"An Instrument for Greater Equity." More Guidance from a Leader on Creative Placemaking

 Jeff Whyte/shutterstock

 Jeff Whyte/shutterstock

Earlier this year, the Kresge Foundation published the first in a series of white papers to help grantmakers and practitioners more successfully integrate arts and culture into community development. Given the foundation’s role as a leader in the field in creative placemaking and aligning the arts with social justice, inequality and urban development, the announcement was timely and important.

The paper, titled "Arts & Culture Program—The First Decade," traced the evolution of Kresge's program from providing capital challenge grants to foundation's current creative placemaking strategy. 

Kresge recently published the second white paper, "Creative Placemaking and Expansion of Opportunity—Observations and Reflections," which surveys the state of the rapidly evolving field of creative peacemaking and, according to author Maria Rosario Jackson, provides "a point of departure for further examination, discussion and action as the field continues to develop."

I encourage you to read the whole thing. But in the meantime, here are some key takeaways:

Nexus Point

According to Jackson, the "language and general premise" of creative placement is finally taking root. This is good news. As Kresge previously noted, "many elements of creative placemaking are not well understood, and that lack of clarity inhibits more widespread adoption of the practice."

And while unanimous consensus, at least semantically speaking, may never emerge around a universal definition of "creative placemaking," the term is "now widespread in the arts and culture field, and increasingly in community development and urban planning."

But widespread acknowledgment of the term also brings risks. "Creative placemaking," according to Jackson, has also been associated with "gentrification, displacement of residents with low incomes (often including artists), and loss of affordable real estate."

Fortunately, Kresge has been ahead of the curve in this regard. It recently published case studies looking at how creative placemaking stakeholders allayed residents' fears of gentrification in Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Consequently, creative placemaking can be a seen as nexus point where some of the most pressing issues in arts philanthropy converge, including social justice, gentrification, economic and cultural displacement, and cultural appropriation. And therein lies the $64,000 question.

According to Jackson, if the practice is to be understood as an "instrument for greater equity and expansion of opportunity for vulnerable populations," what field developments are "most essential?"

Jackson lists six areas as "critical field needs or opportunities" that are central to "improving current practices." They include:

  • Clear understanding and articulation of the sources and consequences of urban inequality and the process of change at various levels
  • Reckoning with limiting practices that impede strategic field convergence
  • Reframing the presence and roles of arts, culture and design in vulnerable communities
  • Meeting the challenge of cross-sectoral work inclusive of arts, culture and community-engaged design with the patience, nimbleness and new structures required
  • Making visible and legible the new ways that artists, community developers, urban planners and others work through creative placemaking
  • Meeting the challenge of research and evaluation with creativity, rigor and scrutiny of existing orthodoxies

Since the white paper explores each area in greater detail, I'll instead hit on points one and six, as they resonate not just across the creative placemaking field, but the arts philanthropy scene writ large.

Understanding Inequality

We've seen a profound conceptual shift in arts giving over the last few years. Dorian Burton, assistant executive director of the Kenan Trust, summarized the prevailing donor sentiment accordingly: "Philanthropic efforts in the arts must make a fundamental shift from charitable gifts that exclude to justice-oriented giving that creates equitable access for all."

Jackson zooms in on the issue of urban inequality and argues that despite "a growing body of research on arts and culture in low-income neighborhoods, connections to both root causes of inequality and plausible solutions remain under-theorized and insufficiently considered."

In other words, in order for funders to address inequality, more attention is needed to "understand how change relevant to expansion of opportunity actually happens at various levels—on the ground in neighborhoods, as well as across local, regional and national systems."

I'd argue that this takeaway can also apply to related anti-inequality efforts in the arts space, like public art and the rise in socially focused programming at "legacy institutions."

Jackson's focus on urban areas also underscores some of the geographic nuances within the fast-growing creative placemaking field. While Kresge is focused on urban neighborhoods, other proponents have embraced a more rural bent. 

For instance, after allocating roughly 30 percent of investments to rural communities in 2016, ArtPlace America boosted that number to 52 percent for 2017's round of funding, underscoring a rural creative placemaking field brimming with vibrancy, innovation, and economic opportunity.

Research, Evaluation, and Measurement

Performance measurement is another huge issue for arts funders, and just like the definition of "creative placement," widespread consensus on how to measure impact remains fleeting.

A study conducted by the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University illustrates the breadth of this challenge.

The study's authors found that the average arts and culture organization in the U.S. engaged with 13.4 percent of its local population, either in person or online, in 2013. At the same time, the authors noted that their metric of "total touch points" does not reveal the duration, depth or quality of engagement each person has with the organization.

Or to put it another way: There's engagement, and then there's meaningful engagement.

This challenge is particularly acute in the creative placemaking field, in which many of the benefits cited by Jackson, which include "greater social cohesion and sense of agency among residents, increased pride and stewardship of place, physical transformation, and greater control over community narrative," can't be empirically measured.

Jackson's prognosis here is a bit cloudy.

The field is "hungry for stronger evidence of creative placemaking’s impact in expanding opportunity for low-income communities," she writes. Yet it is "a question that community development and arts practitioners, funders, policymakers, community leaders and others wish they could answer definitively."

"We are stymied by the fact that methods for empirically capturing initial impacts such as narrative of place, agency, social cohesion and others are scarce and largely underdeveloped," Jackson notes, before concluding, "this is an area ripe for interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral, community-involved and community-led exploration."

Creative placemaking proponents may want to consider Bloomberg Philanthropies' empirically fastidious work in the related area of public art.

The funder's recent Arts Investments and Impacts report spells out some of the tangible outcomes of its various arts programs. For instance, its Public Art Challenge has thus far generated $13 million for local economies, employed 820 individuals, and created 490 programs and activities including tours, workshops and lectures.

Bloomberg's data, however, underscores two problems. First, Bloomberg's metrics for success are quite different from Jackson's "soft" metrics. It's easy to count the number of lectures linked to a public art project. It's practically impossible to measure improved "social cohesion" across diverse and changing communities.

And second, measurable "progress" in the areas of public art and creative placemaking can yield unintended consequences.

No one will argue that Bloomberg's figure of $13 million for local economies is an objectively good thing, but has this influx of wealth driven up rents and displaced long-term residents and businesses? To what extent has this progress actually eroded social cohesion? And, echoing Jackson's earlier thoughts, can this erosion be quantified? And so on.

Looking ahead, funder interest in boosting economic and cultural equity in both urban and rural areas is only likely to intensify, and many will be rightfully drawn to the promise of creative placemaking. As such, Jackson argues for continued support of stakeholders and greater collaboration between practitioners as they navigate uncharted waters. 

"We must look to the future," she writes, "ensuring that the next generations of people committed to creating vibrant, artful and equitable communities have the benefit of our examined experience and the inspiration, passion, imagination and confidence to continue to take risks and exceed our aspirations."