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Does Creative Placemaking Work? It’s Complicated

Back in November Slover Linett released the results of a multi-year study on creative placemaking. The study was primarily focused on the impact that music pavilion and band shells that the Levitt Foundation has constructed or renovated across the country.

In the process of discussing the results of the study, the study authors made some very interesting statements about the process and goals of creative placemaking. In particular, they say that measuring the economic impact of creative placemaking is not an accurate measure of the value of creative placemaking in the community.

If you have been reading this blog over the last few months, you probably know that I have been increasingly advocating that the value of the arts should not be measured in terms of impact on economy, education, etc., so these statements were of particular interest to me.

In the executive summary they talk about how assessments of creative placemaking effectiveness have changed:

At first, creative placemaking assessment efforts were focused on developing “indicators” of change and success: new frameworks for bringing together a variety of data points that are related to intended creative placemaking outcomes, which can be tracked over time to gauge the impact of the investment in creative placemaking initiatives. But it has since become clear that the indicators approach has real limitations, especially with respect to connecting changes in the indicators with specific features or activities of any given creative placemaking project

As the authors looked at creative placemaking and the research that has been done in regard to it, they found that there were myriad factors inherent to each neighborhood that contributed to any improvement or lack thereof so it was difficult to credit placemaking for improving conditions. Also no one is consistently gathering data on some other factors that have relevance. (my emphasis)

One objection was that, because data for the indicators is usually collected on a relatively broad geographic level as well as a broad, somewhat abstract conceptual level (based on hard-to-define notions like economic vitality, vibrancy, and livability), it’s virtually impossible to connect any given creative placemaking project with observed change (or lack of change) in the indicators. Another concern was that defining the indicators at such a broad, conceptual level failed to respond to each creative placemaking project’s unique goals, vision, and starting point. [Ian David] Moss argued that there was essentially no mechanism for connecting the Endowment’s investments in Our Town projects to the indicators one sees. A project could be entirely successful on its own terms but fail to move the needle in a meaningful way in its city or neighborhood. Or it could be caught up in a wave of transformation sweeping the entire community, and wrongly attribute that wave to its own efforts. There’s simply no way for us to tell.

Now if this is the case for creative placemaking efforts, it raises a question about whether one could truly draw a connection between construction/renovation/expansion of a facility or introduction of a new program initiative and positive economic outcomes in a city or neighborhood. To some extent these statements seems to suggest that many claims of economic impact by arts entities outside of their direct spending are on shaky ground and may need to be re-evaluated.

On the other hand, a placemaking effort could appear to have had no benefit when measured in terms of economic impact, but had a substantial positive social impact. Of course, a positive economic impact may have a negative social impact as residents are dispossessed by gentrification.

In our view, the indicators systems also often unintentionally favored economic vitality and livability over outcomes related to building a community’s social capital, in large part because there is little or no national, regularly collected data on levels of empowerment, self-efficacy, social bonding, or social bridging—concepts which may be more subjective than economic indicators but are central goals of many creative placemaking efforts and are widely considered critical components of the social health of a place. As a result, some practitioners argued that the indicators-based approach to measuring the impact of creative placemaking could privilege projects that are economically beneficial but may actually diminish the social capital of a community and its members—for instance, by highlighting the economic impact of creative placemaking investments without reckoning with unintended consequences like gentrification on those who might be displaced because of rising property values.

If you think I have been overly idealistic in advocating for a consideration of the intrinsic value of art, here is a little bit of evidence of a shift toward seeing the less easily quantifiable impacts as valid and worthy goals.

As I am sure my frequent interlocutor Carter Gillies would point out, valuing the arts for positive social impact is still something of a prescriptive view of the arts rather than prizing the intrinsic value. But it feels like a step in the right direction to look at the benefits to human relationships over commerce.

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I Am Not Really An Artist, But…

I often talk about the difficulty people have in seeing themselves as creative or as regularly participating in a creative pursuit. I was reminded recently that it can be the off-handed depreciating remarks we make that can reinforce this view.

Yesterday we were meeting with the outside consultant that is going to help us with the arts listening tour we are conducting in our community. The consultant listened to us talk about our goals for the sessions and perceptual, economic and physical barriers people experience that we hoped to learn about.

At a certain point in the conversation she stopped us and said that when she taught class she often gave assignments that required some creative component, in part because reading and grading multi-page papers is pretty burdensome.

She said after listening to us talk, she recognized that when she would give an assignment, she would often preface it by saying, “I’m not an artist….” or “I can’t draw…” She realized that was contrary to the her goal in giving the assignment. In addition, it was giving people permission/excuse not to really try.

She said in the future she would stop using those phrases and instead say, “I don’t have formal training as an artist, but this is how I represent this concept/process visually and it makes sense to me.”

We often say if we can change the life of even one person, we will be content. We haven’t even executed our project and we have already had an impact!

When we comment that we can’t draw, act, dance, sing, etc, it is often to excuse our perceived lack of ability. Or, as is the case in this classroom setting, in an attempt to alleviate any pressure people may feel about needing to produce something of quality on demand.

But it also perpetuates the idea that we are not possessed of any ability whatsoever. That isn’t true. Who hasn’t doodled in their notebook, sung in the shower, lip-synched, danced and pantomimed like no one was watching?

I don’t know if our consultant’s alternative phrasing is the most ideal. I would love to hear other people’s thoughts. But I think it is a start in the right direction.

Perhaps more importantly, her moment of self-reflection forced me to recognize that even as a person who works in the arts, I have probably prefaced an attempt at creative expression by saying “I’m not a…” I am sure I am not the only one either.

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Asking Boards What They Think Of Themselves

A few arts organizations in my community are partnering to conduct an arts listening tour where we will go out into the community and try to get a sense of what the barriers to participation for different groups might be. We met with the outside facilitator today so she could get a sense of what we wanted to do and help us avoid inhibiting honest discussion.

She mentioned that one of her major focuses is non-profit boards and that research on board effectiveness is almost exclusively conducted by talking to the executive officer of the organization rather than the board members. She said if you asked the boards themselves they would probably have a different view about their effectiveness.

She told us this to emphasize the importance of including the people we wanted to know about as listening tour participants rather than asking other groups why they thought people in those demographics weren’t engaged. The need to involve those who were not already engaged in our activities has been at the forefront of our mind since we started planning this project.

Later in the day the facilitator’s anecdote came back to me and lead to me to wonder, how many executive officers ask their board to reflect on their effectiveness. How many boards ask it of themselves? How many discuss the differences and similarities between the directors’ and executive officer’s perceptions?

I know this gets into uncomfortable territory. I actually stumbled into it recently when I mentioned my perception of my board’s decision making process to the board president, citing specific examples. To her credit she thanked me for reflecting something they were too close to see and brought it up at a board meeting.

Not all issues are that easily addressed and not all board dynamics allow for these sort of discussions. Perhaps the first step is to work on changing the dynamics.

If it is true that most of the research about the actions, attitudes and effectiveness of boards of directors is derived from what the organizations’ executive officers say about them, maybe the boards have been unfairly maligned and should be given an opportunity to respond.

(And I know there are a lot of people reading this thinking, no they haven’t and no they shouldn’t, but try to get past that.)

Today being the observation of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, it is appropriate to think about all of our relationships that seem antagonistic to some degree and make us feel uneasy and fearful about acting to resolve. Not all movements need to be large and public impacting thousands. Sometimes they can be small, private and personal impacting a handful.

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Theatre of Education

There is a lot of conversation in the performing arts about potential audiences not seeing themselves or their stories up on stage. If this is something that concerns you, you may want to take some pointers from a New Yorker article about an immersive play experience in Chicago.

Set in an old school, Learning Curve, was created in cooperation with “fifty teen-agers … drawing on their own experiences, and on dozens of interviews with teachers, parents, administrators, and peers” in an attempt to communicate what it is like to attend Chicago city schools.

Similar to other immersive theater pieces like Sleep No More and The Donkey Show, attendee-participants follow a “choose-your-own-adventure” track through the experience.

Each scene lasts just a few minutes but manages, with depth and candor, to make a serious point about the personal and political stew that is public education.

My track that evening brought me to a chaotic advanced Spanish class, where a flustered teacher fought for control of her students while impatiently accommodating a timid new pupil. A real teacher in attendance remarked afterward, “Yup, that’s exactly what school’s like.” Next, I visited a distracted guidance counselor, who informed me that several of my classes were no longer available owing to budget cuts. “You can thank Rahm for that,” he said, referring to Chicago’s mayor. In another intimate scene, I spied a teacher cheating on standardized tests. When caught, she defended herself. “What am I supposed to do? Let the state slap you in the face and call you failures?” Later, I took this same test, frantically filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil while tortured by the ticks of an amplified clock. How quickly that very particular brand of panic returns! But then I assisted in a clever prom proposal, in a janitor’s closet, complete with a guitar and a disco ball, and remembered that, for all of high school’s angst, it provides many small moments of wonder.

While the work was intended to illustrate the experiences of the students, whom the article author terms “silent shareholders,” it engendered “sympathy for the elusive authority figures in their lives” among the student creators. Teachers, seeing students depict them, in turn recognized some of their choices contributed to the stresses their students experience.

Looking at the immersive format in this context, it seems obvious (though it hadn’t occurred to me earlier) that it can be used for more than presenting exciting re-imagined tellings of Shakespearean stories and be a tool for dialogue and social change.

Did anyone in the Chicago area happen to see the show and wants to share their own impressions?

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