February 27, 2012

As the arts conversation shifts to 'creative placemaking,' will large institutions still count?

The NEA has been funding creative placemaking for a year or so, but it was only recently that I heard cultural economist Ann Markusen and her colleague Anne Gadwa — co-authors of a terrific 2010 whitepaper by that name — present their research for the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center. It’s an exciting story about thriving, innovative arts activity from which the leading, mainstream cultural institutions are almost entirely absent.

In case the phrase is new to you, Markusen and Gadwa define creative placemaking as a process in which “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.”

As their case studies show, those activities only sometimes involve people showing up at an existing nonprofit arts venue. Most of the time, the action is out in the neighborhoods, in and around alternative venues: repurposed industrial sites, independent commercial entertainment venues, public outdoor spaces, etc. As Markusen and Gadwa write,

Instead of a single arts center or a cluster of large arts and cultural institutions, contemporary creative placemaking envisions a more decentralized portfolio of spaces acting as creative crucibles. In each, arts and culture exist cheek-by jowl with private sector export and retail businesses and mixed-income housing, often occupying buildings and lots that had been vacant and under-used.

Why? In part (and this is my take, not theirs) because these efforts aren’t really driven by the organizations we usually think of when we think of “the arts,” nor by the people we think of as “arts leaders” in the city in question. They’re driven by other community, civic, or business entities, and sometimes by artists or small, grassroots arts organizations. If we think of most major arts initiatives as top-down affairs, decided on and funded by the arts establishment, the placemaking projects that Markusen and Gadwa write about are bottom-up, or perhaps side-in.

Where are the major arts organizations in this new landscape? Slowly getting on the bandwagon, the authors imply. “Large cultural institutions, often inspired by their smaller counterparts, are increasingly engaging in active placemaking,” they write in their executive summary. But there are precious few examples in the rest of their report. ...

The other reason this absence makes sense is that the purposes of these creative placemaking efforts are different from the purposes of most large, established arts institutions. Or rather, they overlap, but not enough for real common cause. Creative placemaking, in Markusen and Gadwa’s formulation and in the NEA’s new way of thinking, is primarily a community and economic development tool:

Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired. In turn, these creative locales foster entrepreneurs and cultural industries that generate jobs and income, spin off new products and services, and attract and retain unrelated businesses and skilled workers.

The overlap, of course, is in those words “celebrate, inspire, and be inspired,” which pepper most organizations’ mission statements. But here it’s a means, not an end. Perhaps those world-class art museums, symphonies, theaters, and dance companies — the ones with their own halls and galleries to fill, endowments to manage, and international networks of artists and donors to cultivate — have to focus on their own institutional imperatives and can’t afford to think of themselves as a tool for other goals. Perhaps their leaders prefer to think about the arts as intrinsically rather than instrumentally valuable. Perhaps they believe they already contribute plenty to placemaking and civic vitality.

Seen through Markusen and Gadwa’s lens, though, those positions start to look a little inward and self-involved. And not just to the NEA, perhaps, but to many of the big national and regional foundations, where restructurings and new grant programs in recent years have shifted arts funding from a direct mode in which the arts are viewed as automatically good to an indirect mode in which the arts are worthy of support only to the extent that they help solve civic, economic, educational, and other shared challenges.

In other words, we may be seeing the end of the long, modernist era in which cultural institutions were supported automatically because they were bulwarks of excellence in certain venerable aesthetic traditions. (John Holden and others have made this point more eloquently.) In postmodern society, culture isn’t just treated as a tool, it’s defined as a tool: the category of activities we refer to when we say “the arts” is now determined in part by the uses to which those activities can be put. 

Creative placemaking may not be the only set of uses, but the shift is clear. Relevance is now tied, probably irrevocably, to some kind of usefulness. 

So for economic as well as philosophical reasons, this is no time for the nonprofit arts sector to distance itself from purposes and challenges larger than its own sustainability. It would be a mistake for major institutions to watch others play the new game, while they continue to play the old.

1 Comment »
emanuel — March 24, 2014

Well, why would large institutions be deprived of this? They have advantages for being well-known, stable and well-resourced, but they also have disadvantages: harder to communicate and implement changes, for example

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