Defining Creative Placemaking

The other day The Maryland Historical Society hosted the Mayor’s Cultural Town Meeting. Appetizers were served, presentations were made, and questions were asked. The auditorium was standing room only, and all eyes and ears were focused forward. The meeting kicked off with a talk by Jamie Hand from the ArtPlace America initiative. As the Director of Research strategies she spoke about different cities that have been able to successfully implement arts projects as modes for urban regeneration. She shared statistics of how previously derelict spaces have now seen unprecedented levels of use. Most importantly, she was very keen to define exactly what creative placemaking was, and what it was not.

ArtPlace America is an organization, which believes that artists are a huge resource to solving problems specific to urban environments. Because artists see things differently, and leverage creativity with maximum capacity, they are able to see potential where a more traditional mentality may not. Cities, growing urban spaces, always throw a curve ball. Keeping them alive and well is not simple and straightforward.

Hand defined creative placemaking as doing art to change a place. She was very clear to clarify that ArtPlace America does not exist with the mission to build the creative sector of a city. Therefore, ArtPlace America is less about how the arts relates to a city’s economic wealth and more about promoting an arts-based intervention for a cities problem.

To understand this difference we must understand what an “arts-based intervention” is. One may ask: if a problem can be solved two ways, one solution without using the arts, the other solution with using the arts, why would one pick the way with the arts? If there is no monetary gain in using the arts, and the other solution seems to work just fine and is more traditional, why not go with that solution? To this I would have to say I don’t know. What is the point of unnecessarily employing the arts ,which might be more roundabout in execution, for a solution to a problem that can be solved directly, and without the arts?

Let’s dig a little deeper.  Reason one: solving a problem using the arts is creative and different. So, when people see this solution in action they themselves may start think creatively and differently. Nothing bad about a little newness in ones life. For example, a street in Detroit that was in shambles; vacant lots, loitering, no life, no business, no energy, no points of attraction. What could one do? Well, the city could raze the area, petition for some kind of big realtor investor to see the land as potential for new condo’s, and get a plan in action to make the area the next up and coming spot. Or, one could do as Revolve Detroit did. They saw the vacant lots as good areas to refurbish on their own, placing boutique arts shops and venues into the spaces.  Since this was a local effort, the shops were not necessarily constructed to have the sleekest, most refined aesthetic.  They felt homemade, and a little hodgepodge.  The tenants taking over the spaces didn’t have the money to do huge amounts to development.  But nonetheless, they worked with what they had, and pulled off a totally functioning, safe, and fun storefront.   As an added bonus, once more boutiques took root, the way the shops were lined down the street created the perfect layout for a street festival, a robust zone for arts on top of arts on top of arts. Revolve decided to employ local artists to do even more fix ups of the exterior aesthetic of the storefronts, and hosted a celebratory evening of food, drink, art performances, shop sales, etc. The street continued after that to be known as a place with entertainment and local talent. The arts intervened in this urban problem of vacant buildings to not only draw a community together and create a positive reputation, but also to maintain the local specialties of Detroit, and created a long term trajectory of gradual economic growth, thus not immediately displacing any lower income residents (as the realtor plan most likely would have caused). To me, this is the ideal situation the arts can provide. An arts intervention is based on that which is local, that which is within reach. Outsourcing and displacement is not necessary to the same degree that it is when the solution to a problem is not arts based.

But, I define another part of the success of an arts-based intervention in terms of cold, hard cash. Economics. Money. It matters. Arts and money can go hand in hand and that isn’t a bad thing. Arts based interventions do bolster the creative sector of a city. Arts based interventions do help a local economy. Arts based interventions do create jobs. So why define creative placemaking so specifically as doing art to change a place, and not building a creative sector? I understand the all too familiar argument in support of the arts that goes a bit like this: “arts for arts sake.” Any practitioner in the field has heard this over and over again. But what about art for growth sake? Just because art has a purpose other than for itself does not degrade it to propaganda, or impure aesthetic. Building an ecosystem that allows for a robust production of art is the very core of creative placemaking. This ecosystem cannot be seen as one-dimensional. It includes art as an aesthetic practice, but it also includes community members hoping for employment, and it includes customers having the money to buy art.

After Hand spoke, the Mayor gave a presentation about the many arts initiatives in Baltimore and then fielded questions by the audience. All of the questions shared the same core: all wanted to know how they could access tools for growth, and knowledge of city administration. The questions were not so much “how do we find a space”, or “how do we engage people”, or “how do we get ……”. Instead, the people wanted to know what actual resources Baltimore provided to help an organization grow from a five person team to a mid-sized small business model. Or, they wondered how they could become privy to the kinds of administrative processes that are behind the official recognition of spaces in Baltimore so that they could solidify their organizations reputation and home. Or, they asked how the city school system might integrate some of arts organization practices into certain curricula. The questions were sophisticated and specific. It was clear to me that the interest and involvement of the people of Baltimore in the arts was there, but that there were barriers to entry for catapulting them into the next level of business savvy and real change making urban impact.

So I return to Hands definition of creative placemaking: leveraging artistic practice to change a place, not bolstering a city’s creative sector. In my opinion this definition isn’t enough.  Leveraging art without believing in its ability to create a creative sector will lead to a city being forever stuck with small organizations that are yearning for more resources to meet the challenges of growth and expanded impact, small organizations that want to change their city from the inside out but can’t, small organizations that want to see their local talent flourish but don’t know how to work in savvy ways within city regulations. It is imperative that creative placemaking be defined in all its glory, including its focus on building a cities creative sector, so that the real potential of the arts can be unlocked.


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