Art Cars Attack, photo by M Glasgow

Art Cars Attack, photo by M Glasgow

(Note: a follow-up to this post, “In Defense of Logic Models,” is now available here)

“I feel like whenever I talk to artists these days, I should be apologizing,” says Kevin Stolarick, Research Director for the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. To most in the arts community, Stolarick is better known as Richard Florida’s longtime right-hand man and research collaborator on his bestselling book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Stolarick, who first met Florida just after the academic had cashed the first check for the advance from Basic Books, proceeds to recount how the book’s success led to an explosion of interest from mayors all around the country wanting to redefine their cities as welcoming meccas for Florida’s new Starbucks-drinking, jeans-wearing idea people. Unfortunately, the mayors’ collective interpretation of the lessons from Florida’s book boiled down to, “all we need is to get us some gays and artists and a bike path or two, and our problems will be solved! The problem,” Stolarick tells us, a decade after The Rise of the Creative Class’s publication, “is that it’s a trap.”

This scene is unfolding in a basement auditorium in lower Manhattan, the site of a panel and presentation hosted by the Municipal Art Society of New York to give audiences the first public preview of the ArtPlace vibrancy indicators. ArtPlace, as many readers know, is a private-sector partnership among nearly a dozen leading foundations to support “creative placemaking,” a term invented by officials at the National Endowment for the Arts. Spearheaded by leadership from the NEA, the creation of ArtPlace is perhaps this Endowment’s, and by extension the Obama administration’s, signature achievement in the arts—despite the fact that it doesn’t distribute a cent of government money.

Stolarick’s presence at the event was appropriate, for in many ways it was The Rise of the Creative Class that made the current creative placemaking movement possible. For a time it was the kind of book that smart people buy for all of the other smart people they know – a genuine ideavirus. Florida, more than anyone else, was responsible for conflating creativity, innovation, and artistry in the popular imagination, and among the measures that he and Stolarick developed for the book was a “Bohemian index” associating the concentration of artists in a given metropolitan area with population and employment growth. Though the empirical claims in the book turned out to be built on shaky foundations, they were intuitive (and well-argued) enough that municipal leaders started taking notice. In fact, Carol Coletta, the current director of ArtPlace, was one of the first people to invite Florida to help put his ideas into practice in a real city context as co-organizer of 2003’s Memphis Manifesto Summit. Florida, Stolarick, and their associates became the first widely acknowledged spokespeople for the idea that a vibrant set of opportunities and amenities for creative expression could lead to regional economic prosperity.

But Florida wasn’t the only one drawing public attention to the economic power of the arts over the previous decade. Separately, the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania has been studying the relationship between concentrations of cultural resources and various social and economic outcomes since 1994. As then-Associate Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, Joan Shigekawa commissioned a groundbreaking collaboration between SIAP and The Reinvestment Fund to study the dynamics of culture and urban revitalization, work whose influence can be seen clearly in much of the policy that Shigekawa has since helped develop as Senior Deputy Chairman of the NEA.

SIAP, which is led by Mark Stern and Susan Seifert, cites The Rise of the Creative Class frequently in its publications dating from that period, usually to position its approach in opposition to Florida’s. In fact, in 2008 SIAP published one of the most hilariously brutal program evaluations I’ve ever read, following the attempts of Florida’s Creative Class Group (CCG) to turn around three Knight Foundation communities by inspiring volunteer “catalysts” to drive toward the “4 T’s” of economic development (technology, talent, tolerance, and territorial assets). In that evaluation, Stern and Seifert offer a single overarching criticism: CCG forgot about its outcomes. Much like South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, the project team had a clear idea of what it was putting in to the process and what it hoped to get out of it, but a much vaguer sense of how it was going to get from Phase 1 to Phase 3.

South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, image courtesy Wikipedia

Which brings me to my central point: despite all of the attention paid to this issue in the past year and a half, despite all of the new money that has been committed to the cause, creative placemaking still has an outcomes problem. As a field, we have not yet learned the lessons of the Underpants Gnomes. And until we do, I’m worried that we risk repeating Stolarick’s apology to practitioners a decade hence.

Leaving the dots unconnected

“When times were good,” Kevin Stolarick explains at the ArtPlace vibrancy indicators convening, it was easy for city councils, funders, and others to buy into the ideas in Florida’s book on the strength of his celebrity and qualitative arguments. But now that cities are facing more economic pressure, Stolarick continues, “they’re saying, ‘we need proof – and that’s going to take more than Richard Florida’s next book.’”

“Proof” is a word that seems to give creative placemakers hives these days. Less than two weeks prior to the ArtPlace event, I had participated in a webinar given by the NEA to introduce its Our Town Community Indicators Study. Our Town is the Endowment’s public-sector counterpart to ArtPlace – likewise the brainchild of Rocco Landesman, it granted some $6.6 million to communities for creative placemaking projects across the country in its inaugural round last year. The Community Indicators Study is a multiyear data collection effort whose chief purpose is to “advance public understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities.” Yet when, prompted by researchers who were listening in on the call, the NEA’s Chief of Staff, Jamie Bennett, asked the Deputy Director of NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis about causation vs. correlation, this is the exchange that resulted:

Bennett: …Are you going to in some way be able through this project to prove [for example] that arts had a direct impact in causing the crime rate to go down?

Shewfelt: A lot of the language I’ve used today has been very carefully chosen to avoid suggesting that we are trying to design a way to specifically address the causal relationship between creative placemaking and the outcomes we’re interested in.

As a matter of fact, the NEA has chosen to forgo a traditional evaluation of the Our Town grant program in favor of developing the aforementioned indicator system. The project will no doubt result in a lot of great data, but essentially no mechanism for connecting the Endowment’s investments in Our Town projects to the indicators one sees. A project could be entirely successful on its own terms but fail to move the needle in a meaningful way in its city or neighborhood. Or it could be caught up in a wave of transformation sweeping the entire community, and wrongly attribute that wave to its own efforts. There’s simply no way for us to tell. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we can’t accomplish the goal of “advancing understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities” without digging more deeply into the causal relationships that the NEA would prefer to avoid.

The vibrancy indicators that were the subject of the ArtPlace convening face a similar quandary. The purpose of the indicators is to help ArtPlace “understand the impact of [its] investments.” And what is that desired impact? During a webinar delivered to prospective applicants last fall, Coletta declared that “with ArtPlace, we aim to do nothing less than transform economic development in America…to awaken leaders who care about the future of their communities to the fact that they’re sitting on a pile of assets that can help them achieve their ambitions…and that asset is art.”

ArtPlace Theory of Change

ArtPlace Theory of Change

ArtPlace’s investments all have a singular focus on “vibrancy,” a concept defined in its guidelines as “attracting people, activities and value to a place and increasing the desire and the economic opportunity to thrive in a place.” While that was as specific as things got during ArtPlace’s first two rounds of grantmaking, the indicators project, which examines factors as diverse as cell phone use, population density, and home values, will go a long way toward concretizing ArtPlace’s primary lever of community transformation. Even so, ArtPlace doesn’t seem any more eager than the NEA to connect the activities of its grant recipients to the broader vibrancy indicators directly. Though the projects themselves are supposed to have a “transformative” impact on vibrancy, ArtPlace isn’t requiring its grantees to collect any data on how that impact is achieved. Furthermore, ArtPlace’s guidelines state clearly that the consortium has no plans to invest in research on creative placemaking beyond the vibrancy indicators themselves, despite its advocacy goals and a desire to “share the lessons [grantees] are learning to other communities across the U.S.”

To be clear, I don’t mean to question the value of research of the type ArtPlace and Our Town are leading. Efforts such as these, Fractured Atlas’s Archipelago data aggregation and visualization platform, Americans for the Arts’s National and Local Arts Index, Western States Arts Federation’s Creative Vitality Index, and others help to draw a clear picture of a community’s overall cultural and creative health and can serve as an essential tool within a broader research portfolio. But in order for those tools to really come alive in a grantmaking context, they have to be grounded in a clear and rigorous conceptual frame for the how the specific funded activities are going to make a difference, and then integrated into the actual process for selecting grant recipients. And that’s the part still missing from the vast majority of these efforts. In an upcoming article for the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus (who co-authored the original Creative Placemaking white paper for the NEA with her mentor, Ann Markusen) writes, “it’s probably unreasonable to expect that a modest, one-year Our Town grant will move the needle, at least quickly….Because the geographic scale, time horizons, and desired outcomes vary across creative placemaking efforts, one-size-fits-all indicator systems may prove inappropriate.”

Without a clear and detailed theory of how and why creative placemaking is effective, policy and philanthropy to support creative placemaking is hobbled. Attempting to predict and judge impact based on indicator systems alone carries with it at least four problems:

  • It doesn’t give a clear road map for project selection that will identify investments most likely to make a difference. Without previous research demonstrating causal interactions between grants given and differences made, it’s hard to know what effect a new grant will have – much less how to compare the potential effects of hundreds or (in ArtPlace’s case) thousands of competing investment opportunities.
  • It doesn’t give us the tools to go back and analyze why certain projects did and didn’t work. Maybe a public artwork succeeds in drawing people to a neighborhood, but real estate values stay stagnant. Maybe development along a transit corridor was executed on schedule, but ridership is lower than expected. Broad, sector-level indicators will only tell us that the project didn’t work – not why.
  • It doesn’t acknowledge the complex nature of economic ecosystems and the indirect role that arts projects play in them. Many economists agree that talented, highly educated individuals are key to community prosperity. But numerous considerations likely play into their decision to (re)locate in a particular place. When are the arts truly catalytic for a community, and when are they merely icing on the cake? Indicator systems would have no way of telling us on their own.
  • It provides little insight on how to pursue arts-led economic development while avoiding the thorny problems of gentrification. Any thinking around policy interventions must acknowledge the possibility of negative impacts as well as positive ones. In the case of creative placemaking, an attendant worry is that longtime residents of transformed neighborhoods won’t have asked for the change, and may be adversely affected by it. To date, there is little shared understanding of how creative placemaking projects that benefit all community residents are distinguished from those that simply replace poorer residents with wealthier ones.

In her Reader article, Nicodemus writes that

The answer to the question “What is creative placemaking, really?” is that funders and practitioners are making it up in real time. We’ve entered an exciting period of experimentation, which makes sharing information absolutely critical.

In the interest of sharing information, then, I will report out below on some lessons I’ve learned from my own research on the topic over the past five years, as well as from a collaboration with ArtsWave, a funder supporting vibrancy through the arts in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region.

Toward a unified theory of creative placemaking: Filling in the blanks

The major deficiency of the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan was that they attempted to connect their activity (stealing underpants) with their intended impact (profit), without really considering the steps in between. To take an extreme example, if I start an organization called “Artists for World Peace” (there is such an organization, by the way), get some artists together to stand in solidarity, and put on a show, it would be unrealistic of me to expect world peace as the next logical result.

Yet most studies of the connection between the arts and economic development have attempted to measure the direct relationship between arts activities (whether single or in the aggregate) and economic outcomes. For example, the Social Impact of the Arts Project examined the correlation between cultural assets and poverty decline in Philadelphia, and a groundbreaking study by Steve Sheppard compared employment levels and real estate values in North Adams, MA before and after the opening of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. These research efforts have done much to shape our collective understanding of urban revitalization through the arts. But they share in common an unfortunate tendency to gloss over the details of exactly how creative activities are responsible for making neighborhoods and communities more attractive, and therefore, more valuable. This gap is especially problematic when one tries to apply the lessons of these studies to a policy or grantmaking context, where the details of how projects are implemented can make all the difference in whether a particular intervention is successful or not.

When I was in graduate school, before I came into contact with any of the research above, I created a simple model of arts-led gentrification to illustrate the specific case of a neighborhood lent a young, “hip” reputation by newly relocated artists. This model is different from others I’ve seen in a few ways. First, it casts neighborhood development as an iterative process, starting with tourism on the local level among artists. In other words, the people who are going to be checking out the happenings in a struggling outpost of the city are not, by and large, yuppies – they are other artists who are colleagues of the ones living in that neighborhood. Second, it emphasizes the role of bars and restaurants as attractors for other neighborhood visitors (including yuppies), whose viability is only made possible by the modest foot traffic generated by arts activities. And finally, it places at the beginning of the process not just arts activities, but specific kinds of arts activities: visible, storefront spaces like galleries and performance venues that signal the presence of art and draw visitors to a particular location.Artist Colonization Model

Three years later, some of the thinking reflected above found its way into my grantmaking strategy work with ArtsWave, an local arts agency based in Cincinnati, OH. First, some background: in late 2008, ArtsWave had commissioned a research initiative designed to develop an inclusive public conversation about the arts in the region. Based on hundreds of conversations, interviews, and focus groups with area residents, two key “ripple effect” benefits emerged as especially valued by citizens:

  1. that the arts create a vibrant, thriving economy: neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists are attracted to the area, etc…and
  2. that the arts create a more connected community: diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better.

To its immense credit, ArtsWave didn’t just sit on these results and continue in the status quo. Instead, the 83-year-old united arts fund underwent a total transformation, taking on a new name and organizational identity, and most importantly, adopting these two themes as the new goals for its grantmaking.

My task, starting in January 2011, was to assist ArtsWave in creating a new framework for funding arts & culture activities based upon the ability of organizations to create vibrancy and connect people in the region. With the help of a volunteer task force consisting of ArtsWave board members, staff, community leaders, and grantee organizations, we worked backwards from the idea of “vibrancy” and ended up with an extraordinarily complex theory of change. Here’s the part that specifically deals with cultural clusters and neighborhood economic development:

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: cultural clusters

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: cultural clusters

Some elements of this model will certainly look familiar, though with some new wrinkles added: evening and weekend hours for storefronts, for example, as well as decreased crime and improved physical spaces (in general, not just arts spaces). ArtsWave, however, extended the concept to apply to regional economic development as well:

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: regional development

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: regional development

Note here that the principal lever for the regional development model is that the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region is “differentiated” through the arts. That is to say, it attracts people from outside of the region because it gains a (deserved) reputation for being a more interesting place to be than its peer cities. And what helps differentiate Cincinnati is something we call “extraordinary cultural experiences.” We attach a very specific definition to “extraordinary,” focusing on its literal meaning of “out of the ordinary.” For ArtsWave’s purposes, experiences are extraordinary if they are associated with one of the following:

  • Events or productions with a national or international profile
  • Events or productions that feature something uniquely special about the region
  • Events or productions that feature innovative programming or presentation

Not only do experiences meeting the above criteria help to differentiate the Greater Cincinnati region in the eyes of tourists or prospective residents, they also contribute directly to ArtsWave’s notion of “vibrancy” (the green arrow in the diagram).

What this approach does is explicitly connect the activities of grantees to the broader community change that ArtsWave hopes to create. A key innovation that came out of this process was the distinction between “Sector Outcomes” (in blue) and “Grantee Outcomes” (in purple). We defined grantee outcomes as the farthest point out in the model to which individual organizations could reasonably be held accountable—and those outcomes feed back into the evaluation and selection process at the grant application stage. All other outcomes, the sector outcomes, are a reflection on ArtsWave’s overall strategy, rather than on any one particular investment. This allows us to “aggregate” impact from the level of the individual project to the level of the broader context.

The beauty of designing a model like this is that it allows each assumption embedded in each link on the causal chain to be tested, if necessary. Of course, it would be impractical to do so for every investment a grantmaker might make. But that isn’t necessary. In order to provide the kind of evidence that mayors and other officials are looking for, you only need a few examples to demonstrate replicability. But we have to be sure that those examples really do show the effects of intentional creative placemaking strategy, rather than just a lucky coincidence.

Where We Go From Here

Despite the challenges I discuss in the first part of this article, I’m heartened to see creative placemaking funders taking some positive steps toward a more rigorous theoretical foundation for their work. In particular, ArtPlace is beginning to move in this direction with a list of ten signals grantees can use to judge whether their projects are making a difference. The challenge will be to unpack those relationships with the same rigor as is currently applied to collecting data.

Meanwhile, we would love feedback on the models we have created to describe economic development through the arts. While we are hopeful they can help to move the conversation towards a deeper consideration of the complex mechanisms involved in creating place-based vibrancy, we readily acknowledge that they aren’t perfect. Do they accurately reflect creative placemaking goals and processes? Which aspects of the model are best backed up by existing research and which are shakiest? Which seem intuitively right but have not been studied in depth? What are we leaving out?

If you have comments, questions, or resources to offer, please leave a comment here or get in touch at And in the meantime, Fractured Atlas will be eagerly researching how emerging evaluation methods in other sectors, such as outcome mapping, most significant change technique, and complexity science, can potentially be applied to the arts.

  • Kevin

    Great article!

  • Provocative piece.

    In my forthcoming article, I mention that ArtPlace resists dictating “how,” and instead lets artists and their partners propose innovative approaches to meet ArtPlace’s desired aim of increased vibrancy. I see a need for balance. Folks interested in launching creative placemaking efforts are clamoring for insights from folks trying similar work, and foundations and governments want to know which strategies have proven most effective towards meeting their goals (which typically are not ubiquitous). But setting too rigid a typology for creative placemaking efforts may stifle innovation and experimentation. We need more information about lessons learned and factors that affect successful outcomes without putting the ice on experimentation.

    Secondly, a query to the universe about the utility of logic models and theories of change–Worth their weight in gold? Overly complex/rigid? Help or hindrance to funders, to practitioners? Would love to hear from many voices on this.

  • Great article. Arts “incubators” suffer from a similar lacuna of clear outcome indicators. Or, perhaps, incubators are a subset of the creative placemaking initiatives you reference. Is incubator success measured in occupancy rates (as were early small business incubators), venture launches, employment generated? Or are there other, more qualitative indicators? Artplace’s “Ten Signals of Momentum” are interesting more for what they don’t measure than for what they do. The ten indicators sound good, but for the most part indicate correlation rather than causality. If momentum is achieved, how will we *know* the ArtPlace project was the cause?

  • Ian — There are times when I find your statistical approach to what seem to me philosophical issues a bit annoying, but this ain’t one of those times. Yesterday, I was at the Georgia Arts Network conference and heard Rocco speak; I also had dinner the night before with a big wig from ArtSpace. I find the emphasis on economic development, which is also a big theme with Americans for the Arts, to be as iffy as a justification for the arts as the previous arguments that young people become better students because of the arts and that the populace become better people because of the arts. If I am reading you correctly, the economic development argument ala Florida and now ArtSpace not only lacks proof, but lacks coherent outcomes as well.

    The problem as I see it is that the effects of the arts is more like weather than economics, i.e., that the system is so complex that it is difficult to determine causality between an input and an output.

    I think “creative placemaking” has made a wrong turn. The focus shouldn’t be on economic development and increased tourism, but rather on increased social capital and increased sense of place. How to measure that? How many people at a given event spoke to each other face-to-face? If such an exchange is built into the event, it is measurable — there were 50 people there, and they each had to talk to two people. And arts pieces that focus on, say, community history can be objectively tested, if that is desirable.

    I don’t like this obsession, on the one hand, with economic development as a justification of the arts, or on the other had, the intrinsic rewards approach of something like “Counting New Beans,” which seems even mushier than the Creative Placemaking stuff.

    Anyway, I will read this post over again several times. I’d like to do something for the Huffington Post about it…

    • Thanks, Scott. Just so there’s no confusion about my position, on your part or anyone else’s – I’m a fan of creative placemaking. I think it’s the most important and positive development in arts philanthropy in quite some time. My intention with this article was not to question funders’ interest in creative placemaking, which I believe is based on good intuitions about what is possible through supporting the arts. The evidence base that the arts can have a role in community revitalization is actually quite strong. My issue is that those intuitions have not, for the most part, been made explicit in a way that is helpful for choosing which placemaking projects are likely to be most successful. My argument, therefore, is much more about the “how” than the “what.” It sounds like you and I may diverge in our views on the value of the economic role of the arts, though I agree the social component is important as well.

  • Thank you. This is amazing. You’ve articulated something I’ve been confused about for a long time. Can’t wait to have a juicy conversation with you about this.

    We’re trying actively to reorganize our institutional goals around social bridging, and I’ve started dipping my toe in the social psychology waters around the impact of intergroup contact (psychology-speak for “when strangers meet”). To me, indicators–even superficial, Freakonomics-style ones–are a kind of holy grail for us to be able to SEE results when we have a fairly intangible social mission. I can say I’m doing creative placemaking or social bridging all I want. I can even tell lovely stories that get people excited about the work. But I won’t feel good about it–or able to think about progress towards substantive community impact–until I can think about what is and isn’t moving us forward. I don’t need someone to tell me this can all be boiled down to specific data sets, but some causal and correlative research, even if it’s early, would be tremendous.

  • Holy s***. This is a quite a paper. I regret not having come across your work before and I look forward to delving more deeply into it/your website. Anyway, a few years ago I did a presentation on this subject at the 2009 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas national conference.

    The paper is here:

    and reflects my experiences and observations wrt arts and culture development policy in DC, for the _local_ (as opposed to the national, presenting, institutions based in the city, which are part of a different cultural network and product) arts scene.

    The one major difference in my paper and your paper here is that I distinguish between place-based outcomes of community improvement, which in the work you refer to they call “vibrancy” and outcomes related to artists and artistic disciplines.

    John Montgomery’s work (which is referenced in some of the SIAP/TRF pieces, which is how I learned about it; he extended his papers into the book _The New Wealth of Cities_) distinguishes between arts as production and arts as consumption and focuses on the development of “balanced” cultural quarters where production and consumption objectives are addressed and supported equally.

    The vibrancy outcomes are focused on consumption, land use intensification, and greater rents. The artists are a catalyst, but there is no long term strategy necessarily for developing and preserving artists, disciplines, and the production function in places targeted for “improvement.”

    The point I made in the paper — I am a planner, but I don’t do cultural planning, except indirectly,when I do commercial district revitalization framework plans — is that arts as production and discipline-support institutions (Markusen’s work addresses some of this and is cited in the paper) need to be “planned” overtly, in an artist/discipline led process, and in particular a variety of capacity building spaces and programs need to be developed to support arts production at various stages in the process.

    As far as spaces/capacity building institutions go, I am “enthralled” with the work of people affiliated with the Creative City Network of Canada, and the typology of spaces as outlined in this paper:

    which is also referenced heavily in my paper.

  • as far as social capital outcomes (one of the other comments said that perhaps those are the desired outcomes), I call that “arts as community building.” That’s important, but not my interest, which has been focused on arts as revitalization and the development of artistic production.

    These are past pieces from my blog on arts/cultural tourism as community building:

  • Niels Strandskov

    [I want to preface my response by saying that I am in no way an expert on this topic, but I have had a bit of on-the-ground experience that I think is relevant to the discussion.]

    It seems to me that if there is one crucial element in all of this discussion of creative placemaking it is old buildings. Every exciting, transformative project I’ve been involved with has begun and prospered mostly because organizations & individuals had access to old buildings with cheap rent. Most artists, I think, are more than happy to compromise on any number of details of the spaces they use, but you can’t really get around the need to be able to pay the rent on time. The projects that I’m aware of which have been positively impacted by capital improvements are those in which the improvements came very, very slowly and kept pace with the organization’s growth. I know funders are happy when they can point to a shiny new building that honors a wealthy patron, but I am not aware of a single such space which was a necessary or sufficient condition for the aesthetic and communitarian success of an arts organization.

    With regard to this essay’s specific points about metrics, I’m also dubious about pinning any uptick in some measurement of social or economic good to a particular project or initiative. For one thing, if we’re talking about the really hard stuff — forging community between distrustful neighbors, improving the circumstances of the most despised members of society, effecting major changes in the culture of a community — we’re talking about things that take years, if not decades, to come to fruition. I’m aware of only a few funders who have that kind of patience. Ideally, I think, funding should go to projects that would have a sort of cascading effect on the community. I.e. doing something so well that suddenly everyone wants to do it, or at least claim credit, and the first project serves to incubate the second, which does the same for the third, etc. Too often, arts organizations are put in exactly the wrong position with this — competing for funding against the very people we would most like to see succeed, because we’re coming from the same place and doing similar things. With creative placemaking, the irony comes in putting a big chunk of capital into one project, giving it a leg up on the competition, which inevitably results in things becoming more bureaucratic and pulls apart the community of artists that was supposed to be knit together.

    Finally, for many of the people I’ve worked with, the question of gentrification is much more central to this debate than is indicated above. It is abundantly obvious that there are a number of funders, especially public sector ones, who are prone to like projects precisely because they have a potential gentrifying effect. No one is fooled. That doesn’t mean no one wants to see neighborhoods “get better”, but the definition of “better” is so often circumscribed by certain sets of prejudices that it’s nearly impossible to actually make large institutions responsive to communities. This, for me, is the real Underpants Gnome in the middle of the room. And frankly, I’m not sure there’s any real solution. Certainly there aren’t many that have a lot of traction politically. The pendulum seems to swing between a scorched earth approach where old neighborhoods are either bulldozed or condo-ized at once, to “benign neglect” that has all the familiar consequences for residents and businesses. Perhaps some kind of patchwork approach, if one could be found that identifies the key attributes of a neighborhood and protects them, and leaves a lot of old buildings around, while also eliminating the worst blight and putting the capital where it will do the most good for the current residents could be the answer. The kind of sense of gestalt that is necessary to make those distinctions is, unfortunately, pretty hard to capture in a grant narrative.

  • The thing I didn’t discuss in the comments or the cited links is the difference between strong and weak real estate markets. The old buildings stuff you mention is straight out of Jacobs…

    Anyway, in comparatively weak markets like Pittsburgh or Baltimore, arts-based revitalization efforts are really focused on doing something where there is otherwise no or very limited demand.

    I have an entry criticizing a graffitum stenciled on a building a few blocks from Penn Station as it criticizes arts strategies as gentrification. While that is true generally, the stencil was on an abandoned building in a neighborhood with close to 50% vacant buildings and lots. Gentrification is displacing no one there. That’s the difference in weak markets.

    DC has a double whammy. A limited inventory of big old buildings because we weren’t an industrial city. High demand (and prices) for property, making it hard for ground up revitalization strategies based on low prices for property. (This is why the “Shaw Eco Village” project in the late 1990s/early 2000s, failed.) In a strong market, as neighborhoods are improved, the arts/artists get displaced as a rule, because they don’t own their properties, and get outbid.

    The Penn Ave. Arts District in Pittsburgh or the Station North District in Baltimore, because there is such limited demand for property there, don’t have the displacement effects that we see in places like Manhattan or DC. At least, we don’t see those effects except over many many decades. And those efforts are focused on more ground up, smaller efforts too.

    OTOH, the developing Westside district in Baltimore, anchored by the Hippodrome Theater, which went through a multimillion dollar renovation and now is programmed by LiveNation or a similar firm, is not focused on “small” arts efforts, but on big arts organizations and consumption rather than production. So even though it’s a district in a comparatively weak real estate market, the scale and orientation is much different than that of the nearby Station North district, and the impact on artists and arts production will be much different.

  • Artist

    Great another group of parasites trying to make a living off struggling Artist.

  • Seth Beattie

    Extraordinary article. This is clearly a HUGE challenge in our field. Two notes on research methods … Outside of the terriffic work being done by SIAP, one of the more compelling studies I’ve seen on this is Toronto Artscape’s Beyond Anecdotal Evidence: The Spillover Effects of Investments in Cultural Facilities”, which at least tries to approximate a control group so you can make side-by-side comparisons between similar neighborhoods that differ in level of arts investment … Certainly not perfect but compelling. The other thing they did which I think is great is surveying of residents in the studied area so that we can measure not only how hard stats are changing but how perceptions are changing … and how much people on the ground attribute those changes to arts investments.

    In the field work we’ve launched in Cleveland’s North Collinwood neighborhood, we’ve just begun an annual surveying project that asks residents, workers and visitors their perceptions on 29 indicators (safety, cleanliness, authenticity, likeliness to reside there in 5 years, community pride, diversity, positive/negative role of artists, etc.). We’re hoping it will help us supplement our tracking of hard metrics to give us a richer picture of what’s happening on the ground (although admittedly still very anecdotal). Beyond that, we’re hoping that it allows us to address trends that might not show up in the hard data (e.g. Is there an overwhelming concern that the neighborhood is becoming less creative over time? What can we do about that? Should we do something about that?). We’re also trying to package the research in a way that everyday residents can review that annual assessment and can weigh in on our strategy as we move forward.

    Regardless of our collective shortcomings on outcome measure, THANK GOODNESS for ArtPlace and Our Town raising the visibility of arts’ importance in neighborhood revitalization, catalyzing new relationships between arts orgs, CDCs and local governments and starting a national dialogue about how we measure success. And thank goodness for this article :)

  • Great work, Ian!

    Among the many threads possible here, one thing that stands out is that the diverse stakeholders in these initiatives have a wide spectrum of expectations and measures of success – some easily quantifiable and some less so. This is not unlike the “evaluation” question that challenges many arts and culture funders in our increasingly data-driven field. That said, how do we invent the new tools for measuring the value and impact of these initiatives?

    • Thanks, Tommer! Part of my goal in soliciting feedback on the models that we’ve created is to account for some of the diversity that you mention. Even though there are no doubt many ways to skin this proverbial cat, I would bet that if you looked at all of the Our Town and ArtPlace projects, not to mention those funded by Kresge, the Educational Foundation of America, and others pursuing this work, you would start to notice some patterns: common goals, common strategies, common assumptions, just all in different contexts. I think it would then be possible to roll up these examples into a broader typology for creative placemaking work and then stratify projects for measurement and analysis accordingly. Perhaps some of them present natural experiments that could make it possible to analyze causation without having to go through the trouble of setting up a control group; at a convening I attended today, the Minnesota Legacy Amendment was mentioned as one such opportunity (though not a placemaking-oriented one). Another way to do it would be, after selecting some key outcomes to focus on, to take applicants to Our Town and ArtPlace as a sample group and study the neighborhoods that weren’t invested in vs. the ones that were. To make it really robust you would focus the study on the applications that were “on the edge” – that is to say, the lowest-ranked funded projects and the highest-ranked projects denied funding, on the theory that they’re roughly equivalent in quality. Hopefully this provides some idea of possible directions.

      • Interesting concept, but I don’t think this would necessarily yield useful comparative results. As one of the applicants who didn’t make it past the LOI round, we’re looking for other funding to do the work. I think it’s presumptive to expect that this work will only happen with ArtPlace funding–unless you mean that ArtPlace-funded projects are more likely to be designed to explicitly reach particular outcomes or use specific processes that are not accessible to projects outside the ArtPlace funding pool (which I also think is unlikely).

        • Nina, there are potentially lots of ways to do this and I’m not trying to say this is the best. However, the criticism you point out is actually a feature, not a bug. Part of my thinking is that the method I suggested would test the efficacy of ArtPlace’s (or someone else’s funding), taking other such opportunities into account. If all of the denied projects find funds elsewhere, that will suggest ArtPlace’s contribution isn’t as meaningful compared to if none of the other projects happen.

      • Doramin

        I don’t get it. What has this got to do with decent schools, unpotholed streets, regular trash pickup, ambulance response times and low crime rates?

        What instantly frosted me about Richard Florida and his mayoral groupies was their obvious infatuation with the idea that attracting the bohemian “Rent” crowd was the cheap n’ easy way of somehow revitalizing their cities whilst bypassing all those humdrum, unglamorous city services that those pesky families with children tended to require of their neighborhoods.

        Don’t get me wrong. I too, love the artsy-fartsy stuff, galleries, craft shops, hipster dives and cafes as much as the next dude but that alone does not a tax base make and taxpaying grownups tend not to get a contact high from dodging winos, stumbling over trash and slipping on crack vials. The deficiencies in the good professor’s magic formula were rather obvious from the beginning.

  • Pingback: The Artful Manager | Never mind the outcome behind the curtain()

  • John Shibley

    Look, if I was the CFO of a big company, and I had a vendetta against the arts, I would love the emphasis on economic outcomes, because it gives me exactly the ammunition I need to win the argument against the arts.

    Here’s why.

    When you make an argument on economic territory, you don’t win by proving that your activity creates economic vitality. You win by proving that your activity is the BEST way to create economic vitality. You don’t have to prove a return on the investment you propose – you have to prove a return superior to every other investment that could be made. Those are the rules of the economic game. Every CFO knows them. Apparently, arts leaders do not.

    When we fight on the CFOs’ battle ground, we have to fight based on the rules of that battle ground, and those rules are terrible for the arts, because it is much easier to prove that other investments have a more direct link to economic vitality and provide a clearer return on investment.

    Every Civil War general knew that you should choose to fight on ground where you can win, and, for us, THAT ground is that the arts bind us most deeply to our essential our humanity, that develops our ability to contain and profit from complexity, and that brings us together as a democratic community, regardless of whether they lead to economic vitality (though, as a collateral benefit, they do).

    It is good ground to fight from. It is true that the battle right now is elsewhere, but if we want to win this fight, we should claim that ground and make the CFOs fight us there.

    It is naive to fight anywhere else.

  • William

    As a former director of museums and board member of several arts groups and now consultant – my perspective is less sanguine. It appears to me that most of these programs – “Our Town” and the like -are less about community building and much more about NEA and Foundation brand building. The pressure for both to demonstrate public “value” (to anyone who will listen) has lead them down the redevelopment and social intervention business path. I also lay some of this propensity at the feet of art schools – where social practice is in raging vogue. Is this all a bad thing? – of course not. Yet in practice, listening to arts leaders and foundations spout peculiar “white-knight” notions as saviors and social experimenters – particularly in “underserved “communities – makes me question true motivations. A recent such project was LA’s Our Town funded Watts House Project. The public expose by the Los Angeles Times, vilification of the project by homeowners and the subsequent ousting of the director points to the fact that these efforts require seasoned, measured experts and diplomats. When called to comment, the NEA seemed clueless to the damage in this circumstance even as the director toured and touted it as sterling social success. Yet the truth was that artists brought into the project proposed more “brand building” projects (like plopping a gigantic LOVE sign on a homeowner’s small residence.) The net results were angry community and homeowners, broken property- improvement promises and served to further polarize the local cultural community. The entire notion that emanates out of this kind “social practice” strikes me as haughty, cultural colonialism (gentrification notwithstanding). Please come back when you are beyond the “practice” phase – and stop using communities (particularly communities of color) as Petri dishes.

  • Pingback: Funder knows best | Jumper()

  • lisa r

    Great article and more fuel for the fire beneath the long long simmering, never quite finished arts stew: how to align the “pursuit of happiness” that is hard wired to American experience with the reality that creativity and artmaking is hard wired to human experience.

    Hard to know if the stew needs more salt, pepper or sugar – maybe all three and that could be the special sauce. The arts as related to economic and social and educational policy making has so many attributes to measure across many numeric indexes and we cannot forget the million dollar smile factor of happiness that participants value and keep coming back for more of.

    Geographic regions, states, cities, and villages have so many different preferences for the type, content and presentation of cultural and arts offerings. Individual taste is a vexing variable for case making on the value and relevancy of public and private support for “ahts and culcha”. Stew simmers on.

    I would be curious what the “group” thinks of the new study from National Governor’s Association, Arts, Culture and Design: New Engines of Growth.

  • Lance Olson

    Great thinking, Ian! As you observe, measuring success must reflect the nature of the Creative Placemaking project itself. Intentional CP has been around for nearly 50 years. It might help to employ some examples.

    Cleveland’s Playhouse Square and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust are two oft-studied successes. Both are mixed use developments that center on historic theatres and incorporate for- and not-for-profit artist studios, presentation and exhibition spaces, media, education, hotels, housing, restaurants and entrepreneurial efforts to turn undervalued downtowns into unique, vital destinations. The ten-year-old Safe Harbors of the Hudson/Ritz Theatre project in Newburgh, NY includes a historic hotel-theatre complex proudly built out to include galleries, artist studios, artist housing, a community ballroom, and subsidized housing. When you see someone walk through the doors you can’t tell whether she’s an artist, going to a wedding, or a seeker in need of housing support – maybe all of the above!

    All of these projects look differently at something we value, or don’t value. And THAT’s a key role of artists in our society.

    The NEA under Chairman Landesman has made the admirable choice of recognizing that adding to the nation’s cultural portfolio is different from making partnerships for creative communities. Recognizing that these take differing leadership, skills, and objectives is far more honest and productive than past practices, of “encouraging” artists and their support businesses to divert resources into community organizing. The “Our Town” program recognizes that artists are one important resource for looking differently at the places we value or undervalue, and a critical component in making a UNIQUE PLACE indispensable in its region.

    So how do we measure the effect of arts funding on creative placemaking? One might observe that the example projects were driven by exceptional leaders who created partnerships that engaged multiple industries, and were done with largely intrinsic funding that wasn’t targeted to arts support. Perhaps a useful measure is to what extent arts funding keeps artists a key feature of the projects. Convention centers and sports have been assertive adopters of the concepts driving cultural economic development, AKA, CP. Those include encouraging pedestrian traffic, making the district an attractive destination, and creating a unique sense of place, i.e., you know you can only be in Boston. CP’s big advantage is mixed use development — human scale with creative live-work baked in. Often it claims that advantage by revolving around historic theatres. Built in another time when mixed use was the norm, historic venues carry the soul of the neighborhood. Their natural role of attracting and serving large crowds from around the region makes them the envy of convention center planners who try to create mixed use developments from scratch.

    So perhaps the best measure of success for arts funding is that “cultural” is part of the place making. I’d love to talk – I’m at

  • Pingback: The sinewy stuff: It makes it hard to connect the dots | Jumper()

  • Pingback: Emerging Arts Professionals » Artist as Citizen: Art at the Center of Revitalization and Placemaking()

  • Pingback: Artist as Citizen: Art at the Center of Revitalization and Placemaking » Art Matters!()

  • Pingback: Measuring Cultural Vibrancy |

  • Last year in Chicago Anne Gadwa Nicodemus was asked during a presentation how aesthetics was to be measured in creative placemaking and who would be making those decisions. Her reply was that she thought aesthetics wasn’t a primary consideration any longer in CP projects. That position unfortunately seems to have expropriated the field.
    Add to that Mr. Schuback’s assessment of the NEA Creative Placemaking endeavors one gets the impression that the state of the art union is good and on the track to prosperity.

    All this hard work and good intentions with the focus on community vibrancy and economic redevelopment and populist inclusion is commendable, I just don’t think you should be calling it art advocacy. It’s something else. Artists all over the country are struggling to pay the rents and stay healthy to be able to move forward their aesthetic development. The results of that development provides us all with the rich cultural environment we all want.

    From an artists perspective it’s sad to see arts advocacy become it’s own industry and it’s sadder to see you justify your role by advocating for a politically safe, populist oriented role of art as economic development. That may sound harsh and unfair but challenge yourself and look at any of your “vibrancy indicators” or “ten signals lists” and see how many times the word “art” appears.

    • Richard,

      I do remember our exchange at the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center in February. I interpreted your question about aesthetics as questioning the role of larger arts institutions within creative placemaking. As I recall, you didn’t see them playing a leadership role in the grassroots or “populist” examples we presented as case studies. I do feel that creative placemaking can thrive without institutional arbitrators of taste/aesthetic, and this was the point I tried to make. Definitely not that aesthetics or art are not important.

      However, I think I may share some of your misgivings about the lack of emphasis on arts-related impacts in the burgeoning indicators work. Here’s an extract from my article “Creative Placemaking 2.0,” which should be published online and in print in GIA Reader next week:

      “What about art? Just because creative placemaking’s outcomes are not limited to intrinsic art impacts does not mean that standards for participation or artistic quality should be abandoned wholesale. Artists and arts and cultural organizations need not be confined to an “input” in a grand theory of change. Creative placemaking evaluations can probe benefits (or even costs) to these stakeholders. As with non-arts outcomes, the desired goals will vary from project to project, but failing to consider arts impacts is like a doctor taking a patient’s temperature but not her pulse.”

      Your views on creative placemaking constituting an arts advocacy industry seem harsh, but I unpack issues around positioning, and expanding resources, and issues of winners and losers in the article. Stay tuned!

      • Again, even though my primary field is revitalization, not art, the point that I made that artists need to plan and protect their interests vis-a-vis revitalization are paramount.

        This photo illustrates the point in the proverbial “1,000 words”:

        wrt Lance Olson’s points, I think the Cleveland and Pittsburgh efforts are great (I am not familiar with the Newburgh, NY example), but I do have to reiterate the point that these are in weak markets, and therefore the long term displacement effort is much less likely. Even so, both efforts are more focused on large, presenting institutions as opposed to ground up artist initiated efforts.

        The Playhouse Square group in Cleveland functions as a community development corp./real estate developer. Where that’s not so much the case with the PGH group.

        Even in Cleveland, there is a difference between the Playhouse Square effort and others in the city, more ground up. Do you know about the Gordon Square Arts District?

      • Just wanted to let folks know that my article for GIA Reader magazine, “Creative Placemaking 2.0” (which Ian quotes in his blog post) is now available online:
        Comments welcome.

        Richard, Gordan Square was one of the case studies Ann Markusen and I profiled in our 2010 report “Creative Placemaking” for the NEA’s Mayors’ Institute on City Design. It’s available for download at and via the NEA. The profile is on pg 34 of the full report.

  • Pingback: Emerging Arts Professionals » Arts Management Tweet Chat on June 22 with Bea Dominguez()

  • Pingback: It’s Not the Economy | Creative Infrastructure()

  • Pingback: Fractured Atlas Blog : In Defense of Logic Models()

  • This article seems to use the word “vibrancy” very broadly. I use the word to mean an increase in the intensity and diversity of activity. People are gonna do what they do. For example, if you prohibit smoking in an area, smokers will simply go someplace else. They will start to make their smoking place/space more comfortable for that activity by adding chairs and shading. Humans have needs and desires, subconscious and conscious, and will engage in activity to meet them. Placemaking, as a means of economic development, can be successful if practitioners acknowledge ALL human activity and making space for them in the city-scape. Vibrancy of place increases when the infrastructure is in place so that all basic human needs are first able to be met in that one place. Water, shading, and seating, etc. From that foundation, then place can be developed to meet higher order needs and desires by allowing space for people to engage in interactive activity. I personally have a desire to start a community woodworking shop, where capital comes from the community, and products such as furniture is distributed to the community and perhaps even the wider market. This is to due my observation of idle woodworking capital, bored young people, and lots of excess wood from construction sites and shop yards being thrown in dumpsters. I see a wasting of potential everywhere. I attribute boredom to the phenomena of having a desire to engage in a specific interactive activity, but not having or being aware of the currently available means to do so. Perhaps communities can become more entrepreneurially friendly if practicioners log vacant spaces within the city and become serious about occupying them with object, subject, and activity.

  • Another way to put it:

    I noticed in the article that there was some disagreement on the definition of “vibrancy,” and even “place-making.” I believe this to be a root cause for the difficulty of measuring the net benefits of placemaking. I associate the actualization of increased vibrancy with two things. First, vibrancy comes from an intensity and diversity of activities, with activities intended to meet human/communal needs and desires. For example, we eat to meet obvious needs, and the activity requires space for cooking and dining. We also tend to eat at specific places in a ritualistic fashion, for specific reasons. Second, I associate vibrancy with a constant recycling of resources. Meaning as vibrancy increases, less and less resources/capital/etc. are left idle. Everybody in the room is dancing, so to speak. Thus, placemaking can literally mean the creation/occupation of space by subject, object, and activity. Thus, “placemaking” is very-much related to the field of ergonomics rather than strictly economic development. The Latin root meaning of the word “factory” is “a place for creation.” It is a matter of making space for subjects and objects towards the end of allowing “room” for specific activities. A place, in a community setting, can become more vibrant through inter-generational collaboration. As, for example, retired persons tend to have an “over-accumulation crisis” of skills, tools, and machinery. It would not be a far-fetched to say that these individuals also have a strong inner-desire to donate these resources to their local community to see them put to productive use. At the same time, the youth tend to have a strong desire for learning, engagement, and social-interaction. Is there an activity that the community, or any sub-communities, want to engage in? Is there a secure location for this activity to take place? If not, why?

  • William Lutz

    I found this piece absolutely fascinating. It should be required reading for individuals in local government.

    I am a professional grant writer for a small city and my efforts are housed in the economic development and planning department and I see so many parallels between the issues with these grant-funded art programs and other grant-funded programs as well. There is such a push to develop, or even contrive, collaborative relationships that will be a catalyst for positive community momentum. Many governmental funders appear to still have the belief that by simply throwing money at even a poorly defined problem will make a difference, that in honesty, can’t be measure, let alone to determine if there is a causal relationship.

    It’s important to realize that small cities fall into this trap as well. Building that new bike path or redeveloping that downtown building will certainly improve a community’s asthetic appeal, but many times that all it does. It doesn’t make a community an ecnoomic driver, it just makes it prettier.

    The bottom line lesson for local government is that the list of things we can not control is much longer than the list of things we can control. We need to understand that and roll with the punches, so to speak.

  • Pingback: Issues of Outcomes and Measurement | Creative Infrastructure()

  • Pingback: Artengine Blog: Ottawa: Where strange things can grow()

  • Pingback: We are in your communities » C4 Atlanta()

  • Pingback: McKees Rocks Versus Millvale - Page 4 - City-Data Forum()

  • Pingback: Approaching (Vibrant) Clarity | Creative Infrastructure()

  • Kim Dunphy


    I’m delighted to hear the beginnings of a discussion re a logical approach to arts programming, planning and funding. Other fields of community change initiatives have got going with these useful ideas some time ago.

    What I’m interested in is the potential for these ideas to help us plan, fund, act and evaluate more effectively, so that we may be more successful at whaever we are trying to do; revitalise places, create peace, make beautiful art for people to enjoy, raise awareness about climate change, stimulate creativity…..

    Theory of change approaches seems to offer great potential. My PhD is exploring these ideas with respect to participatory arts that seek to contribute to positive social change.

  • Pingback: Main Street Arkansas Update – July 23, 2012 | Main Street Arkansas Blog()

  • Pingback: Expecting too much of creative placemaking? | ChangingMedia()

  • Pingback: Emerging Arts Professionals | Artist as Citizen: Art at the Center of Revitalization and Placemaking()

  • Pingback: Failure of Place and Economic Development -()

  • Pingback: Tuesday Links: Can’t Wait for the Christie’s Record Auction Trickle Down!()

  • Pingback: Emerging Arts Professionals SF/BA | Artist as Citizen: Art at the Center of Revitalization and Placemaking()