TITLE: Program Officer, Arts & Culture
FUNDING AREAS: Visual arts, performing arts
CONTACT: email@example.com, (248) 643-9630
IP TAKE: Johnson's affinity is for supporting local artists in the communities in which they live, making her a great fit for Kresge’s overall grant making goals.
PROFILE: Helen Davis Johnson is a program officer with the Arts & Culture team at The Kresge Foundation. The main goal of Kresge's Arts & Culture program is to encourage "interdisciplinary approaches to the broad field of community revitalization" through various arts and culture initiatives that seek to re-energize communities that have "long been central to America’s social and economic life." (Detroit is one of their main areas of focus, for instance.)
The idea of urban and community development through the arts is one Helen Davis Johnson is very familiar with. Before joining Kresge in 2012, Johnson helped co-found CreateHere, a Chattanooga, TN based arts, economic, and cultural development nonprofit designed to connect members of the community around pressing local issues, such as safety, education, jobs, and talent retention. Their programs include a leadership development fellowship, a small business planning course, a grants program for creatives, and what they say is the world’s largest "community visioning effort." CreateHere "attracted and retained creative community residents through a relocation incentive resulting in home sales exceeding $4 million."
"I’m a firm believer in the power of arts and culture to develop communities,” says Johnson. “The emerging framework of creative placemaking has the potential to improve quality of life issues in urban areas with tools that are uniquely appropriate to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century"
Over her career, Johnson has spent more than 12 years in nonprofit and arts administration. She helped build the 4 Bridges Arts Festival, Chattanooga's premiere visual arts fair. She coordinated museum education programs for the Hunter Museum of American Art. And she designed and launched multiple community-focused arts initiatives at Allied Arts, a private, nonprofit arts fund, also in Chattanooga.
Johnson has spoken at conferences such as Art Chicago, Michigan Municipal League, AIGA National, the Sustainable Cities PLUS Network, the Council on Foundations, Lambda Alpha International, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. She is also a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. Her background also includes being a founding member of Take Root, an inner-city beautification program in Chattanooga that has planted more than 1,400 trees in the city's urban core to date.
Johnson's path to Kresge almost could not have been more well-paved. At Kresge she has helped oversee programs like Art X Detroit, a multi-day, multi-disciplinary art festival funded by Kresge and administered by the College for Creative Studies. Johnson moderated a discussion during the festival on “Creative Placemaking,” invlolving a panel of members of the NEA, the Minnesota-based nonprofit, Springboard for the Arts, and a number of artists and community organizers.
Creative placemaking is a relatively new concept, but one that's gaining traction around the country due to the work of people like Johnson. Jason Schupbach of the NEA defines creative placemaking as a plan when "public, private, not-for-profit, and community sectors partner to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities." Not exactly a spanking new concept perhaps, but maybe a new way of branding an idea that's been around for a while. The newness comes from the verve and level of organization that's going into current efforts.
Through Art X Detroit and other programs and collaborations like ArtPlace, a nationwide initiative between 11 different foundations to "transform communities through strategic investments in the arts," Johnson is helping to spearhead this new movement of redefining urban and community spaces through the arts. The concept of cultural institutions taking a more proactive and holistic approach to community building is an idea whose time has come and Johnson is definitely a leader in the field.
Johnson has an artistic bent herself too. She got her bachelor's in fine arts with a concentration in painting and drawing from University of Tennessee Chattanooga, and also studied drawing at Florence Academy of Art.