Our View of Creative Placemaking, Two Years In

"The Bridge" by artist Elena Colombo, image courtesy of ArtsQuest.

“The Bridge” by artist Elena Colombo, image courtesy of ArtsQuest (MICD25 grantee)

(As expected, Ann Markusen’s article Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data: Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success has provoked lots of discussion and reaction among the creative placemaking practitioner community. Much of this can be found in the comments to the original post; in particular I recommend John Carnwath’s extensive discussion of the costs and benefits of measurement in the arts. On top of that, we now have official responses from the two major national creative placemaking funders that were the subject of Ann’s critique. ArtPlace posted a detailed rebuttal last week on its website, and below we have an essay penned by National Endowment for the Arts Director of Design Jason Schupbach and Director, Office of Research and Analysis Sunil Iyengar. Enjoy. -IDM)

We continue to be grateful for the level of national discourse that has emerged since the National Endowment for the Arts’ introduction of Our Town, the federal government’s signature investment in creative placemaking. In particular, Createquity has published a number of blog posts that have provided us with valuable feedback. They have also raised insightful questions about the program resources and research needs for an initiative of this size and scale.

So much has been happening at the NEA  – and some of the most vibrant conversations have been based in part on incomplete or out-of-date information – that we thought it made sense to run through our accomplishments and goals, now that we are in the second year of Our Town grantmaking.  (If, after reading this post, you want to know even more about what is happening across the country, please take a look at the current issue of NEA Arts: “Arts and Culture at the Core: A Look at Creative Placemaking.”)



When Rocco Landesman arrived at the NEA in 2009, he put a name on something he saw happening all across this country, from the Little Haiti neighborhood in Miami, Florida, to the cultural district that sprang up around the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington: cities and towns were using the arts to help shape their social, physical, and economic characters. We were rich in anecdotes, but individual communities and organizations lacked the opportunity to connect with others doing similar work.

Like any good producer, Rocco realized that we could not create a community of practice without a name for our shared endeavor, and so the phrase “creative placemaking” was introduced into our national lexicon. Two efforts quickly followed: a white paper by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus that defined this sector of work, and a national convening of 40 experts in the arts, community development, and research.  This diverse group launched a conversation about how to measure the presence and impact of the arts in U.S. communities.


The grant program

Both of these efforts helped inform the design of Our Town, which makes grants to partnerships among arts and design organizations and local governments to increase community livability through the arts. By framing the conversation around how communities can use the arts to contribute positively to shared priorities, rather than adopting the more traditional approach of simply stating what the arts organizations would like to do and asking for support to do it, Our Town projects have attracted an impressively diverse range of partners.  These have included social service agencies, botanic gardens, schools, religious institutions, scientific organizations, local businesses, and business improvement districts.

Through two rounds, we have now invested more than $11.5 million in Our Town grants to 131 communities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Along the way, we learned an important lesson: creative placemaking is a big and inclusive tent, and in order to make sense of this emerging sector, we need to look at the specific sub-communities it contains.  As grant administrators, we find that it helps to consider Our Town projects in terms of these sub-communities at different points of the award cycle.

From a grant-making point of view, for example, we sort applications into three subsets for review: arts engagement projects, cultural planning and design projects, and projects in non-metro and tribal communities.  This is far from a mutually exclusive / completely exhaustive taxonomy, but for our review panels, this division allows Our Town grant applications to be examined in clusters that share similar opportunities, challenges, and access to resources.

Once the grants have been made, and we move into the mode of grants stewardship, it has made more sense for NEA staff to look at the projects based on the specific activities being undertaken.  This list is bound to change or grow, but to date,  Our Town grants tend to fall into these distinct categories: creating and strengthening artists’ work spaces; asset mapping/cultural district planning; creative industries and entrepreneurship; creating and strengthening cultural facilities; investing in festivals, performances, and other innovative arts programming; reinventing public spaces through creative uses; and the planning and implementation of temporary and permanent public art.

To varying degrees, this taxonomy has subsequently guided our work in evaluating grant projects, conducting national-level research, and creating communities of practice.  Let’s take each of these in turn.


Grant evaluation

At the NEA, every grant program must help achieve one of five outcomes: creation, engagement, learning, research, or livability. The Our Town grants are all measured against livability, and grantees report to us through a final descriptive report form specific to this outcome.

Unlike private endowment-driven funders, the NEA’s budget is allocated annually by Congress.  Despite our name, the NEA does not, in fact, have an endowment, and we are mandated to make our grant decisions anew each year. These facts mean that the NEA cannot commit to funding specific projects over long periods of time, as is the practice with many foundations. (Organizations may, of course, re-apply to the agency.) The ability to make a multi-year commitment to a grantee is the moral prerequisite for doing a multi-year evaluation of that project. So we look at each grantee’s project on its own terms and measure it against its contributions to community livability.

These final descriptive reports allow the NEA to make an evaluation of each grant, but they are also a foundational element in fulfilling our other responsibilities, including both our national research into creative placemaking and our work to build communities of practice.


National research

Following publication of the Creative Placemaking white paper, several organizations and individuals  approached us, requesting cost-effective solutions for better understanding and communicating the value their work added to their communities. Almost all of these groups were more than adept at documenting their work with images, video, and anecdote, but they lacked easy access to quantitative information.

We felt that we could play a key role in building an infrastructure to address this need. In order to better articulate the concept of livability that underpins the Our Town program, we posited a hypothesis that almost any successful creative placemaking project would make a difference to its community in at least one of four ways: strengthening the infrastructure that supports artists and arts organizations; increasing community attachment; improving quality of life; and/or driving local economies.

These particular dimensions of livability emerged from a review of extant literature, consultations with the field, and an initial review of grant applications.  It also grew apparent that these outcomes would be profoundly difficult to measure.  So we decided that an appropriate next step would be to develop a framework of arts and livability indicators that would help the field think constructively about how these concepts might be reflected in data already being collected. The indicators are not intended to measure exactly what is happening in creative placemaking projects; they are instead – as the name implies – meant to indicate conditions on the ground that reflect important dimensions of livability and provide insights into relationships that might exist, thus highlighting areas for further research.

By tracking outcomes that are already publicly reported and widely available, we should be able to provide a reasonably reliable indicator of changes to a community’s overall livability.  Are all or even some of these changes necessarily due to the presence of creative placemaking activities? Absolutely not–but at least they are the kinds of community-wide outcomes that should matter most to people and groups engaged in creative placemaking. By allowing such outcomes to be tracked easily, the indicators system will bypass the need for elaborate and expensive data collection tools and analytics on a project-by-project basis.

How will we know that the indicators we choose are the right ones? Because they will be based on a series of hypotheses soon to be tested in real communities.  For instance, we hypothesize that one indicator of a strengthened arts infrastructure might be an increase in the number of employees at arts organizations. An indicator of community attachment might be the average length that a citizen has lived in a community. An indicator of quality of life might be lower crime rates. And an indicator of a strong local economy might be the number of valid business addresses in a community. Each of these example indicators is based on information already collected and made available by the Census Bureau, the FBI, and the U.S. Postal Service.

We need to test each hypothesis in multiple communities because a single indicator may not work the same way in every place. For instance, at the NEA, we have spent a lot of time internally debating whether “length of commute” is a potential indicator for increased quality of life. Not surprisingly, those of us who live in urban centers think shorter commute times equate with a higher quality of life; and those of us who live in the suburbs and have chosen homes specifically further way from work, feel that longer commute times better correlate with a higher quality of life.

We are working with a team of researchers from the Urban Institute to explore these kinds of nuances for every indicator, testing and validating each hypothesis in multiple use cases and documenting the ways in which a single indicator is and is not an effective proxy. We are also working with and learning from other federal agencies that are similarly building indicator systems from nationally available data sets. It is possible to use an indicators system very effectively, indeed, but it is also all too easy to misuse one – and we want to do everything we can to avoid such pitfalls.

Our team will also assess whether the appropriate data can be accessed at the geographical level of detail we require. Recently, Ann Markusen shared a summary from Arizona State University Professor Emily Talen that was circulated on a listserv for urban planning researchers. This sort of granular investigation into the data available from, in this case, the American Community Survey is exactly the next order of business for our indicators team.  So we are, yet again, indebted to Ann.

If we are successful in creating this indicators framework, then the nation’s arts organizations will have free and easy access to a system that helps them begin to visualize and report on some of the things happening alongside their creative placemaking projects.  From a social science perspective, will these metrics prove a causal relationship?  Again, absolutely not.  But for citizens, funders, civic officials, and business leaders, they will provide a good indication of what is happening.  And when viewed alongside qualitative data from the projects themselves, the indicators may provide sufficient evidence to satisfy stakeholders who seek assurance of the projects’ overall value. Others may wish to know more, and if so, the indicators and the qualitative data lay the foundation for further research and project-specific evaluation.

We believe this approach will help demystify data for organizations involved in creative placemaking.  An organization might be brilliant at developing an outdoor festival that would literally bring art into the center of the public square.  It might also excel at documenting the resulting changes it can observe in the surrounding neighborhood.  But it may not be skilled at identifying and analyzing data sets, and it may not have the time or the funds to undertake an expensive and exhaustive research project.  These organizations are exactly the target audience for our framework, since we will publish – in plain language ­– the data sets that pass our national validation tests and explain how to extricate only the data that are relevant to, in this case, innovative arts programming.

Photograph by Robert Allen, copyright Trey McIntyre Project, all rights reserved.

Photograph by Robert Allen, copyright Trey McIntyre Project (Our Town grantee).


Communities of practice

Taken together, these quantitative and qualitative impacts will allow the NEA to help connect and support communities of practice in creative placemaking.

We have issued an RFP for help in producing documentation that looks at each of the Our Town grantees and asks: what did you set out to do with your project; how did you go about doing your project; how do you know whether you succeeded; and what would you do differently having been through what you went through?

The field has been clamoring for “how-to” information. By combining the final descriptive reports from the Our Town grants, the indicators framework, and the in-depth documentation of each project, we will be able to play matchmaker.

A community that wants examples of successful, federally funded projects can comb through our analysis of the NEA’s final descriptive reports to learn which other communities have succeeded.

A community that would like to make a major investment in public art will be able to parse the in-depth descriptions of public art projects to see what lessons they can learn.

Even prior to all of those resources being available, we have started trying to create cross-community connections by having Our Town panelists share their insights and experiences in a series of archived webinars.  We will do even more of these in the coming months, featuring grantees.


Moving forward

We are really only two years into this work, and are proud of all that we have been able to accomplish. But we are also humbled by the work ahead. The good news is that there continues to be national energy and excitement around creative placemaking, and we are eager for any or all feedback.

We hope that there will continue to be a robust conversation in blogs, on listserves, and throughout the Twittersphere. And we also hope that people will continue to feel free to interact directly with the agency. We are always eager to hear from you at schupbachj@arts.gov or iyengars@arts.gov.


Createquity Office Hours in NYC December 6

Our inaugural Createquity Office Hours event in Chicago earlier this month was a success, so we’re giving it another go in New York next week! Createquity Writing Fellows past and present Katherine Gressel, Jennifer Kessler, and Jacquelyn Strycker will join me at Concrete Bar, conveniently located on West 37th St. As a reminder, Createquity Office Hours is an informal gathering in which we turn a bar into Arts Nerd Central. Come with your questions, ideas, requests for career advice, whatever — it’s great way for us to get to know some of you a little better and, more importantly, for you all to meet each other. Looking forward to it!

Createquity Office Hours: New York
Thursday, December 6
Concrete (look for us upstairs)
320 West 37th Street
New York, NY
RSVP here

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Around the horn: cease fire edition



  • Victoria Hamilton has moved on from her post as founding executive director of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.


  • Why we need arts policy: multi-millionaire financial mogul, founder of a mysterious firm that makes its money executing high-speed trades to exploit market arbitrage opportunities, has left his day job to focus instead on establishing “free art schools in Anguilla, the Dominican Republic, Pennsylvania, Sri Lanka and Thailand” to teach poor students the craft of photorealistic painting. Said donor thinks this is going to “change the art world” and is developing luxury hotels to put alongside the schools.



  • I was totally going to write a post-election blog post that was all like, “are arts organizations the Republican Party of the creative economy?” and then Trevor O’Donnell went and did it for me.
  • Michael Kaiser has caught a fair amount of flak from arts managers of my generation before, but I suspect they’ll be pleased with this column of his.
  • More evidence of Nina Simon’s awesomeness: she’s designing a You Can’t Do That in Museums summer camp (tagline: “You Can. We Will.”) to be held in Santa Cruz next July.

    This camp will be a 2.5 day event at which participants work in teams with pre-selected permanent collection objects to create an exhibition full of intriguing, unusual, risky experiences. If you’ve ever wanted to design an object-based exhibit that really pushed the boundaries, this is the event for you. Registration will be $150 and by application only. We will also offer a half-day series of workshops on July 10 for a wider audience for $50. Yes you can sleepover at the museum to heighten the insanity and reduce the cost. No you don’t have to be a museum professional to participate. Yes you can apply now. Please do.

  • And here’s Nina’s TEDxSantaCruz talk on opening up museums (with her own as Exhibit A).


  • Last year, I went to the Independent Sector conference on scholarship from the Ford Foundation and had a great experience learning from my peers across the nonprofit space. I wasn’t able to attend this year, but Nonprofit Law Blog’s Gene Takagi went and brings us this report in two parts.
  • National Arts Strategies is posting a bunch of videos in connection with the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Leaders - interviews with the young leaders themselves, as well as more established folk like Diane Ragsdale.


  • Is there a link between creativity and mental illness? A new study suggests yes, but this fantastically thorough analysis by Keith Sawyer urges skepticism of the results.
  • The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation has released a report recapping a 2011 convening called “Strengthening the Bones.”
  • Phil Buchanan speaks the hard truth: “For Markets For Good to result in meaningful change, a big part of the emphasis must be foundations stepping up and supporting the development of good, credible data and robust nonprofit performance management systems.”
  • The Foundation Center has re-launched IssueLab, a repository for research of all kinds within the nonprofit sector.
  • The first studies funded through the NEA Art Works: Research program are starting to come out. Here’s one about the link between arts participation and civic engagement in the 2002 General Social Survey. As always, correlation does not equal causation.
  • Maria Rosario Jackson’s latest (and, presumably, last) publication for Leveraging Investments in Creativity explores artist-driven spaces in marginalized communities.
  • Guy Yedwab demonstrates how it’s possible to create useful graphs from Fractured Atlas fiscal sponsorship data. Good call too to create budgets in the same format that you’ll have to report them in (for most people, this is the Cultural Data Project or something like it).

Late fall public arts funding update


The National Endowment for the Arts will soon have a new Chairman. Rocco Landesman announced yesterday his plans to retire at the end of the year, in a decision widely anticipated among arts insiders. Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa will serve as acting chair until a successor is named.

The Supreme Court will consider a case involving first sale doctrine and whether consumers have the right to resell copyrighted items bought abroad in the United States. The New York Times comes out in favor of copyright holders on this one. I’m more skeptical though – limiting consumers’ rights in this way seems like a recipe for convoluted legal restrictions and the Grey Lady offers no prescriptions for how the limitations should be put into practice. Meanwhile, the FCC is adopting new regulations pertaining to the use of wireless microphones (relevant for some large theaters and performing arts centers).

What do this month’s election results mean for copyright, anyway? Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman speculate that in the short term, we probably won’t see any major (successful) efforts to expand copyright protection, especially with two of Hollywood’s favorite pro-copyright Congressmen, Howard Berman and Mary Bono Mack, losing their elections. In the longer term, we may see Republicans try to pursue a libertarian line on copyright in an effort to draw a wedge between Democrats and younger voters. I’m not sure how well that would work, but there is already evidence that, among its many civil wars, there is also a generational divide among Republicans on this issue. Last week, the conservative Republican Study Committee released and then pulled a memo by 24-year-old Congressional staffer Derek Khanna advocating for meaningful copyright reform. Future of Music Coalition’s Casey Rae has more.


Denver’s arts community is in an unusual situation, finding itself with $57 million in publicly approved bond money for capital construction to spend after a planned renovation of Boettcher Concert Hall failed to go through. The mayor has submitted a list of recommendations redirecting the cash to nine institutions. Denver’s not the only city with new publicly approved money for the arts: as previously reported here, the city of Portland, OR’s Regional Arts and Culture Commission will get $5.7 million a year in new arts funding because of a recently passed ballot measure. Eloise Damrosch explains how it happened.

Obviously inspired by the recent passage of a millage (property tax) to support the Detroit Institute of Arts, arts advocates in Ann Arbor put a similar millage proposal on the ballot for this month’s elections – this time to support public art. The measure would have cost taxpayers $11 per year and raised about $450,000 for public art programs, but failed to garner enough votes to pass on Election Day. Aaron Seagraves, Ann Arbor’s public art administrator who is interviewed in the article, says he doesn’t know why the measure didn’t pass, but I’m guessing the DIA’s $2.5 million advocacy campaign (and presumably the lack of same in Ann Arbor) might have had something to do with it.


For the second Createquity update in a row, the arts policy news from abroad ranges from inconvenient to tragic. Canada’s oldest arts advocacy group, the Canadian Conference of the Arts, is no more. The organization had received continuous funding from the federal government since 1965 which represented about three-quarters of its budget, but Canada’s conservative leaders decided to cut the cord. CCA had at times been critical of government-supported policies, though the decision appears to have been more financial than political. Advocacy is not completely dead in Canada, though – Shannon Litzenberger has a report from the all-volunteer Canadian Arts Coalition’s Arts Day festivities (similar to Americans for the Arts’s Arts Advocacy Day).

In the UK, Arts Council England is reducing its staff by 21% as part of a previously negotiated agreement with the government, and Creative Scotland is adjusting its grantmaking procedures in the face of artist concerns. Folks don’t seem to be happy with the general direction of things. In Newcastle, the local government has cut all funding to the arts for a whopping £90 million savings, losing 1300 jobs in the process – similarly drastic cuts had already happened in the cities of Somerset, Derby, and Darlington.

A very sad story comes from Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the 124-year-old National Museum is closing due to lack of funds. The museum, in Sarajevo, is the victim of a political crisis that is destabilizing the government of the young country. Several other revered cultural institutions are in danger of failing as well. Things are a little better in Greece, where Ira-Ilana Papadopoulou reports on how the economic crisis there has affected the cultural sector.

Even sadder news continues to come from the Muslim world, as news of arts-related tragedies attributable to conflict or oppression continues to pour in. In Syria, the ancient city of Aleppo is losing its cultural heritage in the wake of the civil war taking place there. In Mali, where the militant group Ansar Dine has already destroyed mosques in the ancient city of Timbuktu, Salafists are now threatening and harassing musicians. In Somalia, a popular poet, playwright and songwriter was assassinated in Mogadishu by Al Queda-aligned group Al-Shabab. Astonishingly, he is the 18th media figure killed by the group this year. Iran, thankfully, is not beset with this kind of violence, but its national orchestra is virtually dead in the face of financial difficulties and political pressure.

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Cool jobs of the month

Program Officer, Brooklyn Community Foundation

Brooklyn Community Foundation seeks a Program Officer to be responsible for two of its key field of interest funds: Arts for All and Caring Neighbors. The Program Officer will be responsible for all aspects of grant making in these areas, including initial review and research, site visits, internal presentations and post award evaluations. The Program Officer will report to the Foundation’s senior Program Director, and work closely with the President, Chief Operating Officer and other members of the foundation staff.

No deadline.

Communications Director, The Surdna Foundation

In this newly created role, the Communications Director will develop and implement communications strategies aimed at amplifying and advancing the Foundation’s funding priorities and social change ambitions. S/he will increase Surdna’s communications capacity thereby enabling the Foundation to better inform, engage and influence priority audiences and allow Surdna to use its voice more strategically. The Director will report to the Senior Director for Programs and Strategies and will work closely with the President, Program Directors, Office of Grants Management and Systems, Program Officers, and Program Associates.

No deadline.

Research and Evaluation Manager, Los Angeles County Arts Commission

The Los Angeles County Arts Commission seeks a full-time Research and Evaluation Manager to provide in-house expertise on program research, needs assessment, evaluation design and methodologies, program monitoring, and outcome measurement. This position will work alongside the Arts Commission’s programs, which include $4.1 million in annual support to over 350 small, midsize and large arts organizations; professional development for arts organizations; paid summer internships in nonprofit arts organizations for undergraduate students; leadership for the implementation of Arts for All, the County’s strategic plan to restore public arts education; programming the Ford Amphitheatre, a 1,240 seat historic outdoor amphitheatre; producing a live annual Holiday Celebration also broadcast on KCET; and integrating the work of artists into the planning, design and construction of Los Angeles County infrastructure and facilities through the Civic Art Program.

No deadline, but applications will start being reviewed December 1. Salary range is $70,000-92,000.

Also, the Technology in the Arts blog just posted this great list of arts job listing websites.

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Around the horn: Four more years edition


  • As you know, there was an election last week, and Barack Obama won it. Thankfully this means that Barry Hessenius’s worst fears about the NEA likely won’t be realized, but Barry does have some useful advocacy advice that is worth a read regardless of the outcome. Ted Johnson has a helpful pre-election analysis of issues relevant to Hollywood in the election. Americans for the Arts has been active too: Jay Dick offers a post-election advocacy to-do list, and the Arts Action Fund offers a thorough roundup of the election results and their implications. Among the lesser-known developments include the fact that many moderate Republican legislators in Kansas who stood up for arts funding in that state lost their primaries to more conservative challengers; similarly, several pro-arts Republicans in Congress have either retired or lost their seats, further polarizing the parties in their orientation toward arts funding. On the plus side, two cities – Portland, OR and Austin, TX – passed pro-arts ballot measures.
  • The final version of the Chicago Cultural Plan has been released - with a new arts education plan for Chicago Public Schools to boot.



  • Orchestral musician labor disputes are in the news again, and nowhere is the hotbed hotter than in freezing Minnesota, where both the Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber Orchestras face work stoppages. Eric Nilsson says neither side is fully accepting reality, and even the Minneapolis City Council is getting involved. Both groups have canceled performances through the end of 2012, and musicians are starting to look for jobs elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Spokane (WA) Symphony is on strike and canceling performances.
  • I’m intrigued by this announcement of SphinxCon, a new diversity summit organized by Sphinx, a Detroit-based organization dedicated to cultivating more musicians of color in classical music. Aaron Dworkin and company have managed to pull together a pretty incredible speaker list pairing (mostly white) arts service organization leaders with a largely non-white group of artists, academics, and other perspectives. Who knows if it’ll lead to anything, but it seems like the ingredients for a real conversation are there.


  • I can’t emphasize enough how important this 282-word blog post from Adam Thurman is. Adam has a gift for concision, and his three-part distinction between making art, making money doing art, and making a living from art is essential for artists and policymakers alike. And speaking of Adam’s genius, this post on arts marketing (featuring the memorable quotes, “[Y]ou are probably ok with whatever you did last night.  Maybe you watched TV, maybe you read a book, maybe you got drunk and did lines of cocaine.  Whatever you did, you were ok with it.” and “The reality is that if these [new] audiences never come your way they will be fine.  You, on the other hand, will be in serious trouble.”) is well worth a read too.
  • Stephanie N. Stallings thinks jazz could use some binders full of women and speculates that hip-hop has overtaken it as America’s greatest cultural diplomacy tool.
  • Over at Next American City, Neeraj Mehta considers the “who” of creative placemaking (as in, “who benefits?”).
  • So Google’s getting into the virtual museum business now?
  • Online higher education banned in Minnesota, then reinstated.
  • Chad Bauman writes eloquently on the symbiosis between an arts community and its local newspaper – and what it means that so many of those newspapers seem to be hanging on by a thread.
  • Eric Booth submits a lengthy dispatch from the first international Teaching Artist Conference in Oslo.


  • A new report from Emerson College’s Center for the Theater Commons, authored by Diane Ragsdale, examines the relationship between nonprofit and commercial theater.
  • Chorus America has released its Choral Operations Survey Report for 2012.
  • I’m looking forward to seeing the results of what looks like a very strong study being undertaken by the LA Philharmonic, USC, and Heart of Los Angeles to investigate the impact of early childhood music training. Meanwhile, a just-released report from Carnegie Hall and WolfBrown examines the potential for music to make a difference in the juvenile justice system.
  • If you’ve ever doubted me that logic models matter, check out this analysis of the difficulties faced by One Laptop Per Child, a hugely ambitious, billion-dollar initiative to develop and distribute low-cost laptops to schoolchildren in developing countries. The passage below is an eloquent depiction of how failing to think through the details of a strategy can mean its doom:

    Doing an end-run around lousy infrastructure and poorly-trained teachers might actually work with the right support to guide the child’s learning. Unfortunately, Negroponte has also stated that you actually can give a kid a laptop and walk away.

    According to Jeff Patzer, a former OLPC intern, that’s precisely what they did in Peru. Hardware degraded faster than expected, and OLPC allowed Peru to build its own branch of the system software that was incompatible with patches. Interns were not prepared to educate teachers, and teachers were not prepared to use the XO to teach students.

    “The only thing that happens is the laptops get opened, turned on, kids and teachers get frustrated by hardware and software bugs, don’t understand what to do, and promptly box them up to put back in the corner.” Patzer explained.


  • Joe Queenan on having read more than 6000 books. My favorite part of this column is the fact that, because it’s in the Wall Street Journal, his offhand mention of Williams Sonoma is accompanied by its latest stock quote.
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Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data: Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” -Ansel Adams
Photo by beast love

(If you don’t know the name Ann Markusen, you should. As professor and director of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Ann has become one of the most respected and senior voices in the arts research community over the past decade. Among her best-known recent efforts was her authorship, with Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, of the original Creative Placemaking white paper published by the NEA prior to the creation of the Our Town grant program and ArtPlace funder collaborative. So when she approached me to offer a guest post on evaluation challenges for creative placemaking, building on previous coverage of the topic here at Createquity, I could hardly say no. I hope you enjoy Ann’s piece and I look forward to the vigorous discussion it will no doubt spark. -IDM)


Creative placemaking is electrifying communities large and small around the country. Mayors, public agencies and arts organizations are finding each other and committing to new initiatives. That’s a wonderful thing, whether or not their proposals are funded by national initiatives such as the National Endowment for the Arts’s Our Town program or ArtPlace.

It’s important to learn from and improve our practices on this new and so promising terrain. But efforts based on fuzzy concepts and indicators designed to rely on data external to the funded projects are bound to disappoint. Our evaluative systems must nurture rather than discourage the marvelous moving of arts organizations, artists and arts funders out of their bunkers and into our neighborhoods as leaders, animators, and above all, exhibitors of the value of arts and culture.

In our 2010 Creative Placemaking white paper for the NEA, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus and I characterize creative placemaking as a process where “partners… shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” A prominent ambition, we wrote, is to “bring diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.”  Creative placemaking also “animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, (and) improves local business viability and public safety,” but arts and culture are at its core. This definition suggests a number of distinctive arenas of experimentation, where the gifts of the arts are devoted to community liveliness and collaborative problem-solving and where new people participate in the arts and share their cultures.

And, indeed, Our Town and ArtPlace encourage precisely this experimental ferment. Like the case studies in Creative Placemaking, each funded project is unique in its artistic disciplines, scale, problems addressed and aspirations for its particular place. Thus, a good evaluation system will monitor the progress of each project team towards its stated goals, including revisions made along the way. NEA’s Our Town asks grant-seekers to describe how they intend to evaluate their work, and ArtPlace requires a monthly blog entry. But rather than more formally evaluate each project’s progress over time, both funders have developed and are compiling place-specific measures based on external data sources that they will use to gauge success: the Arts and Livability Indicators  in the case of the NEA, and what ArtPlace is calling its Vibrancy Indicators.

Creative placemaking funders are optimistic about these efforts and their usefulness. “Over the next year or two,” wrote Jason Schupbach, NEA’s Director of Design, last May, “we will build out this system and publish it through a website so that anyone who wants to track a project’s progress in these areas (improved local community of artists and arts organizations, increased community attachment, improved quality of life, invigorated local economies) will be able to do so, whether it is NEA-funded or not. They can simply enter the time and geography parameters relevant to their project and see for themselves.”

Over the past two years, I have been consulting with creative placemaking leaders and given talks to audiences in many cities and towns across the country and abroad. Increasingly, I am hearing distress on the part of creative placemaking practitioners about the indicator initiatives of the National Endowment for the Arts and ArtPlace. At the annual meetings of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture last month, my fellow Creative Placemaking panel members, all involved in one or more ArtPlace- or Our-Town-funded projects, expressed considerable anxiety and confusion about these indicators and how they are being constructed. In particular, many current grantee teams with whom I’ve spoken are baffled by the one-measure-fits-all nature of the indicators, especially in the absence of formal and case-tailored evaluation.

I’ll confess I’m an evidence gal. I fervently believe in numbers where they are a good measure of outcomes; in secondary data like Census and the National Center for Charitable Statistics where they are up to the task; in surveys where no such data exist; in case studies to illuminate the context, process, and the impacts people tangibly experience; in interviews to find out how actors make decisions and view their own performance. My own work over the past decade is riddled with examples of these practices, including appendices intended to make the methodology and data used as transparent as possible.

So I embrace the project of evaluation, but am skeptical of relying on indicators for this purpose. In pursuing a more effective course, we can learn a lot from private sector venture capital practices, the ways that foundations conduct grantee evaluations, and, for political pitfalls, defense conversion placemaking experiments of the 1990s.


Learning from Venture Capital and Philanthropy

How do private sector venture capital (VC) firms evaluate the enterprises they invest in? Although they target rates of return in the longer run, they not do resort to indicators based on secondary data to evaluate progress. They closely monitor their investees—small firms who often have little business experience, just as many creative placemaking teams are new to their terrain. VC firms play an active role in guiding youthful companies, giving them feedback germane to their product or service goals. They help managers evaluate their progress and bring in special expertise where needed.

Venture capital firms are patient, understanding realistic timelines. The rule of thumb is that they commit to five to seven years, though it may be less or more. Among our Creative Placemaking cases, few efforts succeeded in five years, while some took ten to fifteen years.

VC firms know that some efforts will fail. They are attentive to learning from such failures and sharing what they learn in generic form with the larger business community. Both ArtPlace and the NEA have stated their desire to learn from success and failure. Yet generic indicators, their chosen evaluation tools, are neither patient or tailored to specific project ambitions. Current Our Town and ArtPlace grant recipients worry that the 1-2 years of funding they’re getting won’t be enough to carry projects through to success or establish enough local momentum to be self-sustaining. Neither ArtPlace nor Our Town have a realistic exit strategy in place for their investments, other than “the grant period’s over, good luck!”

Hands-on guidance is not foreign to nonprofit philanthropies funding the arts.  Many arts program officers act as informal consultants and mentors to young struggling arts organizations and to mature ones facing new challenges. My study with Amanda Johnson of Artists’ Centers shows how Minnesota funders have played such roles for decades. They ask established arts executive directors to mentor new start-ups, a process that the latter praised highly as crucial to their success. The Irvine and Hewlett Foundations are currently funding California nonprofit intermediaries to help small, folk and ethnic organizations use grant monies wisely. They also pay for intermediaries across sectors (arts and culture, health, community development and so on) to meet together to learn what works best.

The NEA has hosted three webinars at which Our Town panelists talk about what they see as effective projects/proposals, a step in this direction. But these discussions are far from a systematic gathering and collating of experience from all grantees in ways that would help the cohorts learn and contact those with similar challenges.


The Indicator Impetus

Why are the major funders of creative placemaking staking so much on indicators rather than evaluating projects on their own aspirations and steps forward? Pressure from the Office of Management and Budget, the federal bean-counters, is one factor.  In January of 2011, President Obama signed into law the Government Performance and Modernization Act (GPRA), updating the original 1993 GPRA, and a new August 2012 Circular A11 heavily emphasizes use of performance indicators for all agencies and their programs.

As a veteran of research and policy work on scientific and engineering occupations and on industrial sectors like steel and the military industrial complex, I fear that others will perceive indicator mania as a sign of field weakness. To Ian David Moss’s provocative title “Creative Placemaking has an Outcomes Problem,” I’d reply that we’re in good company. Huge agencies of the federal government, like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and NASA, fund experiments and exploratory development without asking that results be held up to some set of external indicators not closely related to their missions. They accept slow progress and even failure, as in cancer research or nuclear fusion, because the end goal is worthy and because we learn from failure. Evaluation by external generic indicators fails to acknowledge the experimental and ground-breaking nature of these creative-placemaking initiatives and misses an opportunity to bolster understanding of how arts and cultural missions create public value.


Why Indicators Will Disappoint I: Definitional Challenges

Many of the indicators charted in ArtPlace, NEA Our Town, and other exercises (e.g. WESTAF’s Creative Vitality Index) bear a tenuous relationship to the complex fabric of communities or specific creative placemaking initiatives. Terms like “vitality,” “vibrancy,” and “livability” are great examples of fuzzy concepts, a notion that I used a decade ago to critique planners and geographers’ enamoration with concepts like “world cities” and “flexible specialization.” A fuzzy concept is one that means different things to different people, but flourishes precisely because of its imprecision. It leaves one open to trenchant critiques, as in Thomas Frank’s recent pillorying of the notion of vibrancy.

Take livability, for instance, prominent in the NEA’s indicators project. One person’s quality of life can be inimical to others’. Take the young live music scene in cities: youth magnet, older resident nightmare.  Probably no worthy concept, as quality of life is, has been the subject of so many disappointing and conflicting measurement exercises.

Just what does vibrancy mean? Let’s try to unpack the term. ArtPlace’s definition: “we define vibrancy as places with an unusual scale and intensity of specific kinds of human interaction.” Pretty vague and….vibrancy are places?  Unusual scale? Scale meaning extensive, intensive? Of specific kinds? What kinds? This definition is followed by: “While we are not able to measure vibrancy directly, we believe that the measures we are assembling, taken together, will provide useful insights into the nature and location of especially vibrant places within communities.”  If I were running a college or community discussion session on this, I would put the terms “vibrancy, places, communities, measures,” and so on up on the board (so to speak), and we would undoubtedly have a spirited and inconclusive debate!

And what is the purpose of measuring vibrancy? Again from the same ArtPlace LOI: “…the purpose of our vibrancy metrics is not to pronounce some projects ‘successes’ and other projects ‘failures’ but rather to learn more about the characteristics of the projects and community context in which they take place which leads to or at least seems associated with improved places.” Even though the above description mentions “characteristics of the projects,” it’s notable that their published vibrancy indicators only measure features of place.

In fact, many of the ArtPlace and NEA indicators are roughly designed and sometime in conflict. While giving the nod to “thriving in place,” ArtPlace emphasizes the desirability of visitors in its vibrancy definition (meaning outsiders to the community); by contrast, the NEA prioritizes social cohesion and community attachment, attributes scarce in the ArtPlace definitions. For instance, ArtPlace proposes to use employment ratio—“the number of employed residents living in a particular geography (Census Block) and dividing that number by the working age persons living on that same block” as a measure of people-vibrancy. The rationale: “vibrant neighborhoods have a high fraction of their residents of working age who are employed.” Think of the large areas of new non-mixed use upscale high-rise condos where the mostly young professional people living there commute daily to jobs and nightly to bars and cafes outside the neighborhood. Not vibrant at all. But such areas would rank high using this measure.

ArtPlace links vibrancy with diversity, defined as heterogeneity of people by income, race and ethnicity. They propose “the racial and ethnic diversity index” (composition not made explicit) and “the mixed-income, middle income index” (ditto) to capture diversity. But what about age diversity? Shouldn’t we want intergenerational activity and encounters too? It is also problematic to prioritize the dilution of ethnicity in large enclaves of recent immigrant groups. Would a thriving heavily Vietnamese city or suburb be considered non-vibrant because its residents choose to live and build their cultural institutions there, facing discrimination in other housing markets? Would an ethnic neighborhood experiencing white hipster incursions be evaluated positively despite decline in its minority populations that result from lower income people being forced out?

Many of the NEA’s indicators are similarly fuzzy. As an indicator of impact on art communities and artists, its August 2012 RFP proposes median earnings for residents employed in entertainment-related industries (arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations). But a very large number of people in these occupations are in sports and media fields, not the arts. The measure does not include artists who live outside the area but work there. And many artists self-report their industry as other than the one listed above, e.g. musicians work in the restaurant sector, and graphic artists work in motion pictures, publishing and so on. ArtPlace is proposing to use very similar indicators—creative industry jobs and workers in creative occupations—as measures of vibrancy.

It is troubling that neither indicator-building effort has so far demonstrated a willingness to digest and share publicly the rich, accessible, and cautionary published research that tackles many of these definitions. See for instance “Defining the Creative Economy: Industry and Occupational Approaches,” the joint effort by researchers Doug DeNatale and Greg Wassall from the New England Creative Economy Project, Randy Cohen of Americans for the Arts, and me at the Arts Economy Initiative to unpack the definitional and data challenges for measuring arts-related jobs and industries in Economic Development Quarterly.

Hopefully, we can have an engaging debate about these notions before indices are cranked out and disseminated. Heartening signs: in its August RFP, the NEA backtracks from its original plan, unveiled in a spring 2012 webinar, to contract for wholesale construction of a given set of indicators to be distributed to grantees. Instead, it is now contracting for the testing of indicator suitability by conducting twenty case studies. And just last week, the NEA issued a new RFP for developing a virtual storybook to document community outcomes, lessons learned and experiences associated with their creative placemaking projects.


Why Indicators Will Disappoint II: Dearth of Good Data

If definitional problems aren’t troubling enough, think about the sheer inadequacy of data sources available for creating place-specific indicators.

For more than a half-century, planning and economic development scholars have been studying places and policy interventions to judge success or failure. Yet when Anne Gadwa Nicodemus went in search of research results on decades of public housing interventions, assuming she could build on these for her evaluation of Artspace Projects’ artist live/work and studio buildings, she found that they don’t really exist.

Here are five serious operational problems confronting creative placemaking indicator construction. First, the dimensions to be measured are hard to pin down. Some of the variables proposed are quite problematic—they don’t capture universal values for all people in the community.

Take ArtPlace’s cell phone activity indicator, for instance, which will be used on nights and weekends to map where people congregate. Are places with cell activity to be judged as more successful at creative placemaking? Cell phone usage is heavily correlated with age, income and ethnicity. The older you are, the less likely you are to have a cell phone or use it much, and the more likely to rely on land-lines, which many young people do without. At the November 2012 American Collegiate Schools of Planning annual meetings, Brettany Shannon of University of Southern California presented research results from a survey of 460 LA bus riders showing low cell phone usage rates among the elderly, particularly Latinos. Among those aged 18-30, only 9% of English speakers and 15% of Spanish speakers had no cell phone, compared with 29% of English speakers over age 50 and 54% of Spanish speakers.  A cell phone activity measure is also likely to completely miss people attending jazz or classical music concerts, dramas, and religious cultural events where cell phones are turned off. And what about all those older folks who prefer to sit in coffee shops and talk to each other during the day, play leadership roles in the community through face-to-face work, or meet and engage in arts and cultural activities around religious venues? Aren’t they congregating, too?

Or take home ownership and home values, an indicator the NEA hopes to use. Hmmm… home ownership rates—and values—in the US have been falling, in large part due to overselling of homes during the housing bubble. Renting is a just as respectable an option for place lovers, especially young people, retirees, and lower-income people in general. Why would we want grantees to aspire to raise homeownership rates in their neighborhoods, especially given gentrification concerns? Home ownership does not insulate you against displacement, because as property values rise, property taxes do as well, driving out renters and homeowners alike on fixed or lower incomes. ArtPlace is developing “measures of value, which capture changes in rental and ownership values…” This reads like an invitation to gentrification, and contrary to the NEA’s aspirations for creative placemaking to support social cohesion and community attachment.

Second, most good secondary data series are not available at spatial scales corresponding to grantees’ target places. ArtPlace’s vibrancy exercise aspires to compare neighborhoods with other neighborhoods, but available data makes this task almost impossible to accomplish at highly localized scales. Some data points, like arts employment by industry, are available only down to the county level and only for more heavily populated counties because of suppression problems (and because they are lumped together with sports and media in some data sets). Good data on artists from the Census (Public Use Microdata Sample) and American Community Surveys, the only database that includes the self-employed and unemployed, can’t be broken down below PUMA (Public Use Microdata Areas) of 100,000 people that bear little relationship to real neighborhoods or city districts (see Crossover, where we mapped artists using 2000 PUMS data for the Los Angeles and Bay Area metros).

Plus, many creative placemaking efforts have ambitions to have an impact at multiple scales. Gadwa Nicodemus’s pioneering research studies, How Artist Space Matters and How Art Spaces Matter II, looked in hindsight at Artspace’s artist live/work and mixed use projects where the criteria for success varied widely between projects and for various stakeholders involved in each.  Artists, nonprofit arts organizations, and commercial enterprises (e.g. cafes) in the buildings variously hoped that the project would an impact on the regional arts community, neighborhood commercial activity and crime rates, and local property values. The research methods included surveys and interviews exploring whether the goals of the projects have been achieved in the experience of target users. Others involve complex secondary data manipulation to come up with indicators that are a good fit. Gadwa Nicodemus’s studies demonstrate how much work it is to document real impact along several dimensions, multiple spatial scales, and a long enough time periods to ensure a decent test. Her indicators, such as hedonic price indices to gauge area property value change, are sophisticated, but also very time- and skill-intensive to construct.

Third, even if you find data that address what you hope to achieve, they are unlikely be statistically significant at the scales you hope for. In our work with PUMS data from the 2000 Census, a very reliable 5% sample, we found we could not make reliable estimates of artist populations at anything near a neighborhood scale. To map the location of artists in Minneapolis, we had to carve the city into three segments based on PUMA lines, and even then, we were pushing the statistical reliability hard (Artists’ Centers, Figure 3, p. 108).

Some researchers are beginning to use the American Community Survey, a 1% sample much smaller than the decennial Census PUMS 5%, to build local indicators, heedless of this statistical reliability challenge. ArtPlace, for instance, is proposing to use ACS data to capture workers in creative occupations at the Census Tract level. See the statistical appendix to Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC)’s Creative Communities Artist Data User Guide  for a detailed explanation of this problem. Adding the ACS up over five years, one way of improving reliability, is problematic if you are trying to show change over a short period of time, which the creative placemaking indicators presumably aspire to do.

Fourth, charting change over time successfully is a huge challenge. ArtPlace intends to “assess the level of vibrancy of different areas within communities, and importantly, to measure changes in vibrancy over time in the communities where ArtPlace invests.” How can we expect projects that hope to change the culture, participation, physical environment and local economy to show anything in a period of one, two, three years? More ephemeral interventions may only have hard-to-measure impacts in the year that they happen, even if they catalyze spinoff activities, while the potentially clearer impact of brick-and-mortar projects may take years to materialize.

We know from our case studies and from decades of urban planning and design experience that changes in place take long periods of time. For example, Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District, a case study in Creative Placemaking, required at least five years for vision and conversations to translate into a feasibility study, another few years to build the streetscape and renovate the two existing shuttered theatres, and more to build the new one.

Because it’s unlikely that the data will be good enough to chart creative placemaking projects’ progress over time, we are likely to see indicators used in a very different and pernicious way – to compare places with each other in the current time period. But every creative placemaking initiative is very, very different from others, and their current rankings on these measures more apt to reflect long-time neighborhood evolution and particularities rather than the impact of their current activities. I can just see creative placemakers viewing such comparisons and throwing their hands up in the air, shouting, “but.. but…but, our circumstances are not comparable!”

One final indicator challenge. As far as I can tell, there are very few arts and cultural indicators included among the measures under consideration. Where is the mission of bringing diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired? Shouldn’t creative placemaking advance the intrinsic values and impact of the arts? Heightened and broadened arts participation? Preserving cultural traditions? Better quality art offerings? Providing beauty, expression, and critical perspectives on our society? Are artists and arts organizations whose greatest talents lie in the arts world to be judged only on their impact outside of this core? Though arts participation is measurable, many of the these “intrinsic” outcomes are challenging data-wise, just as are many of the “instrumental’ outcomes given central place in current indicator efforts. WolfBrown now offers a website that aims to “change the conversation about the benefits of arts participation, disseminate up-to-date information on emerging practices in impact assessment, and encourage cultural organizations to embrace impact assessment as standard operating practice.”


The Political Dangers of Relying on Indicators

I fear three kinds of negative political responses to reliance on poorly-defined and operationalized indicators.  First, it could be off-putting to grantees and would-be grantees, including mayors, arts organizations, community development organizations and the many other partners to these projects. It could be baffling, even angering, to be served up a book of cooked indicators with very little fit to one’s project and aspirations and to be asked to make sense out of them. The NEA’s recent RFP calls for the development of a user guide with some examples, which will help. Those who have expressed concern report hearing back something like “don’t worry about it – we’re not going to hold you to any particular performance on these. They are just informational for you.” Well, but then why invest in these indicators if they aren’t going to be used for evaluation after all?!

Second, creative placemaking grants create competitors, and that means they are generating losers as well as winners.  Some who aren’t funded the first time try again, and some are sanguine and grateful that they were prompted to make the effort and form a team. But some will give up. There are interesting parallels with place-based innovations in the 1990s. The Clinton administration’s post Cold War defense conversion initiatives included the Technology Reinvestment Project, in which regional consortia competed for funds to take local military technologies into the civilian realm. As Michael Oden, Greg Bischak and Chris Evans-Klock concluded in our 1995 Rutgers study (full report available from the authors on request), the TRP failed after just a few years because Members of Congress heard from too many disgruntled constituents. In contrast, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, begun in the same period and administered by NIST, has survived because after its first exploratory rounds, it partnered with state governments to amplify funding for technical assistance to defense contractors struggling with defense budget implosion everywhere. States, rather than projects, then competed, eager for the federal funds.

Third, and most troubling, funders may begin favoring grants to places that already look good on the indicators. Anne Gadwa Nicodemus raised this in her GIA Reader article on creative placemaking last spring. ArtPlace’s own funding criteria suggest this: “ArtPlace will favor investments… and sees its role as providing venture funding in the form of grants, seeding entrepreneurial projects that lead through the arts and already enjoy strong local buy-in and will occur at places already showing signs of momentum….” Imagine how a proposal to convert an old school in a very low income and somewhat depopulated, minority neighborhood into an artist live/work, studio and performance and learning space would stack up against a proposal to add funding to a new outreach initiative in an area already colonized by young people from elsewhere in the same city. A funder might be tempted to fund the latter, where vibrancy is already indicated, over the other, where the payoff might be much greater but farther down the road.


In an Ideal World, Sophisticated Models

In any particular place, changes in the proposed indicators will not be attributable to the creative placemaking intervention alone. So imagine the distress of a fundee whose indicators are moving the wrong way and which place them poorly in comparison to others. Area property values may be falling because an environmentally obnoxious plant starts up. Other projects might look great on indicators not because of their initiatives, but because another intervention, like a new light rail system or a new community-based school dramatically changes the neighborhood.

What we’d would love to have, but don’t at this point, are sophisticated causal models of creative placemaking. The models would identify the multiple actors in the target place and take into account the results of their separate actions. A funded creative placemaking project team would be just one such “actor” among several (e.g. real estate developers, private sector employers, resident associations, community development nonprofits and so on).

A good model would account for other non-arts forces at work that will interact with the various actors’ initiatives and choices. This is crucial, and the logic models proposed by Moss, Zabel and others don’t do it. Scholars of urban planning well know how tricky it is to isolate the impact of a particular intervention when there are so many others occurring simultaneously (crime prevention, community development, social services, infrastructure investments like light rail or street repaving).

Furthermore, models should be longitudinal, i.e. they will chart progress in the particular place over time, rather than comparing one place cross-sectionally with others that are quite unlikely to share the same actors, features and circumstances. If we create models that are causal, acknowledge other forces at work, and are applied over time, “we’ll be able to clearly document the critical power of arts and culture in healthy community development,” reflects Deborah Cullinan of San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts in a followup to our NAMAC panel.

Such multivariate models, as social scientists and urban planners call them, lend themselves to careful tests of hypotheses about change. We can ask if a particular action, like the siting of an interstate highway interchange or adding a prison or being funded in a federal program like the Appalachian Regional Commission, produces more employment or higher incomes or better quality of life for its host city or neighborhood when compared with twin or comparable places, as Andrew Isserman and colleagues have done in their “quasi-experimental” work (write me for a summary of these, soon to be published).

We can also run tests to see if differentials in city and regional arts participation rates and presence of arts organizations can be explained by differences in funding, demographics, or features of local economies. My teammates and I used Cultural Data Project and National Center for Charitable Statistics data on nonprofit arts organizations in California to do this for all California cities with more than 20,000 residents. Our results, while cross-sectional, suggest that concerted arts and culture-building by local Californians over time leads to higher arts participation rates and more arts offerings than can be explained by other factors. The point is that techniques like these DO take into account other forces (positive and negative) operating in the place where creative placemaking unfolds.


Charting a Better Path

It’s understandable why the NEA and ArtPlace are turning to indicators. Their budgets for creative placemaking are relatively small, and they’d prefer to spend them on more programming and more places rather than on expensive, careful evaluations.  Nevertheless, designing indicators unrelated to specific funded projects seems a poor way forward. Here are some alternatives.

Commit to real evaluation. This need not be as expensive as it seems. Imagine if the NEA and ArtPlace, instead of contracting to produce one-size-fits-all indicators, were to design a three-stage evaluation process.  Grantees propose staged criteria for success and reflect on them at specified junctures. Funding is awarded on the basis of the appropriateness of this evaluative process and continued on receipt of reflections. Funders use these to give feedback to the grantee and retool their expectations if necessary, and to summarize and redesign overall creative placemaking achievements. This is more or less what many philanthropic foundations do currently and have for many years, the NEA included. Better learning is apt to emerge from this process than from a set of indicator tables and graphics.  ArtPlace is well-positioned to draw on the expertise of its member foundations in this regard.

Build cooperation among grantees to soften the edge of competition for funds. Convene grantees and would-be grantees annually to talk about success, failures, and problems. Ask successful grantees to share their experience and expertise with others who wish to try similar projects elsewhere. During Leveraging Investments in Creativity’s ten-year lifespan, it convened its creative community leaders annually and sometimes more often, resulting in tremendous cross-fertilization that boosted success. Often, what was working elsewhere turned out to be a better mission or process than what a local group had planned. Again, ArtPlace in particular could create a forum for this kind of cooperative learning. And, as mentioned, NEA’s webinars are a step in the right direction. Imagine, notes my NAMAC co-panelist Deborah Cullinan of Intersection for the Arts, if creative placemaking funders invested in cohort learning over time, with enough longevity to build relationships, share lessons, and nurture collaborations.

Finally, the National Endowment for the Arts and ArtPlace could provide technical assistance to creative placemaking grantees, as the Manufacturing Extension Partnership does for small manufacturers. Anne Gadwa Nicodemus and I continually receive phone calls from people across the country psyched to start projects but needy of information and skills on multiple fronts. There are leaders in other communities, and consultants, too, who know how creative placemaking works under diverse circumstances and who can form a loose consortium of talent: people who understand the political framework, the financial challenges, and the way to build partnerships. Artspace Projects, for instance, has recently converted over a quarter century of experience with more than two -dozen completed artist and arts-serving projects into a consultancy to help people in more places craft arts-based placemaking projects.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in a few years’ time, we could say, look!  Here is the body of learning and insights we’ve compiled about creative placemaking–how to do it well, where the diverse impacts are, and how they can be documented. With indicators dominating the evaluation process at present, we are unlikely to learn what we could from these young experiments. An indicators-preoccupied evaluation process is likely to leave us disappointed, with spreadsheets and charts made quickly obsolete by changing definitions and data collection procedures. Let’s think through outcomes in a more grounded, holistic way. Let’s continue, and broaden, the conversation!

(The author would like to thank Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, Deborah Cullinan, Ian David Moss, and Jackie Hasa for thorough reads and responses to earlier drafts of this article.)

Note to readers: In addition to the comments below, the National Endowment for the Arts and ArtPlace have now published official responses to this article. Read them here:


Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers: Should We Be Worried?

Double-blind study

“a double-blind study,” photograph by Casey Holford

On October 1 the science section of the New York Times ran two articles next to each other. One of them describes a recent study that concluded young children at play display behaviors similar to those of scientists, suggesting scientific inquiry is driven by human instinct. The other refers to the alarming extent to which that human instinct muddies scientific inquiry along the way.

Recently the scientific community has dealt with controversies cascading across many areas of research.  Most of them relate to a phenomenon known as publication bias.  Put simply, publication bias occurs when research journals prioritize studies with thought-provoking—and at the very least statistically significant—results. This makes sense; it’s hard to get excited about studies that don’t show anything conclusive. We crave good stories, stunning breakthroughs, and world-changing discoveries. Such desire has driven scientific (and artistic) innovation throughout history.

The dark underbelly of this lust for meaning, however, is something called “significance chasing.” Researchers know their chances of getting published – and advancing their professional status – hinge on getting statistically significant results.  They have a huge incentive to hunt for and read into anomalies in data – raising the possibility of over-interpreting those anomalies as due to something other than chance. An article in the journal Psychological Science illustrates this point eerily well.  As the authors point out,

It is common (and accepted practice) for researchers to explore various analytic alternatives, to search for a combination that yields ‘statistical significance,’ and then to report only what ‘worked’… This exploratory behavior is not the by-product of malicious intent, but rather the result of two factors: (a) ambiguity in how best to make these decisions and (b) the researcher’s desire to find a statistically significant result.

To compound the problem, many researchers do not openly share their full data sets or calculation methods, and have few incentives to challenge one another’s findings.  The Psychological Science article hammers the former point home with a simulated experiment that “shows” listening to a Beatles song makes you older.  That’s hooey, of course, but the authors’ point is that without stricter guidelines around how data sets are reported, nearly any relationship can be presented as statistically significant.

How big of a problem is this? In the medical community it has raised frightening questions about cancer studies that had been the basis for new treatments. It has caused an increase in the number of retractions issued in high-profile scientific journals – and a blog devoted to tracking them. And lest you think this concern is limited to the “hard” sciences, think again – it has already raised discussions of implications in humanitarian aid and in the more mainstream business community (the latter summing things up nicely with a headline, “Why You Can’t Trust Any of the Research You Read”).


The idea that the scientific method is easily mucked up opens up a whole host of mind-bending questions. (What if there’s a publication bias toward studies about publication bias?  Eeek…). It forces us to stop and think about the fledgling world of arts research – a world that has desperately wanted to find good, hard scientific evidence of impact for a long time. Randomized controlled trials, double-blind studies and other sophisticated research methods seemed like a holy grail, promising that if we could cleverly adapt them to meet our needs, we would have indisputable evidence of the importance of the arts, and good, hard data to guide how we direct our resources. In light of these controversies, should we question our desire to be better researchers?

No – but we should learn from others’ mistakes, and take a hard look at institutional issues common across our fields. Many of the problems the scientific community is experiencing aren’t about the tools scientists have at their disposal, but the cultures in which those tools are used. A few months ago the editors of two high-profile medical journals, Drs. Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall, put out a call for “structural reforms” to combat a “hypercompetitive” and “insecure” working environment they believe to be the heart of the issue. The structural flaws they identify include inadequate resources, a “leaky pipeline” of emerging talent, agenda-driven funding and administrative bloat.

Sound familiar?

The long-term implications on all research communities will unfold over time. Many of Fang and Casadevall’s recommendations are similar to those made within our own field: directing more funding toward salary support to increase job stability, streamlining grant application and reporting processes, and examining the strengths and weaknesses of peer grant review. A number of other ideas have been floated that may change established research practices. Creating a “journal of good questions” that decides which studies to publish before their results are known would reward researchers for their curiosity and the strength of their proposed methodology. Limiting the “degrees of freedom” researchers have in gathering additional data if their original data set does not yield anything “interesting” would limit significance chasing and, in theory, create a culture more tolerant of inconclusive results.

Regardless of which, if any, of these ideas stick, we need to acknowledge two things: a) our research is in all likelihood as prone, if not more prone, to these problems as the “hard sciences,” and b) the “best practices” we have been trying to emulate are not “fixed practices.” It’s often said that what arts researchers seek to measure is too squishy to fit into the traditional scientific process. If more and more people are realizing the process has a squish of its own – well then, maybe we don’t need to play “catch up” so much as try new things.

We may even come up with ideas useful to the more “established” fields we have been trying to emulate. The authors of the study in the first (less depressing) New York Times article concluded the preschoolers they observed behaved like scientists because they “form[ed] hypotheses, [ran] experiments, calculat[ed] probabilities and decipher[ed] causal relationships about the world.” I suspect that a group of arts researchers, observing the same group of children, would have interpreted those same behaviors as artistic. Human instinct drives scientific inquiry and artistic inquiry, and muddies both. Artists, one could argue, are a little more used to the mud.

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Announcing: Createquity Office Hours

As you can see from my previous post, I get around a lot these days for conferences and the like. Meanwhile, the network of Createquity Writing Fellows past and present is ever growing, and we now have representation in seven cities from coast to coast.

So we’ve decided to try out a new concept here at Createquity: Office Hours. Any time one or more Createquity writers and I are in the same city, we’re going to occupy a bar (or in this first case, a food court) and turn it into Arts Nerd Central. Ever wanted to meet any of us in person? Here’s your chance: come with your questions, ideas, requests for career advice, whatever. It will be great way for us to get to know some of our readers a little better and, more importantly, for you all to meet each other!

Our inaugural Createquity Office Hours event will be in Chicago on November 14. Aaron Andersen, one of the original Createquity Writing Fellows (and an original all around), will join me for lunch at Foodlife, a fun and creative food court downtown. If this goes well, we’ll start planning others in a city near you!

Createquity Office Hours: Chicago
Wednesday, November 14
Foodlife at Water Tower Place
835 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL
RSVP here


DC, Chicago and Calgary

(Quick note: Createquity offers condolences to all those affected by Hurricane Sandy. A number of artists and arts organizations were among this group, and many of them are now facing great challenges. The Chelsea art district and artist enclaves in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, NY were hit particularly hard, and it seems a safe bet that the damage to the arts community stretches into the millions of dollars. Hyperallergic is doing a great job rounding up damage reports, mostly from the visual arts; included among these is Createquity contributor Katherine Gressel’s employer, Smack Mellon Gallery in DUMBO. Other affected groups include New Amsterdam Presents (an entrepreneurial collective of young musicians previously profiled on Createquity) and the WestBeth artist housing complex, where my aunt and uncle have an apartment. Createquity Writing Fellow Jacquelyn Strycker has a roundup of resources for artists on her personal blog, The Strycker, and here is more info from Thomas CottAmericans for the Arts and Grantmakers in the Arts.)

More travel for me coming up this month – I’m on a panel at the Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit on the 13th, giving a workshop on the untapped potential of evaluation in Chicago on the 14th, then speaking at the ArtSmarts Knowledge Exchange in Calgary on the 16th (my first work trip outside of the United States). Here are the deets:

November 12-13
Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit
New America Foundation
1899 L Street NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC
Info; event is at capacity
(I’ll be participating in a panel called “The Intersection of Data, Policy and the Arts Sector” at 3:55pm on the 13th.)

Wednesday, November 14
“Solving the Underpants Gnomes Problem: Towards an Evidence-Based Arts Policy”
part of the University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center Fall Workshop Series
DCA Storefront Theatre
68 East Randolph Street
Chicago, IL
5 – 6:30pm
Info here (scroll down)
(This is a going to be a 90-minute solo workshop with a fair amount of new content, all about the untapped potential of measurement in the arts – what we’re doing wrong, and how we can fix it. I’m excited!)

November 15-16
ArtsSmarts 2012 Knowledge Exchange
University of Calgary Downtown Campus
906 8 Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, CANADA
Info and registration
(I’ll be participating in a dialogue on “Cross-Border Conversations on Creative Community Development” with Shawn van Sluys of the Musagetes Foundation, moderated by Stephen Huddart of the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation. The conversation takes place on November 16 from 11am-12:30pm.)

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