Your Man About Town’s middle name is Moderation, Dear Reader; and although it is a somewhat awkward locution when making a full introduction, it nonetheless conveys the important fact that your Man About Town’s middle name is not Tom, Dick or Harry. I moderate. I facilitate. I have even been known, at times, to adjudicate.
So when the New York Chapter of the Grantmakers in the Arts asked if I wouldn’t mind moderating a panel on creative placemaking at the Queens Museum of Art earlier this month, I could no more deny them than I could my very nature. Or at least, the very nature of my personal brand.
And besides, who can resist yet again attempting to define exactly what “creative placemaking” is – at least in our evolving understanding of the term. I’ve been working on this issue for more than ten years, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that when I speak with nonprofit cultural partners and funders alike I’m more often than not still greeted with perplexity.
It’s not that creative placemaking is some numinous phenomenon, but it is highly subject to what Ann Markusen calls fuzzy concepts – where the very terms that define it “lack clarity and are difficult to test or operationalize.” Other great fuzzy concepts include “flexible specialization, windows of opportunity, resurgent regions, world cities, cooperative competition.” In short, the concept may seem intuitively logical, but it’s awfully difficult to demonstrate (be sure to check out the really terrific running commentary on CreatEquity where the NEA itself has been posting responses to critiques of its framework of arts and livability indicators.
That’s why I was so immoderately pleased with the panel discussion and audience interaction. I think it really helped me clarify some of my own thinking about the creative placemaking concept. My takeaways may or may not be more measurable, but afterward I felt I better understood how the concepts could be acted upon.
I would be remiss if I did not include a brief word of thanks to Kerry McCarthy (New York Community Trust), Cheryl Green Rosario (American Express), and Karen Rosa (Altman Foundation) who all labored to make this convening happen. And of course a special thanks to the Queens Museum for generously lending their facilities.
Our panel consisted of three distinguished guests who have all contributed substantially and participated broadly in the development of creative placemaking. Gonzalo Casals is the Director of Education and Public Programs at El Museo del Barrio (and along with your Man About Town a fellow member of the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts Working Group); Susan Feder is Program Officer for the Performing Arts at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (and also sits on the ArtPlace Operating Committee); and of course our host Tom Finkelpearl is the Executive Director of the Queens Museum.
Time was tight, so we had a very prescriptive format: each presenter was allowed only three slides and five minutes to share a bit about their personal and institutional relationship to creative placemaking. The goal was to simply give the audience of grantmakers a sense of their expertise and capacity, so that the audience could then develop and direct questions or offer insights that would allow the conversation to build. We endeavored to avoid the usual talking head syndrome and instead committed the overwhelming majority of the time for give-and-take with the audience itself.
It worked, if I do say so myself.
We had a very spirited conversation that touched on a wide variety of issues and concerns. Why should you care what a room full of funders discussed? Well because they are, ahem, a room full of funders, and their passions, interests and capacities drive the resources that make creative placemaking possible.
Rather than reporting the conversation verbatim, I think it’s more valuable to share the key concepts that emerged from it. You know, the ones where when someone said it bunches of heads in the room started nodding up and down. Here are my takeaways about what creative placemaking meant to our discussants:
It’s a lifestyle, not a program
Creative placemaking does not function well as a single, standalone program within a cultural entity. While a program may have some valuable impacts, placemaking evolves and transcends when it becomes attached to the core mission of the cultural nonprofit, when the staff adopt placemaking as a uniting principal behind their work, and when relationships to both audiences and external stakeholders are actively engaged through placemaking creativity. As one panelist put it, you have to have people on your staff who believe creative placemaking is fun.
Placemaking puts the priority on relationships rather than programs. Several of our panelists spoke about the importance of meeting with their stakeholders regularly, just to get together, share ideas and keep up to date. It was not unusual to have meetings that didn’t generate any direct programmatic outcomes, but instead served to keep communication channels open and evolve possibilities. In creative placemaking, programmatic collaborations are fluid, episodic, built around a working knowledge of the players, and emerge when leadership and resources coalesce. Placemaking has an improvisational vibe, and won’t conform well to the boundaries of a single staff person or program area.
We also discussed the idea that creative placemaking happens within the context of a community ecosystem: cultural organizations, small businesses, local elected leaders, corporations and foundations, creative sector trade associations, other nonprofits – all had a role to play, and many had multiple roles. There were many layers of relationships between the various players, and a porosity, a movement between them. There was a recognition that in order to accomplish a given programmatic goal several partners representing different capacities or specialties would need to be involved. In this case, the cultural nonprofit seeking to activate creative placemaking might convene, facilitate or catalyze. Sometimes it took the lead, but sometimes not. Its role was dictated as much by the partners in the room as by the resources it could bring to bear.
There was an interesting point made about the role of philanthropic dollars striking a balance between supporting program needs and capital needs. There seemed to be general agreement that while investing in the physical infrastructure could leave a clear and lasting resource, without strong programming that infrastructure could run a substantial risk of being under-utilized.
Gradual growth, not rapid expansion
In every conversation I’ve had about creative placemaking, the devilish question of exactly who benefits from the success of that placemaking has raised hackles. In our conversation, there was general agreement that growth is good. The ideal would be slow and steady growth, driven by grassroots expansion of the local economy and its creative sector agents. It was felt that this type of growth favored the retention and stability of the in-place community.
Folks agreed that rapid growth, conversely, could certainly make for some eye-popping success stories, but was also more likely to result it substantial displacement and an overall change in neighborhood character. This change was likewise more liable to be detrimental to the very creative sector elements that brought it about in the first place. Creative placemaking partnerships, therefore, should rely less on the direct engagement of real estate developers, and more firmly on long-term community stakeholders.
Similarly, many placemaking strategies revolve around the idea of attracting outsiders, tourists or visitors. While there was agreement that widening audiences and bringing in creative product consumers from outside the community could widen the local economic base, participants cautioned against putting too much focus on consumption in and of itself. By working instead to strengthen local creative sector production – encouraging not just new creative works, but new classes, workshops, residencies and festivals – investment was more likely to support that gradual and stable grassroots growth creative placemakers value.
Finally, it’s impossible to have a conversation about growth and development and not discuss the conflict between sustained vibrancy in the arts and the practice of making one-year grants. While this was discussed at the panel, I’m willing to take the heat and offer this as my personal opinion: one-year grants are, shall we say, problematic. The overwhelming majority of funding is comprised of one-year grants, and as a former program officer I understand the need to maintain both grant portfolio flexibility and grantee accountability. By default, one-year grants enforce this structurally. One-year grants are also justifiably used for both seeding and completing important programs, or establishing new relationships.
Still, if the stated expectation of your program is to induce long-term growth and development (whether in an organization or a program), then stable, multi-year support should be part of the deal. There was universal agreement during the event discussion that funders should bear this in mind.
Advocacy, not promotion
Creative placemaking by its very nature requires outreach, visibility and stakeholder engagement. It is most certainly about building awareness, and there are aspects of the work that involve fairly straightforward marketing. Still, panelists made a distinction between the idea of promotion (which tends to focus on a single venue, performance, or installation), and advocacy (which links more closely with the concepts of stakeholder engagement, relationship development, and managing within an ecosystem of symbiotic partnerships).
Creative placemakers engage directly in discussions of policy and advocacy because they see these as directly aligned with both their institutional mission and goals for operational sustainability. Frequently, their ability to work from within a network of local relationships positioned them to act as an honest broker, facilitator, or director of actions only tangentially related to their creative work, but of direct relevance to their environment or ecosystem. In short, promotion is siloed, while advocacy cuts across boundaries.
A few words on disaster recovery
Participants made time at the end of our conversation to talk briefly about their commitments to disaster recovery. A number of the attendees had been directly affected, or had close relationships to those communities hard hit. I particularly liked the idea of building a “program in a box” that could be delivered whole cloth and easily produced in storm affected areas – kind of like a pop up arts happening. We also talked about the role the arts have always played in providing a therapeutic outlet for the disaster stricken (be sure to check out one of my personal favorites, Sandy Storyline), and the powerful work being done by libraries to provide information, programs and additional supports in storm-affected areas. There were many other ideas discussed, and I can only reflect that we’re fortunate to have engaged and thoughtful allies in every corner of our city.
On a special note, The Queens Museum has been actively working to raise funds on behalf of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, including a recent event that offered 100% of its proceeds to the RWA (some $50,000). Tom Finkelpearl was eloquent in his commitment to invest in an on-the-ground organization that was not only providing real and immediate service, but that would remain long after the emergency workers had gone to continue the hard work of rebuilding. Donations to RWA can be made here.
I’ll conclude my report back by saying that being your Man About Town is a position of privilege. It allows me to see into many interactions, touch multiple relationships, hear manifold insights. Privilege comes with duty, and I hope these reports from the front lines can in some way pay back a portion of the debt I owe.