When Fantasy Morphs Into Reality

You just have to read this recent piece on the ArtsPlace America website about a fictitious marketing campaign created as a graduate school thesis project that became reality.

Peter Svarzbein’s thesis project had residents of El Paso, TX excited about the return of a trolley system that went defunct about 45 years ago.

….part performance art, part guerrilla marketing, part visual art installation, and part fake advertising campaign. The project began with a series of wheatpaste posters advertising the return of the El Paso-Juárez streetcar, and continued with the deployment of Alex the Trolley Conductor, a new mascot and spokesperson for the alleged new service. Alex appeared at Comic Cons, public parks, conferences, and other public spaces to promote the return of the streetcar, while additional advertisements appeared across El Paso, sparking curiosity and excitement for the assumed real project.

Eventually, Svarzbein admitted that the project was a graduate thesis masquerading as a streetcar launch,…

But when Svarzbein heard the city of El Paso was preparing to sell the art deco trolley cars, he rallied community support for the restoration of the trolley cars and passenger service. His initiative gained the support of both the city and state department of transportation, garnering a $97 million grant to help get the cars running again.

I love what happened next,

In one of the most surprising twists in this long tale, shortly after this funding was awarded, he rode the wave of public support for the once-fictional project to win a seat on El Paso’s City Council. He is now the City Representative for District 1, and an artist is now at the table.

In his remarks about the creativity he employed to rally support for the restoration, Svarzbein reflected on the role of an artist in the community,

“there is a sort of responsibility that artists have to imagine and speak about a future that may not be able to be voiced by a large amount of people in the present. I felt that sort of responsibility. If I couldn’t change the debate, at least I could sort of write a love letter to the place that raised me.”

Varied Advice & Insights On Creative Placemaking, Economic Impact

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on the Creative Placemaking conference I attended, I wanted to share some general thoughts and ideas I had picked up.

Regardless of whether the setting is urban, suburban or rural, there are a number of communities experiencing really difficult times. A number of panelists discussed the need to address the community trauma before you ever talk about economic stimulus. You can’t just walk in and position something as a solution to the problems in the community until those problems are aired and people have a sense that they can move forward from there. Otherwise the issues will likely continue to fester and undermine the foundation of what you are trying to accomplish.

When it comes to investment and grant making in rural communities, it probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that one of the factors contributing to the low level of investment is geographic remoteness. David Stocks of the Educational Foundation of America (which ironically is not involved in education) talked about how program officers will need to invest a lot more effort into bringing support to rural communities.

They might need to take a plane to a regional airport and then drive 2-3 hours before they reach a community. There is also the issue of trying to identify what organizations would make good anchor partners for the work they do.  There is a need for both funders and community organizations to work at expanding their relationship networks to increase the chances that their orbits will intersect.

Marie Mascherin who works for New Jersey Community Capital, characterized her organization primarily as a lender. She talked about how lenders viewed placemaking activities which was a perspective you rarely get. All the same, she warned those in attendance that her organization was atypical in that they got a lot more involved with the community and projects they were working on than most similar lending organizations.

John Davis who was involved with bringing vitality to both New York Mills, MN and Lanesboro, MN passed on a piece of advice he had received from a college professor – don’t make excuses, even about money, for not finding a creative solution. Basically, don’t let lack of money (or other things)  become default excuses about why things can’t be accomplished. In a rural setting where resources are scarce, you pretty much have to try harder to find creative solutions.

(Honestly, “work even harder and don’t make excuses,” wasn’t something I wanted to hear, but wasn’t exactly news.)

Davis also talked about an argument he made to a local government that was balking at renovating a building. He noted it would cost them $35,000 to demolish the building or they could invest $35,000 into renovating the building and have a more valuable property they could sell later if his project failed.

His project didn’t fail, but that concept dovetailed in an interesting way with a comment Ben Fink of Appalshop made about a prison project being proposed near Whitesburg, KY. He said that the $300,000,000 prison was being sold to the community as, at best, creating 300 new jobs. He noted that was $1,000,000 a job–compare that to how much benefit $1 investment in arts and culture has for a community.

It occurred to me that is something to look into and leverage proactively with governments and decision makers. Rather than waiting until it comes time to ask for funding to be renewed, when a discussion comes up about providing tax breaks or subsidies for companies, it might be useful to mention that $1 invested in creative placemaking/arts/culture/education in the community is more efficient.

While I am on the subject of economic activity, in one session I bluntly asked Jeremy Liu of PolicyLink about the veracity of economic impact claims being made by organizations and communities. He said if they are using analytic tools like those offered by Implan, the numbers are dependable.

In the past I have mentioned my concern with arts and culture organizations arguing for funding or policy changes citing the benefits of art and music on learning and test scores when such benefits are only weakly supported or have been debunked.

What has worried me is that decision and policy makers will learn about the lack of evidence for these claims and perhaps actively wield it against the arts community. By the same token, I have often wondered at the rigor behind claims of economic impact of creative activity in communities and feared what might result if they are debunked.¥

A few other tidbits people offered-

Don’t become hyperfocused on placemaking. Don’t value place or a project over the community. Even if you are in a group, no project is completed in isolation.

If you recall in the very beginning of my post yesterday I mentioned that I gained an appreciation and broader perspective on the different roles that contributed to a placemaking project from governments to funding/loan group to community members to the people executing the work, placemaking is a function of many entities working together.

I feel like I am citing him a lot in these last two posts, but I appreciated Ben Fink’s insights about establishing relationships with people in the community. He said the first real shared connection you will make with someone is rarely associated with the project you are trying to accomplish. As an example, your aim may be to solicit participation in a building renovation for a maker space but the initial basis of your relationship is a shared interest in 19th century steam engines.

He said that building community support and participation happened in the same way friendships develop. It is heavily dependent on the dynamics at the formation of the project. If participation is by invitation only, one person ends up being in charge. If you form a clique of interested parties, it becomes insular. But if the project begins with the intention of leaving the door open, interested people will start to gravitate toward the project as they see work happening.

¥- None of this compromises my assertion that while arts and cultural activity may generate economic activity, steady employment, positive social outcomes and quality of life, the none of this is a measure of the value of arts and culture.

“Love You, But I Would Love You More If Only…” In Public-Private Partnerships

This past week I have been dipping my toe in and out of the livestream for the ArtPlace America Summit. One of the plenary sessions I went back to listen to more fully was a discussion ArtPlace CEO Jamie Bennett held with Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson and Detroit Future City Executive Director Anika Goss-Foster about public/private partnerships.

The title of the session was “You’re not the Boss of Me: What Happened to the Public in Public-Private Partnerships?” and the most fascinating parts dealt exactly the issue of who the boss is in public-private partnerships.

Around the 12:15 point, Rapson talks about how one of the previous mayors of Detroit had approached him at the Kresge Foundation asking if they would fund a long range master planning process to revitalize Detroit. The team Kresge put together was so successful in generating participation and investment from the community that the city administration started to feel that their prerogatives were being challenged and their competency was being questioned. The city government began resisting the efforts of the Detroit Future City team Kresge put together to work with them.

Kresge decided to shutdown the process for a year and pull it out of the mayor’s office. However, they had built up so much momentum getting the community involved over two years, the community wouldn’t allow them to dial things back. Kresge restructured things toward a community ownership model and finished the master plan.

Around the same time, a new administration took charge of Detroit city government and they embraced the externally generated plan. But then the same dynamic developed where the city government came to resent the involvement of outsiders. According to Rapson, they did recognize the talent of the Detroit Future City team, but they wanted to absorb the organization into the city planning department and have them work under the city’s terms.

Rapson says that in the current national environment, the lines between public and private are much more porous than in the past. At one time a philanthropic entity wouldn’t get involved with this type of work. At one time the view was that private sector work was tainted and the public sector was far too messy and political.

Today he says, when faced with a problem there is more of a negotiation of who does what the best. Who is best equipped with the expertise, capacity and resources to address an issue. For instance, only the city government is empowered to set zoning laws, levy taxes, etc.

What intrigued me was Rapson’s implication that Detroit Future City’s work was influencing how the Detroit city government viewed and executed community outreach, shifting it from an authoritarian approach to a more collaborative one. Though there is still work to be done.

I wondered if this might presage a new trend in the way cities might operate. Jamie Bennett asked if the ideal wasn’t supposed to be that citizens already had the opportunity to participate in planning through their vote and approaching their government representatives.

Rapson responded acknowledging that in this particular case, the Detroit Future City team had helped to create a constructive process and environment. But he also makes note that it had been an anti-democratic (his term) philanthropic institution which had been responsible for making sure the community voice was at the table.

My read between the lines on this was marginally cautionary. It is working in Detroit thanks to a number of conditions that have come into alignment, but it perhaps shouldn’t be seen as a broad panacea applicable to every city.

It sounds like Detroit Future City is doing a great job involving community input in their advocacy. Goss-Foster said people will come up to her in the streets and supermarkets to point out that the group with which they identify isn’t included in the plan. She said she often concedes they are right and invites them down to her office to talk about getting them included.

Do You Fear Innovation Will Threaten Your Effectiveness Metrics?

Over the last few years, I have frequently written about the problem with using metrics as a measure of value and performance.  As long as we continue to be told that use of quantitative measures are important, I am gonna keep pushing back and reminding you it ain’t the be all and end all of evaluation.

Carter Gillies is actually more adamant and eloquent on this topic than I am so when I saw a piece on Aeon that started out sounding almost verbatim like Carter, I did a double take to check who the author was.

The author, Jerry Z. Muller, points out that performance metrics often incentive a gaming of the system in a manner which often runs counter to the purpose of the organization.

Or take the case of surgeons. When the metrics of success and failure are made public – affecting their reputation and income – some surgeons will improve their metric scores by refusing to operate on patients with more complex problems, whose surgical outcomes are more likely to be negative. Who suffers? The patients who don’t get operated upon.

One of the other issues is all too familiar to non-profit organizations come grant report time:

To the debit side of the ledger must also be added the transactional costs of metrics: the expenditure of employee time by those tasked with compiling and processing the metrics in the first place – not to mention the time required to actually read them. As the heterodox management consultants Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman note in Six Simple Rules (2014), employees end up working longer and harder at activities that add little to the real productiveness of their organisation, while sapping their enthusiasm.

Non-profit organizations are well acquainted with implications of metrics. Organizations are often restricted to what government entities, foundations and donors are willing to fund. It can be difficult to innovate or address needs if your funding source has different priorities or restricts how funding can be used.  I have discussed before that there can be a tendency to report that everything you did met or exceeded the plans laid out in your grant proposal.  The fear of losing funding for not being successful enough disincentivizes being honest about challenges the organization faced.

While there have been plenty of embezzlement scandals at non-profits to leave funders concerned about whether their money is being used responsibly, metrics provide faulty assurances because they are so easily falsified.

So what should be used instead of performance metrics? Well, Muller really doesn’t say.  Doing a good job and having good outcomes might be a start. You’ll want to examine numbers to assist in the process of reducing needless waste. But trying to squeeze an extra percentage out so you can improve your efficiency score over last year when you squeezed an extra percentage over the previous year is not constructive.

Ultimately, the truth is that evaluation is hard. Even if we were to urge funders to invest more time in investigating outcomes directly rather than relying on numbers, the tendency to have positive associations for feel good stories will benefit some organizations over those that do unsexy, but impactful work. Then we will be back to rallying removing the emotional element by employing cold, hard numbers for evaluation.

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