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Community-led art: What it takes

I was able to spend a couple of days last week at All My Relations Gallery, an initiative of the Native American Community Development Institute that anchors the American Indian Cultural Corridor in Minneapolis. It presents work by contemporary native artists as a way of not just helping artists, but also helping the broader Native American community reclaim their culture and traditions and build a sense of agency and of community.

Native American art and a cultural space at All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis.

The gallery, along with corridor’s stores, festivals and public art reflect the hopes and dreams and desires of residents.

That’s an amazing story. That’s a story about how creative placemaking fuels community development and movement and ownership for change and improvement.

In my last blog post, I wrote about why the people being impacted by creative placemaking—particularly communities of color and residents in low-income communities—need to be at the center of this work.

Referring to a presentation at the recent ArtPlace Summit by Don Howard, Interim President of the Irvine Foundation, on “building the field,” I suggested people on the ground need to define the standards of practice and the shared identity for the field.

I’d like to explore that same idea—putting people at the center—for the other elements of “field building” including building knowledge, leadership and support for creative placemaking.

Street Smarts

At The Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities Annual Conference last week, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker talked about how we have historically prejudiced academic work over experience. I couldn’t agree more.

The knowledge we need exists in the field. I know from our creative placemaking tour that the artists, residents, community developers and enthusiastic local supporters of this work are some of the smartest, most innovative people in the country.

To be clear, we absolutely need research and assessment to better understand what works, and what doesn’t work. We want to understand how projects can help build a sense of identity, agency, collective efficacy and community.

This knowledge base, however, must be owned by and serve the needs and objectives of the people doing on the work on the ground.

If we are just doing assessment to satisfy the requirements of our funders, but are not able to translate that information to inform the practice, than we are not maximizing our investment. And we simply can’t afford to do that.

We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for

As important as doing the research and assessment work itself, we need to create simple mechanisms for residents and practitioners to know what each other is doing and to share with one another.

When I was at the ArtPlace summit in LA in March, I was struck by the number of people who said that they didn’t have a travel budget. If we are trying to build leadership in creative placemaking, this must change.

"Having people in the community able to learn directly from one another is critical to deepening their knowledge and vision."

Having people in the community able to learn directly from one another is critical to deepening their knowledge and vision. I often hear folks say that their people are their most important asset, but how are they backing that statement up with action and investment in the professional development of their leadership?

Recognizing that everyone can’t always go everywhere, ArtPlace suggested that those of us fortunate enough to be at their Summit (and elsewhere) think of ourselves as “delegates.” As such, we are in the room to learn for ourselves and improve our own skills, and we have an obligation to represent the voices of others not in the room with us. And when we return to our communities, we have a responsibility to share what we have learned and the relationships we have developed with others.

I love this idea and think it is critical if we are going build the knowledge base we need to advance this work.

Creative Exchange is a new national platform for storytelling and resource-sharing around artists, creativity and community.

Another mechanism for sharing is the recent launch of the Creative Exchange. In the words of founder and Springboard for the Arts Executive Director Laura Zabel, “It’s a place for exchange: of stories, practical resources and conversation. It’s a place for artists and community members to come together to share and build connections. Creative Exchange will be built by all of us that use and contribute to it."

While sharing stories and ideas, acting as delegates and investing in people are great ways to develop leadership, we also need to support authentic leadership from the community and must recognize that this leadership may come from unexpected places that are different from what the mainstream expects.

In addition to the nonprofit leader or world-renown artist, a community leader in the creative placemaking realm might be the grandma who invites local kids over to cook some traditional dishes after school, a knitter that yarn bombs a fence at an empty lot, the poet that organizes the weekly poetry slam, or the musician that puts together the bucket band.

These are people who are taking action to change their community, to infuse it with life and energy and beauty! We need to hold their work up and support it.

We’re all in this together

One of my favorite moments at the ArtPlace Summit was when Sarah Hernandez from the McKnight Foundationwhose primary role is in community development, not arts and culturestood up and announced that while she came in as a supporter of creative placemaking, she was leaving as a champion.

How do we get more champions?

Here, too, we need to invite funding and policy support in a way that is consistent with the community definition of success. The field needs to include practitioners, funders, policy makers and researchers who believe in the power of community voice.

We must all be seen as peers with a particular role to play. This means that no one group should preference themselves, nor should they make themselves small in the presence of the other.

My kids loved the Disney movie “High School Musical” in which they sing, “We’re all in this together.” That’s right!

I define success as low-income residents, communities of color, community developers, artists, funders, and others all working together. I believe the only way creative placemaking is going to get to where we need to go is by all of us acknowledging, respecting and owning the critical role each plays.

"At its best, creative placemaking improves people’s lives by reflecting their hopes, dreams and desires."

At its best, creative placemaking improves people’s lives by reflecting their hopes, dreams and desires. It builds places that are conducive to positive interaction and commerce, places that are more livable.

Success of creative placemaking needs to be framed not only in terms of physical transformation or economic success, but about impact on people: delight, joy, inspiration.

That’s what’s happening in the American Indian Cultural Corridor. Working together, we can build a field that is capable of producing stories like that in neighborhoods all across the country.


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

Posted in Leading, Arts & Culture, Thinking Out Loud

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