May 31, 2012
by Jason Schupbach, NEA Director of Design
The Pollinators in Lawrence, Kansas. The mural was commissioned by the Spencer Museum of Art as part of a retrospective of the work of muralist and Kansas native Aaron Douglas (1899-1979). Photo by Dave Loewenstein
At the NEA, we have just completed the panels that reviewed this year’s round of Our Town applications, and we will announce those funding decisions in mid-July. This will be only the second round of Our Town funding, which is hard to believe because it seems like creative placemaking is already becoming a national movement: from the Kresge Foundation’s recent announcement that this will be the framework for their arts grants to Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development’s Offices of Culture and Tourism’s new program focus on creative placemaking to the great conversation that was kicked off by Ian David Moss’s recent blog to the upcoming announcement of ArtPlace’s first round of open application grants.
It would be far too easy for the NEA to claim credit for this movement by dating its beginnings to the release of Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa’s Creative Placemaking white paper [PDF] through the Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD). But in reality, what Rocco Landesman gets credit for is seeing a pattern in what was happening organically in communities all across this country and using his bully pulpit to bring national attention to it: communities all across America were using the arts to help shape their social, physical, and economic characters.
From North Adams, Massachusetts to Memphis, Tennessee; from Paducah, Kentucky to Boise, Idaho, cities and towns have been transformed when the arts were brought—literally and figuratively—into their centers. In fact, even at the NEA, we have been supporting this work for more than 25 years through MICD, which helps mayors understand the transformative power of incorporating good design and the arts into their daily work.
Researchers had noticed this same phenomenon. Mark Stern and Susan Seifert from the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project did their groundbreaking work with The Reinvestment Fund to show that a high concentration of cultural activity increased civic participation, improved child welfare, and occurred in neighborhoods with high levels of racial, ethnic, and economic diversity.
Gallup and the Knight Foundation partnered to investigate what drives community attachment—not what makes individuals move somewhere, but instead what makes them stay and put down roots. The top three findings from their Soul of the Community project were social offerings, openness, and aesthetics, in other words: the arts!
Maria Rosario Jackson’s Cultural Vitality Index made the case for how important it was to support a full range of creative organizations and activities for a community to be truly vibrant. And the American Planning Association’s excellent Arts and Culture Briefing Papers reference a dozen other research efforts.
The NEA is at its best as a responsive funder, when we notice a trend or see a need bubbling up across the country and connect the dots. We invest in activities with a proven track record of success, even in the absence of a formal theory of change.
In the case of Our Town, we fund partnerships led by arts and design organizations and local governments to implement projects that contribute toward the livability of communities and help transform them into lively, beautiful, and sustainable places with the arts at their centers. More specifically, we support planning, design, and arts engagement projects that: encourage creative activity, create community identity and a sense of place, improve quality of life, and revitalize local economies.
Our first 51 Our Town projects are in various stages of completion, and we will start receiving their final reports this fall. Then program evaluation can begin. We can look at whether the grants succeeded on their own terms, harvest them to connect and create communities of practice, and glean lessons learned as we revise and focus our grant guidelines.
We have another job beyond making sure our grants are well made and the ensuing projects are well executed. We also have a responsibility to the entire field of creative placemaking, which is where our communities indicators work comes in.
These are the beginnings of an effort to test our hypothesis that creative placemaking generally achieves some combination of four things (depending on how you are drawing the boundaries of your system map, you can think of them variously as outputs, outcomes, or even impacts). Creative placemaking: strengthens and improves the local community of artists and arts organizations; increases community attachment; improves quality of life; and invigorates local economies.
We have identified indicators for each of those buckets that we will populate with national data that is already collected on the local level. Over the next year or two, 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 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.
Will an indicators system prove causation? Absolutely not. But, as the name implies, it will give us a pretty serious indication that something is happening. And now that the NEA is making research grants, we very much hope that someone will come forward and apply for support to carefully explore causation on a case-by-case basis. My own (unscientific) hunch is that the causal link will turn out to be the intersection of imagination, bringing people together physically, and reinforcing the identities of places. But that remains to be proven.
As I think you can tell, I am really excited about this national conversation and where it is headed. Now that we are finished with panels (at least for the moment), I have a bit more time on my hands to begin plotting out an agenda for the fall. As I do, I would love to hear from you with any thoughts, questions, or ideas you may have about creative placemaking. Feel free to email me at schupbachj[at]arts[dot]gov.
And be sure to stay tuned on Thursday, July 12, when we will announce the next Our Town grants!