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How arts and culture can transform your community

I know first-hand how art and culture can transform individuals and communities. I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota at a time when I thought I had to be either black or white. As an Asian American, I was neither.

Erik Takeshita

It was the work of Mu Performing Arts staging plays about the Asian-American experience in Minnesota, written, performed and viewed by other Asian Americans that made it OK for me to be Asian-American in Minnesota.

Through their work, I saw my story on stage. It gave me a sense of pride, identity and a sense of agency that I could make a difference.

I’ve spent 20+ years helping to build stronger communities. I’ve done this through my work at LISC, with the City of Minneapolis, and the Hawai’i Arts Alliance.

I helped launch the Creative Community Leadership Initiative at Intermedia Arts here in Minneapolis and received a fellowship to study art and community development at the Harvard Kennedy School.

While I’ve had different roles and responsibilities—ranging from financing real estate deals to running a main street program, from serving as a Senior Policy Aide to the Mayor to running an art center—my passion has always been the nexus of art, culture and community development.

And so I’ve been excited to watch and participate in a growing movement to foster creative placemaking, a relatively new term that describes a process where public, private and community partners strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood or town through arts and cultural activities.

Creative Placemaking: A Powerful Force

Examples of creative placemaking show that there are amazing opportunities when communities go beyond the idea of “art for arts sake” and embrace the full power of arts and culture to transform our communities.

Smiling faces in Indianapolis' King Park

Creative placemaking can, obviously, help transform a neighborhood physically with murals and sculpture and investments in artist housing, galleries and theaters. It can also strengthen the local economy, as eye-catching storefronts, new cultural activities and intriguing installations bring in customers and attract new businesses.

Creative placemaking can also, however, increase a sense of community identity and residents’ sense of pride.

Having a vibrant arts and cultural ecosystem make a neighborhood a more interesting, livable place and can help shape the narrative about a neighborhood—about what kind of a place it is.

That last point is particularly important, I think. Arts and culture are a powerful force. Powerful enough to transform physical space, spur economic activity and tell a story about a place. They can change the reputation and the trajectory of a community.

But as the field of creative placemaking is on the rise, there is a growing awareness that, as Spiderman once said “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Steps must be taken to ensure that arts-based approaches to community development are inclusive and equitable. We must be intentional to ensure that arts-based efforts build a sense of pride and collective efficacy among residents.

And so, LISC has started to take a deeper look at creative placemaking and our work.

A Tour of What Is Possible

With support from the Kresge Foundation, which has become a leading advocate for the approach, LISC has set out to find out more about existing arts-and-culture programs in our network, to discuss how arts can be a tool to build community equity, and to think about how LISC can be an asset for creative placemaking efforts.

On tour: Learning about Philly's murals

Over the last four months, my colleague Mindy Leiterman and I have traveled across the country to see firsthand how creative placemaking is making a difference in low- and moderate-income communities in Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Covington, KY, Woonsocket and Providence, RI, and here in the Twin Cities. We’ve interviewed practitioners in another seven cities, reaching in total about half of the LISC national network.

We found a lot of exciting projects that have a greater sophistication, scale and impact than I think any of us imagined (click here to see a photo essay about some of the people, places and projects we encountered).

We also found that there is a deep hunger from folks in the field to learn more about what their peers are doing and how they themselves can do more and do it better.

There is an exciting and important role LISC can play in creative placemaking. Through the Building Sustainable Communities program, LISC and our partners have learned a lot that is directly applicable to harnessing that power of arts and culture.

LISC knows how neighborhoods “work,” how to help community groups partner together, how to maintain efforts, how to get beyond the traditional silos and boundaries, and how to envision, plan and finance projects. These are vital skills to ensure that arts-and-culture programs build real engagement within the community and that they are successful and sustainable.

There is also an exciting and important role creative placemaking can play for community developers like LISC. Arts and culture can be a vital and unique part of the toolkit to transform communities. The energy and exhilaration that creative placemaking brings to a neighborhood is like nothing else in our work.

More to Come

Of course, many of us are already involved in arts and culture. In my current job as deputy director for Twin Cities LISC, I keep seeing postcards, newsletter articles and email notices from other field offices around the country about their local projects using arts and culture.

Art brings people together in the Twin Cities

But community developers don’t necessarily think of a new mural, or a main street arts program, or an arts training as “creative placemaking.” And in many instances, these stand-alone programs are having an impact on the community, but can also be leveraged to have even more influence.

This blog post is the first of a series we’re publishing over the next few months that explore in greater detail what LISC has learned about creative placemaking.

I think we’ve got some good stories to tell, like how a bubble machine helped attract $43 million in real estate investment and what it’s like in a former steel foundry where teens learn welding and couples hold weddings.

As important, I think we’ve got interesting, important ideas to discuss about how creative placemaking can build engagement, identity and investment in a community.

So, please keep an eye on this space. In addition to these posts on creative placemaking, the Institute website is going to have resources and articles about arts and culture in the context of community development. Looking forward.

See the whole Thinking Out Loud series on creative placemaking here.

Posted in Arts & Culture, Thinking Out Loud

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