Creative Placemaking Digs Deep: Can the Arts Solve "Intractable" Social Problems?

Trivia time. What is "creative placemaking?"

Well, it depends on who you ask. So let's consult two of the major players in the space. The first, ArtPlace America, defines it as an approach that uses the arts to "shape the social, physical, and economic futures of communities." 

Then there's the Kresge Foundation, one of the 13 private funders of ArtPlace. As we noted in a previous post, Kresge admits that "many elements of creative placemaking are not well understood, and that lack of clarity inhibits more widespread adoption of the practice." And so Kresge is working to demystify the concept in communities across the country. 

In fact, a closer look at a recent Kresge give suggests a refined and audacious definition for creative placemaking—using the arts to solve social problems.

Kresge awarded a $1.5 million grant to fund the New York City-based EmcArts' Community Innovation Labs program. The money will support the completion of two labs—one in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and the other in Providence, Rhode Island—plus the launch of two additional labs in order to "build local capacity to take on complex social challenges by integrating the arts into a rigorous process framework."

Now, it's worth stepping back for a second and acknowledging the subtle distinction at play here. Every day we look at grants in the art space that aim to engage underserved demographics, plug gaps in public education funding, and fund fellowships. All of these grants, in a sense, aim to address social problems, as does arts funding that has an eye on boosting urban life, creating jobs and opportunity. These grants, to borrow ArtPlace's definition, work to "shape" communities. So why is the give to EmcArts all that different?

For starters, the breadth of involved players. Pilot Labs comprises organizers, city agencies, business leaders, artists, cultural organizations and nonprofit service providers. Secondly, the labs overtly aim to tackle the participating community's most pressing social challenges. The verbiage is different than your typical arts grant press release. To see what we mean, here are the "core questions" the Winstom-Salem Lab hopes to address:

  • How can we create a more equitable and abundant Winston-Salem?
  • How can we move systems of race, class and power to do so?
  • How can we, as a community, build enough trust to enable transformative change to happen?

We can't help but notice that while labs will incorporate the arts into a "rigorous process framework," the arts aren't specifically mentioned in these core questions. It's as if they're simply a means to an end. (And make no mistake, these goals—boosting equality, addressing racial disparities, enabling "tranformative change"—are pretty bold.)

Clearly, this approach resonates with Kresge. "We are invested in interdisciplinary, cross-sector programs that help communities address intractable problems, disrupt systemic barriers, and tangibly improve their economic and cultural outcomes," said Regina Smith, interim managing director of arts & culture at the Kresge Foundation. "The Community Innovation Labs, with their focus on artistic integration, systems change, local relevance and courageous innovation, are aligned with these goals.”

EmcArts will open a competitive national search for two new cities for Community Innovation Labs in the Spring of 2016.