ArtPlace America Engagement Resources

As I mentioned in an earlier post I recently had the opportunity to engage with Lyz Crane of ArtPlace America in a discussion about creative placemaking and community engagement. In the course of that discussion she shared some resources that ArtPlace has made available that can be of considerable benefit to anyone involved in community engagement.

The first is a blog post about crowdsourced funding for community-based projects. It offers a good deal of practical advice and introduced me to ioby “a nonprofit community crowdfunding platform that helps local leaders raise and organize all kinds of capital—cash, social networks, in-kind donations, volunteers, and advocacy—to meet their needs.” Looks like a good possibility for smaller projects.

The second link she shared was to ArtPlace’s Resources page. It’s full of useful material. I am particularly impressed with the sections on Community Planning and Development and Cross-Sector Collaboration.

These all present valuable tools for community engagement. Use them to help you better



Global Engagement

I began pondering issues related to community engagement almost 30 years ago. I began writing material that led to my first book on the subject about 10 years ago. And I started this blog about 7 and a half years ago. In all that time I assumed that my messages were pretty specific to the cultural and social history of the United States and to its arts institutions.

To my considerable surprise, in the last six years I have been asked to be a keynote presenter at conferences in Canada, Beijing, and Singapore and to do a couple of Skype-based guest presentations for a class at the University of Vienna. This year I have been asked to speak at conferences in Australia and Chile.

What has become clear to me is that the economic pressures faced by institutions presenting Eurocentric art forms are, throughout the world, forcing greater attention on spreading the reach of those arts. Community engagement is to my mind the best available means of doing so. (This is even true in a state-controlled society like China; or perhaps it is especially true there given the cultural dissonance that Eurocentric arts represent.)

At least some of the sources of this seeming universality seem to be:

  • Presentations by arts professionals are expensive and will become increasingly so thanks to the “cost disease.” This may not be exclusively true of Eurocentric arts, but it is certainly true of them. Ever-increasing revenue sources are essential.
  • The greater the disconnect between the cultural background of the broad populace and that of the roots of the arts presented, the greater the pressure for change. Rapidly shifting demographics and growing political power of native or indigenous peoples are major factors here. This is also true where Eurocentric arts have been transplanted to a place where they have no historical ties, like China and Singapore.
  • The vast majority of fundings sources–whether individual, corporate, foundation, or government–want or need to see evidence that their support is valued by more than the small percentage of any population that is enthusiastic about Eurocentric arts. (And need I observe that this is a declining percentage?) There are, of course, some funders that have a commitment specifically to these arts, but they are few in number and are not a growing cadre.

These are certainly preliminary thoughts and I may confirm, expand, or revise them after my trips this year. Also, I acknowledge that my conversations and experiences have been limited in comparison to the cultural richness of peoples around the globe–notably my lack of contact with on-the-ground sources in Africa. Nevertheless, it appears that the concern for connecting greater percentages of our communities with the arts seems to be a growing, not a declining, one.





Some rights reserved by NASA Goddard Photo and Video Image by Reto Stöckli; enhancements by Robert Simmon

Creative Placemaking

Recently I had the pleasure of reconnecting with a friend and colleague. The Community Engagement Network hosted a conversation with Lyz Crane addressing the topic of creative placemaking and community engagement. (To join the Network, click here or email us a Lyz is Deputy Director of ArtPlace America, the private agency whose ten-year mission is to encourage and support creative placemaking. She is also a friend whose comments almost ten year ago helped convince me that my first book, Building Communities, Not Audiences was necessary and who subsequently contributed a chapter to that book.

In preparing for her presentation I was reminded of at least three principal critiques of creative placemaking. Lyz’s presentation highlighted the work ArtPlace is doing to address those issues.

First, the concerns. Especially early on many people assumed that creative placemaking was simply code for a continuation of the 20th century passion for big bricks and mortar arts projects that cleared urban (usually) neighborhoods and raised giant arts centers that were often economically unviable. The fact that major developers were early supporters of creative placemaking contributed to this assumption. A second concern was, for obvious reasons, gentrification–the displacement of current residents and businesses due to escalating rents and property values. A third concern was similar but not specifically economic. My friend Roberto Bedoya coined the term creative placekeeping to highlight the fact that creative placemaking projects were not being undertaken in a vacuum. There were people, communities, and cultural practices already in place in any inhabited area. It was not the job of “creative placemakers” to make something from scratch. There was a moral responsibility to acknowledge the assets already in existence in a place and build upon them.

In her conversation with us, Lyz spoke about how ArtPlace is not focused on construction projects and is committed to using art to enhance communities in cooperation with the current residents of those communities. What she described was strikingly like the core principles of effective community engagement. More on that in a second.

It is not surprising that ArtPlace is taking this tack. In the 2010 book Creative Placemaking, the work that in them minds of many invented the creative placemaking movement, authors Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa said:

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.

The movement’s core philosophy is rooted in honoring and working with communities. Not surprisingly, effective creative placemaking is very much like effective community engagement. Simply put, when working with people, observe the Golden Rule or, to be cruder, Don’t be a #@$!!. Talk with people, get to know them, don’t go in assuming you have answers for them. (You don’t.)

Lyz, thanks for sharing with us. And thanks for the reminder that good work with communities demands listening to and learning from the people with whom we work.



Trees, Arts, and Communities

In January Joe Patti (Butts in Seats) wrote an exceptionally valuable post (Trees Come with Unexpected Baggage). It was about a nonprofit organization in Detroit planting trees in neighborhoods. It turns out that, for a wide variety of reasons, many people did not want the trees.

For many of us, a free tree sounds like an unequivocally good thing. Why would anyone not want one? It turns out that there are a number of reasons. But a common theme in people’s concerns was that the neighborhoods had not been part of the process of deciding to do the project in the first place nor how it should be implemented. “People felt someone else was deciding what should be planted and where without having any conversations with the people who would have to live with the trees.” It wasn’t that they didn’t understand the value of trees. They didn’t trust the outsiders who were descending upon their homes.

The obvious point Mr. Patti was making is that arts organizations not infrequently make the same mistakes in attempting to deal with new communities. They assume they know what is needed and then they deliver what “they know is best” without consultation or discussion. And then are surprised when the response is poor.

I almost did not write this follow up because the points were made so well. However, this is such an important issue that repetition is helpful. We’ve got to come to grip with the fact that when it comes to dealing with new communities we are often clueless and can easily trip all over ourselves because we don’t know them. (I’m reminded of Margy Waller’s post from several years ago, We Are from the Arts and We’re Here to Help.)

Plus there are two things I’d like to amplify here. The first is the issue of trust. We can never forget that for many people, “the arts” are associated in lockstep with power and privilege. Whether or not this is fair is irrelevant. Our industry is tied to the 1% in the minds of large segments of the population. And that association gets in the way of building relationships. Before we try to “plant trees” in their midst, much work needs to be done to get to a simple ground zero of trust.

The other issue is totally self-inflicted. We have an unexamined belief in the inherent value of the arts that we present and that arts’ value to anyone we meet. This is totally understandable, we would not be in the business if we did not believe it. However, this is also the foundation of attempts to do “outreach” to new communities–providing arts enlightenment, kinda like 19th Century missionaries to Africa. It is rooted, consciously or unconsciously, in what I think I may begin to call Aesthetic Superiority Syndrome.

This is counter-productive for a variety of reasons. One is it diminishes us. It gets in the way of understanding the merits of artistic expression of “foreign” cultures. I vividly remember years ago hearing that there was a hip hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton in development. My mental response was “Yeah, right.” I now understand how very, very wrong I was. Greg Sandow has for years been pushing the classical music world to recognize the brilliance of other musics. (Classical music is the world from which I come.) I have been a cheerleader for his work but did not recognize my own shortsightedness. How much poorer I was/we are for this.

Not only does this diminish us, it also gets in the way of building bridges. If we don’t recognize that our art is not the only art of significant merit, the new communities with which we try to connect will spot our dismissiveness and turn deaf ears to our suggestions. They have artistic traditions of which to be justifiably proud. Seeking those out is one way to create connections.

The bottom line in engagement is, as always, talk with (not to) them. (Although see that last sentence in this paragraph.) Engage people with humility and respect and seek reciprocity. (If you ask much of them to understand your work, invest that much time in understanding them.) But eventually seek to move from thinking of them as them to thinking of them as one of us.





Some rights reserved by Robert Couse-Baker

Existential Threats

I have written about this basic topic on numerous occasions but I keep getting asked related questions in new ways. Toward the end of last year someone asked what was the most important reason for arts organizations to embrace community engagement: economic viability or cultural justice.

Before I try to address the question, let me summarize the basic points.

  • The first is that due to rapidly increasing costs, demographic shifts in the population, and ever greater competition for leisure time and dollars (to name just three factors), the economic prospects for Eurocentric arts institutions are grim. This is the viability rationale.
  • The second is that historically those same Eurocentric institutions have received the lion’s share (more realistically, the brontosaurus’s share) of society’s cultural resources. It is becoming increasingly difficult to justify that. This is the morality rationale.

Like any good retired college professor, my immediate response to the question is that there is no one correct answer. More to the point, the issues are not separate ones. They are simply different aspects of the same underlying issue, the end of European cultural hegemony (yes, I’ve already reminded you I was a professor) in U.S. society. In truth, they are both viability arguments.

Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter which argument is more meaningful to you. They both represent existential threats. And in each case the only practical solution is deep, meaningful engagement with new communities.





Some rights reserved by Arenamontanus