Last week I attended the Creative Placemaking Summit for the Appalachian region. As much as I have read and written about Creative Placemaking, I don’t think I fully understood the what it encompassed until I attended this conference.
Hearing multiple people from various communities talk about the whole process of their projects from the involvement of government officials to securing funding and structuring financing to the sweat equity the arts and cultural invested in renovations, everything coalesced to provide me with a more complete understanding.
The topics of discussion and the level of detail were entirely different from what I have encountered at other arts and cultural conferences. It reinforced for me that things don’t just happen in a vacuum. You can’t just plant art somewhere and assume economic and creative vitality will be attracted like honeybees if you can just stick it out long enough.
I had written about projects like the Poetry Parking Lot in Lanesboro, MN holding it up as a cool, creative idea. But having John Davis of Lanesboro Arts talk about how that project was driven by a desire to have tourists use that lot and how the renovation of a bridge to provide a pedestrian connection to the downtown was an important element provided a new context. The haiku on the light posts in the parking lot were only one of the incentives to use that parking lot. The others were the improved access afforded by the bridge and the two hour parking limit on downtown streets.
What I came to recognize was summarized by a comment one of the presenters made during the conference – Arts and cultural organizations need to realize creative placemaking can’t really be supported by grants. Basically, just having artistic activity isn’t going to create economic vibrancy. Someone is going to have to arrange for financing and loans. Even in those cases when it isn’t the arts and cultural organization arranging for the financing directly, they are probably going to have to negotiate and partner with people who are doing so.
In some cases local banks won’t/don’t get into creative placemaking financing because the projects are outside their experience. You may need to cultivate a long term relationship with a regional CDFI (Community Development Financial Institutions). Where most arts oriented conferences will have discussions about cultivating relationships with granting organizations and funders, this creative placemaking conference spoke more about relationships with CDFIs and community development corporations and foundations.
In some cases, the focus of placemaking efforts was in a much broader context than I am accustomed to hearing. One presenter talked about a project in Jersey City, NJ driven by an alliance of artists and arts groups. Their hope was to renovate a building with a community arts center on the first floor and affordable housing on the second through fifth floors. However, they determined if they had to give up something, it would be the community arts center. The fact that an alliance of arts oriented people felt that affordable housing was more important than a creative space made an impression.
In another session, Ben Fink from Appalshop talked about how they were getting involved with energy projects. He admitted it may seem strange that an organization founded on broadcast media and performance was advancing solar energy projects in coal country. Part of the reason is that high energy costs are threatening the existence of a number of local entities from bakeries to bluegrass festival sponsoring volunteer firehouses. He said the end goal wasn’t the completion of the solar project, it was to use solar energy to power the next projects.
The conference was populated with stories of groups that were renovating old buildings and storefronts and providing a place for the community to give voice to their creativity, but there were also stories like those in NJ and Appalshop that expanded my conception of the role arts and cultural organizations could play in the community.
If you have the opportunity to attend either the national or regional conference summits, it may be worth your time and the added perspective. It was actually less expensive to attend than some other conferences I have been to. (Not sure if that is the case for all the convenings since the cost for past and future conferences are not available on the website.)