Building a Field: ArtPlace America’s Jamie Bennett on the State of Creative Placemaking

Once viewed as a niche and misunderstood field, creative placemaking has evolved dramatically since ArtPlace America, a 10-year collaboration committed to positioning arts and culture as a core sector of community planning, set up shop in 2010. More grantmakers and planners now view arts and culture as integral components to community development than when the initiative kicked off a decade ago.

Challenges still remain. Some funders remain suspicious of creative placemaking projects that, at least on the surface, don’t naturally align with their core focus areas. And with housing costs skyrocketing, urban residents increasingly perceive arts-based development as a harbinger of displacement.

Jamie Bennett, who has served as ArtPlace’s executive director since 2014, has been on the front lines of the arts and culture funding landscape throughout his entire career. Before joining ArtPlace, Bennett served as chief of staff at the National Endowment for the Arts and chief of staff at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. He has also provided strategic counsel at the Agnes Gund Foundation, served as chief of staff to the president of Columbia University, and worked in fundraising at the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Philharmonic and Columbia College.

I recently spoke with Bennett about the evolution of creative placemaking over the past decade and where it’s headed next. He has good reason to be reflective. Having invested $87 million in 279 creative placemaking projects in 208 communities, $18 million in six community development organizations, and over $100 million in supporting artists as allies in equitable community development between 2011-2017, ArtPlace America is slated to wind down next year.

An Emphasis on “Translation”

Speaking to the state of arts funding around the time of ArtPlace’s inception, Bennett noted that while “any sort of community work has always had arts and culture at its core,” the work “wasn’t legible to people who had power, money and policy.” Bennett’s view will likely resonate with arts advocates, many of whom will agree with Herb Alpert’s complaint that “the politicians don’t get it.

Similarly, funders had been slow to embrace creative placemaking due to the ambiguity of the term itself. As the Kresge Foundation noted back in 2014, “many elements of creative placemaking are not well understood, and that lack of clarity inhibits more widespread adoption of the practice.”

Fortunately, practitioners’ efforts have paid dividends over the last five years. The “language and general premise” of creative placement is finally taking root, Kresge’s Maria Rosario Jackson recently wrote. ArtPlace has been instrumental in this shift over the past decade. Bennett specifically stressed the organization’s emphasis on translation. “How do we take the work on the ground and lift it up so governments and funders can support it? And how do we take these stories about lifting up local communities and share them nationally?”

How ArtPlace Operates

While ArtPlace’s days are numbered, it’s still pushing hard on the programmatic front. I talked with Bennett about ArtPlace’s two main initiatives, Community Development Investments and its Local Control, Local Fields program.

ArtPlace launched the Community Development Investments program in 2015 to support place-based community development organizations that sustainably incorporate arts and culture into their core work. Recipients include the Cook Inlet Housing Authority in Anchorage, Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles, and the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project in Zuni, New Mexico.

It’s important to note that the recipients are not arts organizations. ArtPlace provides each with $3 million over three years to help them achieve their mission more effectively and reach more people using arts and culture. ArtPlace has partnered with PolicyLink to develop a research framework and share key lessons and results.

Back in May, ArtPlace launched Local Control, Local Fields, described by the organization as “a people-powered process in which assemblies of people in six geographies will make decisions about how best to use a pool of funds ranging from $1 million to $4.5 million to further strengthen their local creative placemaking field of practice.” These assemblies, consisting of 40 stakeholders apiece, are beginning to take shape in Philadelphia, Massachusetts and the six-state region of Central Appalachia.

Each assembly must articulate a vision, a funding strategy, and their own rules of governance. For example, an assembly can decide that major decisions will require a simple majority to move forward. Bennett told me that stakeholders are currently discussing action items like whether to hold the funds in a bank account, community foundation, or another vehicle, and the best way to allocate funding, such as by providing low-interest loans. ArtPlace brought in facilitators to help assemblies chart a path forward. Beyond that, the funder is taking a hands-off approach.

If this sounds a lot like participatory grantmaking, that’s because it is participatory grantmaking. In fact, by “putting money with the movement and letting the movement decide what to do with it,” Bennett went so far as to call the Local Control, Local Fields initiative “participatory grantmaking on steroids,” adding, “I have a hard time seeing a world in which I say ‘no’ to a group if they have a good vision.”

“Un-Professionalizing Grantmaking”

In a recent piece looking at a new MacArthur Foundation initiative called “Culture, Equity and the Arts,” I explored why traditional foundations, and those specifically in the arts, have been slow to embrace participatory grantmaking. Funders don’t want to outsource capital allocation or decision-making. They want to remain loyal to “traditional” recipient organizations. And unlike fields like housing or health, arts and culture is less conducive to the kind of empirically sound metrics that can generate consensus among stakeholders.

Picking up on this thread, Bennett noted that as philanthropy slowly formalized across American society in the past 100 years, grantmaking eventually became a professionalized operation run by experts overseeing churches, charities, and other funding entities. Yet participatory grantmaking is predicated on the idea of “un-professionalizing grantmaking and taking it away from the experts and giving it to those with experience.” It’s an exciting idea, but “it’s not what the arts and culture sector was designed to do.”

Given funders’ uneven efforts in combating inequality and their growing desire to make grantmaking more democratized and inclusive, MacArthur’s initiative suggests that participatory grantmaking is coming to the arts sector whether entrenched professionals like it or not. How can established funders give disenfranchised communities a voice without dismantling decades of formalized grantmaking infrastructure?

“I don’t think we should eliminate foundations and go all toward participatory grantmaking,” Bennett said. “We need expertise and experience.”

A Focus on Rural Communities

In a creative peacemaking space that is generally urban-centric, Bennett is particularly proud of ArtPlace’s work in rural and tribal communities, like its partnership with the organization Ekvn-Yefolecv, a Maskoke collective committed to protecting and reviving traditional relationships to the Earth while revitalizing language and culture. With financial support from ArtPlace, the Chorus Foundation and NoVo Foundation, the Ekvn-Yefolecv became official “land owners” of 577 acres in their ancestral home region in Alabama in 2018. The organization is in the process of moving the entire community back to Alabama and reestablishing traditional ways of living.

By encompassing the environment, community wellness, and arts and culture, the Maskoke initiative is one of the “most holistic” projects Bennett has ever come across. ArtPlace’s support reflects a key premise of creative placemaking, which is that “the arts” isn’t a one-time transactional experience, but a component in a larger community-building process. That can be a hard sell to the broader philanthropic community. Despite recent strides, many funders still don’t perceive holistic projects like the partnership with Ekvn-Yefolecv as naturally aligning with their priority areas.

When I spoke to Bennett, ArtPlace was planning to approach grantmakers to see if they’d provide funding to cover the $1.3 million the community currently has left on its mortgage. This kind of ask, especially in the context of the larger project, isn’t in the “national conversation or one that speaks to conventional housing or economic development work,” Bennett said. Nor does it directly speak to arts and culture.

Barriers to Funder Support

The challenge around “making the case” for arts and culture goes deeper than simply arguing over what “engagement” or “impact” means. In the case of the Maskoke project, many indigenous languages don’t have the word “artist” in their lexicon. Rather, these communities use words like “teacher” or “culture-bearer.” These individuals, Bennett explained, “teach you the songs, they make the jewelry, they tell the stories. Many of our indigenous colleagues are more likely to talk about ceremony and knowledge and singing or dancing than ‘art,’ and that’s because it’s woven into everything they’re doing.”

Indigenous people also use words like "subsistence," meaning to produce the bare minimum to survive, which non-Native westerners often interpret as if "it's a lesser way of living," Bennett said. Meanwhile, “we buy $20 tomatoes at Whole Foods and consider it to be sustainable” without a hint of self-awareness. Philanthropy, hopelessly infatuated with innovation and all things new, is often no better, Bennett argues. “Traditional knowledge,” or the fact that the Maskoke have been living in an environmentally sustainable way for centuries, “doesn’t feel as sexy” to funders looking for that next cutting-edge project or technology.

This is where ArtPlace America’s translation work comes into play. Funders are “hungry to learn,” and Bennett is confident that they will come around to unconventional projects like the Maskoke initiative once they see an intersection between the work on the ground and their strategic priorities.

“To be able to say the Maskoke live in harmony with the earth—well, that perfectly aligns with, say, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s ‘Culture of Health,’” Bennett said. “The Maskoke and Robert Wood Johnson don’t share the exact same words, but it’s the same thing. It’s about matching—saying to funders, ‘You may not realize this, but there’s overlap here.’”

On Building Trust

Up until this point, our discussion was rooted in the theoretical realm. But eventually, the rubber will have to meet the road—stakeholders operating in rural or urban environments will have to sit down for that critical conversation with community leaders.

For a case study illustrating how an out-of-state foundation and local stakeholders successfully generated community trust, Bennett looked beyond the arts and culture space, highlighting one of the “most interesting and equitable” urban initiatives in the U.S., Philadelphia’s bike share system Indego.

Bennett looked at the initiative through the lens of what he calls “cultural displacement,” the idea that the powers that be tell community residents, subtly or otherwise, that they’re not welcome. “In New York City, we have bikes in places like Times Square, places where people are doing well and have multiple transportation options,” he said. “Yet you don’t see as many bikes in more far-flung areas of the city, where residents could use them.”

A similar thought occurred to the New York City-based JPB Foundation, which provided funding for the Better Bike Share Partnership (BBSP), a city-led initiative to build equitable and replicable bike share systems across Philadelphia. Indego was launched on the premise that rather than duplicate an existing transportation network, planners should extend access to historically neglected parts of the city.

Amenities like a bike-share program often double as a red flag signaling encroaching gentrification. Many of Philadelphia’s community and faith leaders, Bennett said, initially thought, “‘Uh-oh, they’re coming for us.’” BBSP program manager Waffiyah Murray echoed the community’s concerns, saying, “Even though a lot of bike-sharing projects come into neighborhoods, people feel that they’re not for us... The first time a bicycle station appears, they ask, ‘What is this? I don’t know anything about this, nobody talked to me.’”

To allay these fears, stakeholders worked with community leaders to build local bike clubs. In addition, the system offered cash memberships available through trusted Family Dollar stores. Bennett pointed out that while cash membership only accounted for 2 percent of the system’s total membership, these individuals used the system at a higher rate than participants paying with credit cards.

Bottom line? Arts and culture organizations can find a lot to like about Indego, which has also received financial support from the William Penn Foundation. Planners “introduced in a way that served an existing community need where the community understood it was for them, because they knew it was designed for them,” Bennett said. “That’s what it means to work with a neighborhood and build trust.”

Mitigating “Cultural Displacement”

The Indego case study out of Philadelphia provided us with the opportunity to tackle the precarious state of urban creative placemaking efforts. The field, as Kresge’s Jackson wrote, has been associated with “gentrification, displacement of residents with low incomes (often including artists), and loss of affordable real estate.” How can proponents most effectively lift up communities while not driving up their rent?

To answer this question, greater precision around the term “displacement” is required. “I’ve never been in any community development conversation in the urban space that doesn’t talk about displacement or gentrification at some point,” Bennett said. “But when you step back and look at the context, there are three displacements associated with gentrification.”

The first is physical displacement in the form of eminent domain. The second is financial displacement in which property values rise but income remains flat and residents are priced out. The third is cultural displacement. Philadelphia’s pre-Indego bike network is one example of this phenomenon, but Bennett was quick to note that cultural displacement can also take on subtle forms. Consider public parks. They’re free, so at least in theory, residents face no financial barriers to access. Yet bottles of water cost $7. That’s a disproportionately large financial burden for a poor family, and it tells them that the park is “primarily intended for rich folks,” Bennett said.

In most cases, creative placemaking practitioners can’t stand in the way of development projects. However, they can use their seat at the community development table to mitigate cultural displacement. One way to do this, Bennett argues, is by facilitating “cultural cohesion.”

Bennett pointed to the example of Alaka Wali, an anthropologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, who explored how “informal arts” experiences like community college still-life classes, quilting clubs, and efforts like Indego’s bike clubs can build measurable social cohesion. Specifically, Wali studied individuals who participated in drumming circles in Chicago. They came from different countries, played together seamlessly, and created an integrated “identity” that transcended income, age and other demographics. More importantly, these social networks carried over to life outside the drumming circle and into participants’ daily lives.

Bennett is also excited about new research generated by Creating Healthy Communities: Arts + Public Health in America, a partnership between ArtPlace and the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine focused on demonstrating how the arts and culture have measurable impacts on individual and community health.

This week, as part of their collaboration, ArtPlace and UFCAM released a white paper that draws from interviews with more than 250 experts from the public health, arts and culture, and community development sectors who were part of working groups that have met over the past 18 months.