Work in Progress: A Funder Looks at Key Challenges Around Creative Placemaking

Creative placemaking has been both a promising and frustrating proposition ever since it started gaining traction across the funding community roughly a decade ago.

On one hand, many funders believe that the arts can transform underserved communities. On the other hand, the risk of promoting gentrification—or, at the very least, creating the impression of promoting gentrification—is very real.

This vexed reality has come into sharper focus over the past few years as foundations have pivoted to combating inequality. So a new white paper, “Rethinking Neighborhood Change and Tracking Progress,” by the Kresge Foundation’s Maria Rosario Jackson, a must-read for anyone interested in how Kresge sees creative placemaking and its evolving role across the fields of both arts philanthropy and community development.

I’ll delve into the nuance and context of the white paper in a moment, but first I’d like to skip ahead to the report’s key takeaway. In short: “Addressing urban inequality through Creative Placemaking practices—the integration of arts, culture and community-engaged design into community development—requires a broader and more comprehensive approach, and an evolution in methods to track community impact.”

The observations and insights the paper presents draw from an examination of selected grantees of the Kresge Foundation Arts & Culture team’s Creative Placemaking initiative, who are operating primarily in low-income neighborhoods. This is the third installment in a series of Kresge reports aimed at sharing lessons, identifying challenges, and encouraging discussion in the creative placemaking field.

Kresge’s first white paper, titled “Arts & Culture Program—The First Decade,” traced the evolution of Kresge's program from providing capital challenge grants to the foundation's current creative placemaking strategy. The second, “Creative Placemaking and Expansion of Opportunity—Observations and Reflections,” surveyed the state of creative placemaking and, according to Jackson, provided “a point of departure for further examination, discussion and action as the field continues to develop.” 

That second paper, published last year, addressed two key themes—understanding the root causes of urban inequality and the need for more effective performance measurement. Regarding root causes, Jackson argued that effectively addressing the issue of urban inequality requires funders to pay more attention to “how change relevant to expansion of opportunity actually happens at various levels—on the ground in neighborhoods, as well as across local, regional and national systems.”

Similarly, the field, according to Jackson, was “hungry for stronger evidence of creative placemaking’s impact in expanding opportunity for low-income communities.” At the time, it was “a question that community development and arts practitioners, funders, policymakers, community leaders and others wish they could answer definitively.” According to Jackson’s most recent report, it still is.

In order to get a better understanding of the urban inequality challenge and stakeholders’ inability to meaningfully measure impact, we must first establish a conceptual baseline in terms of nomenclature. What, exactly, is “creative placemaking?” It’s a complicated question.

Consensus Remains Elusive

The term “creative placemaking” was coined by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus for the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010. At the time, they defined it as a process where “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.”

In the intervening years, though, consensus around its definition has been elusive. Back in 2014, we noted that Kresge, on its website, said, “Many elements of creative placemaking are not well understood, and that lack of clarity inhibits more widespread adoption of the practice.” And in her most recent white paper, Jackson writes that despite some progress, “a persistent and basic challenge is that the practice” of creative placemaking “has been difficult to describe,” since the term “requires a translation of the concept suitable for its audience” and “the concept continues to be difficult to convey quickly.”

Another reason for this confusion, according to Jackson, is the fact that “definitions of art and the roles of artists in society are frequently narrow and not inclusive of cultural assets in low-income communities, arts-based processes or the diverse roles of artists, designers and culture-bearers in planning and community development.”

I’d like to extend Jackson’s point a bit further. Kresge has reframed the term as a tool that holistically describes structural, systemic and institutional changes “critical to eradicating inequity”—to quote Jackson—in urban areas. It’s an audacious goal, and one that, given the inherent complexity of the challenge and its associated root causes, can make tracking progress in a conventional sense difficult for practitioners.

A Focus on Urban Inequality

Urban inequality, Jackson writes, stems from “flaws in the socioeconomic opportunity structure, shortcomings in the institutions that exist to connect people to opportunity, and people’s responses to long-term exclusion and disconnection from opportunity.”

As a result, creative placemaking practitioners—to paraphrase a key takeaway from Jackson’s previous white paper—must get a “clear understanding and articulation of the sources and consequences of urban inequality and the process of change at various levels” in order to “improve current practices.”

You could describe this mandate as a case of “mission creep.” It’s worth noting that Markusen and Nicodemus’ 2010 definition of “creative placemaking” doesn’t limit the practice to urban areas, nor does it mention the term “inequality.” What was originally envisioned as a mechanism to foster community improvement through the arts has now evolved into something more expansive, at least from Kresge’s point of view.

Kresge’s interpretation makes perfect sense, however, as it aligns with its urban-focused mission. It’s also a natural development flowing from a stepped-up focus on inequality within philanthropy after the Ford Foundation repositioned itself in 2015 around the goal of reducing inequality in “all its forms.” This trend has permeated the arts space writ large, as funders increasingly view the arts as a vehicle to drive meaningful social change.

In a similar vein, the other big player in the creative placemaking space, ArtPlace America, defines the field as one “engaging in social change.” However, unlike Kresge, ArtPlace has focused a good portion of it its creative placemaking efforts on the often-ignored pockets of rural America. After allocating roughly 30 percent of investments to rural communities, ArtPlace boosted that number to 52 percent for 2017's round of funding.

After investing $87 million in 279 projects in 208 communities of all sizes across the nation, ArtPlace, whose creative placemaking program is due to sunset in 2020, has done its own fair share of introspection as of late. In May of 2018, it published its “Creative Placemaking Field Study,” which aimed to “gather a clear understanding of the current state of the creative placemaking field across this country.”

I encourage you to check out the key takeaways here. Bottom line? The creative placemaking field is “moderately strong.” What’s more:

We’ve also learned that lasting change—to have these sorts of partnerships be standard operating practice and not just a grant-funded one-off—must happen on the local level, within an existing ecosystem. And for that change to take root on the local level, there must be local ownership of both the resources and the responsibility.

Looking ahead, ArtPlace will not be continuing the National Creative Placemaking Fund. Instead, it will “transfer funding in up to six geographies to strengthen the local ecosystems of creative placemaking.”

Things remain fluid, so funders, arts organizations, and commentators shouldn’t be surprised if the definition, expectations and metrics for success pertaining to “creative placemaking” continue to evolve. Jackson acknowledges this reality, writing that recognizing that “preconditions for longer-term change are imperative has implications for how the community-development field initiates strategy development and gauges progress.”

Development Vs. Displacement

Another big topic in the Kresge white paper is the need for creative placemaking stakeholders to embrace responsible urban planning. Proponents are acutely aware of the risks here. Community members are suspicious of creative placemakers parachuting into a poor neighborhood and drumming up development only to displace longtime residents who can no longer afford skyrocketing rent.

Jackson expounds on this idea in Kresge’s recent paper. The problem, she writes, is that historically, developers rarely made the distinction between “good” and “bad” development. If, after years of neglect, a neighborhood boasts a new coffee shop, a yoga studio, and affordable art studios, developers have been conditioned to view this an inherently “good” (and lucrative) outcome. But it’s also short-sighted.

“No one was sufficiently trained to manage the unbridled reinvestment or return to the urban core and related racialized dynamics that we see in many cities today,” Jackson writes. “The community-development and urban-planning fields have been caught unprepared and must catch up.”

The good news is that responsible creative placemaking is possible. Kresge recently published case studies of creative placemaking stakeholders allaying residents’ fears of gentrification in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. Efforts in those places found stakeholders rolling out financing mechanisms to help artists buy homes and supplementing “informational meeting” formats with arts-based activities for families.

Moving forward, “in real estate markets where displacement concerns are warranted,” Jackson writes, “it is incumbent upon planners, developers, funders and community leaders to ensure that Creative Placemaking strategies are integrated with a suite of related interventions that, at minimum, mitigate displacement and, at best, truly expand opportunity.”

Understanding “Social Impacts”

The final key theme is the idea of what Jackson calls “better understanding and documenting the social impacts of the arts as well as impacts related to health and well-being.” This goal is also attuned to the larger trends across the philanthropy space, in which funders seek to generate a measurable return on investment, as well as the arts space, where funders continue to push for “hard” and “soft” metrics that illustrate the impact of the arts experience.

Jackson alluded to this challenge in her previous white paper, listing some softer metrics for success, like how a project fosters “greater social cohesion and sense of agency among residents, increased pride and stewardship of place, physical transformation, and greater control over community narrative.” In her most recent piece, Jackson refers to these “soft” metrics as “indicators,” defined as “studies of social cohesion, agency and similar concepts that are important precedents.” However unquantifiable, these “indicators” provide “important signals and insights that can inform policy and program development.”

Yet five or so months after Jackson’s previous report, proponents are still searching for stronger evidence of creative placemaking’s impact in expanding opportunity for low-income communities. “Practitioners and researchers do not yet have all of the skills and tools required to make the case for the value of the arts in ways that resonate with what we are learning about the various roles of arts and culture in communities,” Jackson writes.

How can we interpret Jackson’s analysis? After all, organizations like Americans for the Arts have been making the case for the value of the arts for decades. In 2015, the Wallace Foundation allotted $52 million to study and boost arts engagement, and has been methodically rolling out its findings ever since. In announcing its 2018 Public Art Challenge, Bloomberg Philanthropies noted that the initiative has thus far generated $13 million for local economies, employed 820 individuals, and created 490 programs and activities like tours, workshops and lectures.

Last year, I spoke with Kate D. Levin, the woman who oversees Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Arts program. She pointed out that Inaugural Public Art Challenge winner ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen in Gary, Indiana spurred positive change in the context of Gary’s larger economic development efforts. “Both the mayor and the city’s leading philanthropic foundation said that ArtHouse has been a catalyst for change in downtown Gary,” Levin said, “where key revitalization projects have since kicked off, such as the transformation of the City Methodist Church ruins into a garden and the launch of Steel City Salvage’s reclaimed building material warehouse.” 

Levin told me that Bloomberg’s cumulative work in the public art space has cultivated a “growing appreciation among city leadership of the creative sector’s ability to address pressing civic issues and bring a range of positive benefits to communities.”

Now, I admit that “creative placemaking” isn’t identical in approach and measurement to Wallace’s efforts or Bloomberg’s work in the public art space—but there are certainly areas of overlap. Indeed, in its recent analysis of the creative placemaking field, ArtPlace America said it has “added both to a knowledge base and to standards of practice, and we have been able to identify, support and engage leaders, practitioners, funders and policy makers.” That’s good news!

So what explains Jackson’s contention that creative placemaking proponents still can’t adequately make the case for the arts?

Rethinking Measurement

One culprit, Jackson argues, has to do with “existing standards of excellence and corresponding well-developed validation systems that are poor fits for creative placemaking.” In other words, traditional metrics for success in the art world—the price of a painting, for example—aren’t applicable, since creative placemaking is “process-heavy” and “does not result in products for conventional presentation or sale.” In addition, “many artists involved in creative placemaking acquire their skills on the job, often through baptism by fire, working through trial and error in and with communities.”

I’d like to propose an additional theory: the actual composition of the metrics themselves as they pertain to Kresge’s vision of “eradicating inequality.”

Consider the funder’s approach in a previous post looking at the foundation’s gift to fund the New York City-based EmcArts' Community Innovation Labs program. The funding was earmarked to support the completion of two labs—one in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to “build local capacity to take on complex social challenges by integrating the arts into a rigorous process framework.” Here are the “core questions” the Winstom-Salem Lab hoped to address:

  • How can we create a more equitable and abundant Winston-Salem?

  • How can we move systems of race, class and power to do so?

  • How can we, as a community, build enough trust to enable transformative change to happen?

Metric No. 1 can be measured. Metrics No. 2 and 3? Not so much. Here, stakeholders have to rely on what Jackson called “indicators” after agreeing on what, precisely, it means to “move systems of race,” “build enough trust” and “enable transformative change.” Are they powerful and important questions? Of course. But they’re relatively subjective ones when compared with traditional and technocratic Bloomberg-esque performance metrics. (It’s also worth noting that Bloomberg Philanthropies hasn’t embraced “anti-inequality” messaging as forcefully as funders like Ford, Kresge and many others.)

This challenge becomes all the more pronounced when considering that the giants of modern philanthropy, after allocating millions to fight inequality over the past three years, have made little meaningful headway on the issue.

This isn’t to say the arts can’t combat inequality and drive positive social change. The Art for Justice Fund, for example, played a role in pushing the recent criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, across the finish line. But the larger challenge of urban inequality, as Jackson eloquently noted, is an amalgamation of smaller, yet incredibly complex and interrelated forces. It will be interesting to see how Kresge’s approach evolves within this fluid socio-economic context.

We’ll let Jackson have the last word.

“The Kresge Foundation’s experience with Creative Placemaking, teaches us that developing viable, new ways of framing and capturing community change involves taking risks,” she writes. “It also requires calibrating expectations about timelines and management methods inherent in blending different perspectives; trying new approaches; and attempting to build the structures and validation systems that support new, smarter and more holistic, ethical, impactful ways of working.

“Most importantly, it requires leadership, a willingness to reconsider commonly accepted practices; the resolve to try something different, and to accept the process of failing, learning, adapting and trying again.”