As Creative Placemaking Continues to Grow, New Help for Practitioners to Get it Right

Credit: Paul Krueger via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)News that the Kresge Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) are partnering to launch a technical assistance program for the fast-growing creative placemaking field reminds us of the proliferation of wheat approximately 13,000 years ago.

Let me explain.

I'd be lying if I said I understood everything in Jared Diamond's award-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel. But I (vaguely) recall one key insight. Civilizations that lived in that arable sweet spot of land near the equator began harvesting wheat roughly around the same time, completely independent of each other (obviously). It was a kind of a collective consciousness phenomenon, the idea that diverse people thousands of miles apart are doing or thinking the same thing.

The same phenomenon holds true in the world of creative placemaking (minus the "thousands of miles apart" thing). Much like recent developments in the field of liberal arts education, it's one of those areas where both private and public funders are on the same page. 

Developments continue to pour in from diverse quarters. Art Basel, for example, recently convened some of the most thoughtful and influential players in the arts philanthropy world to discuss the state of what they call "venture philanthropy" as it applies to the arts. One of their major takeaways was that creative placemaking's popularity shows no signs of waning.

And then just the other day I came across this piece in the New York Times, titled "Old Mills Remade in Pawtucket, R.I., With Art as Their Product." Creative placemaking revived this once-depressed, post-manufacturing town. It's ubiquitous. 

Which brings us back to the NEA and Kresge partnership.

While creative placemaking is rife with possibilities, it's not without its challenges and controversies. Artists need to expand their skill sets and learn now to—and we're quoting Basel panelist and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors President and CEO Melissa Berman here—leverage "capital and financial instruments" that have traditionally been available to their non-artist small business brethren. And poorly executed creative placemaking efforts that fail to effectively include neighborhood residents can backfire, generating distrust and resentment among the community it was supposed to serve.

And so the NEA/Kresge pilot partnership, rolled out in collaboration with Local Initiatives Support Corporation, National Creative Placemaking Program (LISC) and PolicyLink, will provide the creative placemaking field a "deeper understanding of how to do arts-based community development well, ultimately benefiting funders and practitioners."

According to the NEA press release, specialized technical assistance will be given to 14 organizations and their partners with the goal of advancing each organization's ability to lead successful projects that result in "positive short- and long-term outcomes for their community." In addition, the program will clarify standard practices in creative placemaking by sharing lessons learned. The program will also inform future funding practices for NEA’s Our Town program and Kresge investments.

The NEA is designating $500,000 to the program. Kresge is investing $860,000 directly to LISC and PolicyLink in order to extend technical assistance to seven grantees from its Arts and Culture Program. 

In short, high-profile funders, be it the NEA, Kresge, Surdna, Knight, and ArtPlace America—just to name a few—agree that, much like the cultivation of wheat, creative placemaking is an art and a science. Trial and error is to be expected. And the larger the body of literature gets around getting creative placemaking right, the better off we'll all be.