured Atlas blog.)
Two weeks ago, I traveled down to DC to take in the “Creative Placemaking” discussion organized by the NEA and hosted by the Canadian Embassy. (Two of the panelists, Tim Jones of Artscape and Richard Florida of all things Richard Florida, are current residents of our neighbor nation to the north.) The goal of the session was to discuss “the role of the arts and the creative community in creating livable, sustainable communities.” In addition to Jones and Florida, the panelists included Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses and Ann Markusen of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities moderated.
Coletta began by asking Rick Lowe to describe what makes a place creative. He named three highly qualitative characteristics: optimism, or a sense of possibility; a kind of contagious inspiration that affects not only artists but those who experience their work; and a culture of curiosity and openness to new experiences that often correlates with clusters of highly educated people. (I would have loved to hear from the other panelists as well on this, since the question seems pretty central to framing the discussion, but it was not to be.) Artscape’s Tim Jones followed, answering a question about the role of measurement in creative placemaking. He pointed out that the lack of consensus on what is important to measure hampers progress forward, but articulated the key as the extent to which creativity is “valued” in a community. Ann Markusen drew a clear distinction between creative capital and human capital and put emphasis on strategies to develop creativity from the “inside” using existing cultural assets rather than importing it from somewhere else. She described a recently-published case study from the Twin Cities that looked at the impact over a period of 15 years of redeveloping three abandoned warehouses as artist live/work spaces, using a mix of quantitative and qualitative measures. Artists were better off on a number of measures, and there seems to have been evidence of positive results for local businesses and tax revenues. The spaces also made the surrounding areas safer.
In response to a question about what he says when he talks to a mayor, Richard Florida cited three things: stop “pissing money away” – betting huge sums of money on stadium complexes downtown or attracting a single company to the city; artists are committed to a community and will put in the effort to make it better; and the statistical correlations found in his work between concentrations of creative types and indicators of economic growth. Towards the end of the discussion, a key point arose about the requirements that creative placemaking strategies can put on arts practitioners. Florida quoted a colleague in saying that “so much of the arts have been about putting creativity on display; now we have to find ways to put creativity to work.” Similarly, Rick Lowe identified a difference in creativity for production versus for placemaking. Is there a role for art for art’s sake in placemaking?
A couple of the audience questions yielded thought-provoking responses. Two focused on the class dimensions of creative placemaking: one worried that it would become simply a middle-class enterprise, and another wondered whether the same strategies that might work for a place like Toronto would work for Camden, NJ. The consensus response was that creativity strategies have to be built from the ground up, involving everyone in the community to the degree possible. It’s not just about professional artists and those who aspire to the same. Another question, from Chairman Landesman himself, asked the panel to consider whether using creativity as a tool for regional competitiveness was a zero-sum game. Florida pointed out that artists will naturally cluster where there is or is perceived to be a market for their goods and services, but Markusen added that her research has found some very interesting age patterns in artist migration; artists will often move back to small- and medium-sized communities later in life after spending time in high-rent areas like New York and San Francisco in their 20s and 30s.
As I attend more of these kinds of discussions, I perhaps inevitably am starting to find it more interesting to analyze the panel itself rather than what was actually said by its participants. Given that it has been the primary focus of my academic work and later my job for the past couple of years, creative placemaking is a familiar subject to me by now. Still, there is plenty that I have yet to learn about it, and it was clear that the panelists at last Tuesday’s session would say the same. Alas, other than by Markusen, I didn’t detect as much probing of uncertainties during the event as I would have liked. Even though Ms. Coletta did an outstanding job of keeping panelists on point and playing air traffic controller for audience questions, I felt that the conversation missed opportunities to dig into some crucial questions that remained unanswered at the end of the hour:
- In practical terms, how have researchers and practitioners historically defined creative places and what are the arguments for and against these definitions?
- What is the role of nonprofit arts and culture in creative placemaking, and what is the role of other parties like so-called “creative industries,” neighborhood restaurants and shops, technology firms, universities, and community groups?
- What has the past decade’s research told us about creative placemaking, what are the areas that further research could help illuminate, and what questions probably can’t be answered by research at all?
- What strategies have individual cities and governments employed over the past decade to make their own communities more creative? Which have worked out well and which haven’t, and why?
In fairness, Coletta tried to press the panelists on this last question in particular, asking them what advice they would give to a mayor who is considering investing resources in place-based creativity. The consensus response was an emphatic “it depends,” which I suppose is fair, but not all that helpful. If clear patterns and themes among real-life examples are in short supply, I would have loved instead to see some speculation, some brainstorming, some expounding upon pet theories, some arguing. Perhaps this was unrealistic of me, but I was hoping that this session would be less of a chat and more of a summit – an opportunity to bring together some of the brightest minds and most adept practitioners in the field and come out on the other side with some action steps in hand. The NEA has played field-wide convener several times over the past year, most impressively with the large group of arts administrators it brought together last fall for the discussion of the 2008 Survey on Public Participation in the Arts, but I think there’s further potential there that has yet to be tapped. In particular, here are a few suggestions for any conversations of this type that our nation’s federal arts agency might be planning in the future:
1. Encourage the participants to engage with each other directly rather than obliquely. Challenge assumptions, ask questions, delve into the details when warranted. If participants’ approaches or viewpoints differ, don’t just say so, have a debate! Academics are used to this; it is a part of their lives. It should be part of ours too.
2. Make sure there are people in the room who have the power to do something about the topics being discussed, not just the power to talk about them. Bold and underline this if there is a specific outcome desired as a result of the conversation.
3. The NEA has done an excellent job of bringing the conversation to the world (by webcasting events and creating hashtags for them on Twitter, for example). The next step is to bring the world to the conversation. Soliciting questions on Twitter is one way to do it, but more could be done to make the sessions truly interactive. Why not ask regional or state arts councils to organize local watch parties for events with discussion afterwards, the way that political campaigns often do when there is a major address or debate? Since Twitter reaches only a small percentage of the population, why not invite people to submit questions for panel participants in advance through a web form or email, which a staff member can curate during the event depending on where the conversation goes? Better yet, why not integrate question submissions right into the webcast so that anyone who’s watching online has an easy way to ask their own question, see others’ questions, and vote on which one should be asked next?
Okay, so maybe that last vision is a little ambitious. But the others should be well within the agency’s power to implement right away. The hardest part will be picking the right topics. But maybe we can all help with that too. We won’t know unless we try, right?
On ARTSBlog, Stephanie Evans from Americans for the Arts tackles a similar panel that was hosted last week by the Center for American Progress.