Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data
Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success
Creative placemaking is electrifying communities large and small around the country. Mayors, public agencies, and arts organizations are finding each other and committing to new initiatives. That’s a wonderful thing, whether or not their proposals are funded by national initiatives such as the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town program or ArtPlace.
It’s important to learn from and improve our practices on this new and so promising terrain. But efforts based on fuzzy concepts and indicators designed to rely on data external to the funded projects are bound to disappoint. Our evaluative systems must nurture rather than discourage the marvelous moving of arts organizations, artists and arts funders out of their bunkers and into our neighborhoods as leaders, animators, and above all, exhibitors of the value of arts and culture.
In our 2010 Creative Placemaking white paper for the NEA, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus and I characterize creative placemaking as a process whereby “partners … shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” A prominent ambition, we wrote, is to “bring diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” Creative placemaking also “animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, [and] improves local business viability and public safety,” but arts and culture are at its core. This definition suggests a number of distinctive arenas of experimentation, where the gifts of the arts are devoted to community liveliness and collaborative problem solving and where new people participate in the arts and share their cultures.
And, indeed, Our Town and ArtPlace encourage precisely this experimental ferment. Like the case studies in Creative Placemaking, each funded project is unique in its artistic disciplines, scale, problems addressed, and aspirations for its particular place. Thus, a good evaluation system will monitor the progress of each project team toward its stated goals, including revisions made along the way. NEA’s Our Town asks grant seekers to describe how they intend to evaluate their work, and ArtPlace requires a monthly blog entry. But rather than more formally evaluate each project’s progress over time, both funders have developed and are compiling place-specific measures based on external data sources that they will use to gauge success: the Arts and Livability Indicators in the case of the NEA, and what ArtPlace is calling its Vibrancy Indicators.
Creative placemaking funders are optimistic about these efforts and their usefulness. “Over the next year or two,” wrote Jason Schupbach, NEA’s director of design, last May, “we will build out this system and publish it through a website so that anyone who wants to track a project’s progress in these areas (improved local community of artists and arts organizations, increased community attachment, improved quality of life, invigorated local economies) will be able to do so, whether it is NEA-funded or not. They can simply enter the time and geography parameters relevant to their project and see for themselves.”
Over the past two years, I have been consulting with creative placemaking leaders and given talks to audiences in many cities and towns across the country and abroad. Increasingly, I am hearing distress on the part of creative placemaking practitioners about the indicator initiatives of the National Endowment for the Arts and ArtPlace. At the annual meetings of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture last month, my fellow Creative Placemaking panel members, all involved in one or more ArtPlace or Our Town–funded projects, expressed considerable anxiety and confusion about these indicators and how they are being constructed. In particular, many current grantee teams with whom I’ve spoken are baffled by the one-measure-fits-all nature of the indicators, especially in the absence of formal and case-tailored evaluation.
I’ll confess I’m an evidence gal. I fervently believe in numbers where they are a good measure of outcomes; in secondary data like those provided by the Census and the National Center for Charitable Statistics where they are up to the task; in surveys where no such data exist; in case studies to illuminate the context, process, and the impacts people tangibly experience; in interviews to find out how actors make decisions and view their own performance. My own work over the past decade is riddled with examples of these practices (www.hhh.umn.edu/centers/prie), including appendices intended to make the methodology and data used as transparent as possible.
So I embrace the project of evaluation, but am skeptical of relying on indicators for this purpose. In pursuing a more effective course, we can learn a lot from private-sector venture capital practices, the ways that foundations conduct grantee evaluations, and, for political pitfalls, defense conversion placemaking experiments of the 1990s.
Learning from Venture Capital and Philanthropy
How do private-sector venture capital (VC) firms evaluate the enterprises they invest in? Although they target rates of return in the longer run, they not do resort to indicators based on secondary data to evaluate progress. They closely monitor their investees — small firms who often have little business experience, just as many creative placemaking teams are new to their terrain. VC firms play an active role in guiding youthful companies, giving them feedback germane to their product or service goals. They help managers evaluate their progress and bring in special expertise where needed.
Venture capital firms are patient, understanding realistic timelines. The rule of thumb is that they commit to five to seven years, though it may be less or more. Among our creative placemaking cases, few efforts succeeded in five years, while some took ten to fifteen years.
VC firms know that some efforts will fail. They are attentive to learning from such failures and sharing what they learn in generic form with the larger business community. Both ArtPlace and the NEA have stated their desire to learn from success and failure. Yet generic indicators, their chosen evaluation tools, are neither patient nor tailored to specific project ambitions. Current Our Town and ArtPlace grant recipients worry that the one to two years of funding they’re getting won’t be enough to carry projects through to success or establish enough local momentum to be self-sustaining. Neither ArtPlace nor Our Town has a realistic exit strategy in place for their investments, other than “the grant period’s over, good luck!”
Hands-on guidance is not foreign to nonprofit philanthropies funding the arts. Many arts program officers act as informal consultants and mentors to young struggling arts organizations and to mature ones facing new challenges. My study with Amanda Johnson of Artists’ Centers shows how Minnesota funders have played such roles for decades. They ask established arts executive directors to mentor new start-ups, a process that the latter praised highly as crucial to their success. The Irvine and Hewlett Foundations are currently funding California nonprofit intermediaries to help small folk and ethnic organizations use grant monies wisely. They also pay for intermediaries across sectors (arts and culture, health, community development, and so on) to meet together to learn what works best.
The NEA has hosted three webinars at which Our Town panelists talk about what they see as effective projects/proposals, a step in this direction. But these discussions are far from a systematic gathering and collating of experience from all grantees in ways that would help the cohorts learn and contact those with similar challenges.
The Indicator Impetus
Why are the major funders of creative placemaking staking so much on indicators rather than evaluating projects on their own aspirations and steps forward? Pressure from the Office of Management and Budget, the federal bean counters, is one factor. In January 2011, President Obama signed into law the Government Performance and Modernization Act (GPRA), updating the original 1993 GPRA, and a new August 2012 Office of Management and Budget Circular A-11 heavily emphasizes use of performance indicators for all agencies and their programs.
As a veteran of research and policy work on scientific and engineering occupations and on industrial sectors like steel and the military industrial complex, I fear that others will perceive indicator mania as a sign of field weakness. To Ian David Moss’s provocative title “Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem,” I’d reply that we’re in good company. Huge agencies of the federal government, like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and NASA, fund experiments and exploratory development without asking that results be held up to some set of external indicators not closely related to their missions. They accept slow progress and even failure, as in cancer research or nuclear fusion, because the end goal is worthy and because we learn from failure. Evaluation by external generic indicators fails to acknowledge the experimental and groundbreaking nature of these creative placemaking initiatives and misses an opportunity to bolster understanding of how arts and cultural missions create public value.
Why Indicators Will Disappoint I: Definitional Challenges
Many of the indicators charted in ArtPlace, the NEA’s Our Town, and other exercises (e.g., the Western States Arts Federation’s Creative Vitality Index) bear a tenuous relationship to the complex fabric of communities or specific creative placemaking initiatives. Terms like “vitality,” “vibrancy,” and “livability” are great examples of fuzzy concepts, a notion that I used a decade ago to critique planners and geographers’ enamoration with concepts like “world cities” and “flexible specialization.” A fuzzy concept is one that means different things to different people, but flourishes precisely because of its imprecision. It leaves one open to trenchant critiques, as in Thomas Frank’s recent pillorying of the notion of vibrancy.
Take livability, for instance, prominent in the NEA’s indicators project. One person’s quality of life can be inimical to others’. Take the young live music scene in cities: youth magnet, older resident nightmare. Probably no worthy concept, as quality of life is, has been the subject of so many disappointing and conflicting measurement exercises.
Just what does vibrancy mean? Let’s try to unpack the term. ArtPlace’s definition: “We define vibrancy as places with an unusual scale and intensity of specific kinds of human interaction.” Pretty vague and … vibrancy is places? Unusual scale? Scale meaning extensive, intensive? Of specific kinds? What kinds? This definition is followed by: “While we are not able to measure vibrancy directly, we believe that the measures we are assembling, taken together, will provide useful insights into the nature and location of especially vibrant places within communities.” If I were running a college or community discussion session on this, I would put the terms “vibrancy,” “places,” “communities,” “measures,” and so on up on the board (so to speak), and we would undoubtedly have a spirited and inconclusive debate!
And what is the purpose of measuring vibrancy? Again from the same ArtPlace list of indicators: “… the purpose of our vibrancy metrics is not to pronounce some projects ‘successes’ and other projects ‘failures’ but rather to learn more about the characteristics of the projects and community context in which they take place which leads to or at least seems associated with improved places.” Even though the above description mentions “characteristics of the projects,” it’s notable that their published vibrancy indicators only measure features of place.
In fact, many of the ArtPlace and NEA indicators are roughly designed and sometime in conflict. While giving the nod to “thriving in place,” ArtPlace emphasizes the desirability of visitors in its vibrancy definition (meaning outsiders to the community); by contrast, the NEA prioritizes social cohesion and community attachment, attributes scarce in the ArtPlace definitions. For instance, ArtPlace proposes to use employment ratio — “the number of employed residents living in a particular geography (Census Block) and dividing that number by the working age persons living on that same block” — as a measure of people-vibrancy. The rationale: “vibrant neighborhoods have a high fraction of their residents of working age who are employed.” Think of the large areas of new non-mixed-use upscale high-rise condos where the mostly young professional people living there commute daily to jobs and nightly to bars and cafés outside the neighborhood. Not vibrant at all. But such areas would rank high using this measure.
ArtPlace links vibrancy with diversity, defined as heterogeneity of people by income, race, and ethnicity. They propose “the racial and ethnic diversity index” (composition not made explicit) and “the mixed-income, middle income index” (ditto) to capture diversity. But what about age diversity? Shouldn’t we want intergenerational activity and encounters too? It is also problematic to prioritize the dilution of ethnicity in large enclaves of recent immigrant groups. Would a thriving heavily Vietnamese city or suburb be considered nonvibrant because its residents, facing discrimination in other housing markets, choose to live and build their cultural institutions there? Would an ethnic neighborhood experiencing white hipster incursions be evaluated positively despite decline in its minority populations that result from lower-income people being forced out?
Many of the NEA’s indicators are similarly fuzzy. As an indicator of impact on art communities and artists, its August 2012 RFP proposes median earnings for residents employed in entertainment-related industries (arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations). But a very large number of people in these occupations are in sports and media fields, not the arts. The measure does not include artists who live outside the area but work there. And many artists self-report their industry as other than the one listed above (e.g., musicians work in the restaurant sector, and graphic artists work in motion pictures, publishing, and so on). ArtPlace is proposing to use very similar indicators — creative industry jobs and workers in creative occupations — as measures of vibrancy.
It is troubling that neither indicator-building effort has so far demonstrated a willingness to digest and share publicly the rich, accessible, and cautionary published research that tackles many of these definitions. See, for instance, “Defining the Creative Economy: Industry and Occupational Approaches,” the joint effort by researchers Doug DeNatale and Greg Wassall from the New England Creative Economy Project, Randy Cohen of Americans for the Arts, and me at the Arts Economy Initiative to unpack the definitional and data challenges for measuring arts-related jobs and industries in Economic Development Quarterly.
Hopefully, we can have an engaging debate about these notions before indices are cranked out and disseminated. Heartening signs: in its August RFP, the NEA backtracks from its original plan, unveiled in a spring 2012 webinar, to contract for wholesale construction of a given set of indicators to be distributed to grantees. Instead, it is now contracting for the testing of indicator suitability by conducting twenty case studies. And just last week, the NEA issued a new RFP for developing a virtual storybook to document community outcomes, lessons learned, and experiences associated with their creative placemaking projects.
Why Indicators Will Disappoint II: Dearth of Good Data
If definitional problems aren’t troubling enough, think about the sheer inadequacy of data sources available for creating place-specific indicators.
For more than a half century, planning and economic development scholars have been studying places and policy interventions to judge success or failure. Yet when Anne Gadwa Nicodemus went in search of research results on decades of public housing interventions, assuming she could build on these for her evaluation of Artspace Projects’ artist live-work and studio buildings, she found that they don’t really exist.
Here are five serious operational problems confronting creative placemaking indicator construction. First, the dimensions to be measured are hard to pin down. Some of the variables proposed are quite problematic — they don’t capture universal values for all people in the community.
Take ArtPlace’s cell phone activity indicator, for instance, which will be used on nights and weekends to map where people congregate. Are places with cell activity to be judged as more successful at creative placemaking? Cell phone usage is heavily correlated with age, income, and ethnicity. The older you are, the less likely you are to have a cell phone or use it much, and the more likely to rely on landlines, which many young people do without. At the November 2012 American Collegiate Schools of Planning annual meetings, Brettany Shannon of the University of Southern California presented research results from a survey of 460 LA bus riders showing low cell phone usage rates among the elderly, particularly Latinos. Among those aged eighteen to thirty, only 9 percent of English speakers and 15 percent of Spanish speakers had no cell phone, compared with 29 percent of English speakers over age fifty and 54 percent of Spanish speakers. A cell phone activity measure is also likely to completely miss people attending jazz or classical music concerts, dramas, and religious cultural events, where cell phones are turned off. And what about all those older folks who prefer to sit in coffee shops and talk to each other during the day, play leadership roles in the community through face-to-face work, or meet and engage in arts and cultural activities around religious venues? Aren’t they congregating, too?
Or take home ownership and home values, an indicator the NEA hopes to use. Hmmm … home ownership rates — and values — in the United States have been falling, in large part due to overselling of homes during the housing bubble. Renting is a just as respectable an option for place lovers, especially young people, retirees, and lower-income people in general. Why would we want grantees to aspire to raise homeownership rates in their neighborhoods, especially given gentrification concerns? Home ownership does not insulate you against displacement, because as property values rise, property taxes do as well, driving out renters and homeowners alike on fixed or lower incomes. ArtPlace is developing “measures of value, which capture changes in rental and ownership values.” This reads like an invitation to gentrification, and contrary to the NEA’s aspirations for creative placemaking to support social cohesion and community attachment.
Second, most good secondary data series are not available at spatial scales corresponding to grantees’ target places. ArtPlace’s vibrancy exercise aspires to compare neighborhoods with other neighborhoods, but available data make this task almost impossible to accomplish at highly localized scales. Some data points, like arts employment by industry, are available only down to the county level and only for more heavily populated counties because of suppression problems (and because they are lumped together with sports and media in some data sets). Good data on artists from the Census (Public Use Microdata Sample; PUMS) and American Community Surveys, the only database that includes the self-employed and unemployed, can’t be broken down below PUMAs (Public Use Microdata Areas) of 100,000 people that bear little relationship to real neighborhoods or city districts (see Crossover, where we mapped artists using 2000 PUMS data for the Los Angeles and Bay Area metros).
Plus, many creative placemaking efforts have ambitions to have an impact at multiple scales. Gadwa Nicodemus’s pioneering research studies, How Artist Space Matters and How Art Spaces Matter II, looked in hindsight at Artspace’s artist live-work and mixed-use projects where the criteria for success varied widely between projects and for various stakeholders involved in each. Artists, nonprofit arts organizations, and commercial enterprises (e.g., cafés) in the buildings variously hoped that the project would have an impact on the regional arts community, neighborhood commercial activity, crime rates, and local property values. The research methods included surveys and interviews exploring whether the goals of the projects have been achieved in the experience of target users. Others involve complex secondary data manipulation to come up with indicators that are a good fit. Gadwa Nicodemus’s studies demonstrate how much work it is to document real impact along several dimensions, multiple spatial scales, and long enough time periods to ensure a decent test. Her indicators, such as hedonic price indices to gauge area property value change, are sophisticated, but also very time- and skill-intensive to construct.
Third, even if you find data that address what you hope to achieve, they are unlikely be statistically significant at the scales you hope for. In our work with PUMS data from the 2000 Census, a very reliable 5 percent sample, we found we could not make reliable estimates of artist populations at anything near a neighborhood scale. To map the location of artists in Minneapolis, we had to carve the city into three segments based on PUMA lines, and even then, we were pushing the statistical reliability hard (Artists’ Centers, Figure 3, p. 108).
Some researchers are beginning to use the American Community Survey (ACS), a 1 percent sample much smaller than the decennial Census PUMS 5 percent, to build local indicators, heedless of this statistical reliability challenge. ArtPlace, for instance, is proposing to use ACS data to capture workers in creative occupations at the Census Tract level. See the statistical appendix to Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC)’s Creative Communities Artist Data User Guide for a detailed explanation of this problem. Adding the ACS up over five years, one way of improving reliability, is problematic if you are trying to show change over a short period of time, which the creative placemaking indicators presumably aspire to do.
Fourth, charting change over time successfully is a huge challenge. ArtPlace intends to “assess the level of vibrancy of different areas within communities, and importantly, to measure changes in vibrancy over time in the communities where ArtPlace invests.” How can we expect projects that hope to change the culture, participation, physical environment, and local economy to show anything in a period of one, two, three years? More ephemeral interventions may only have hard-to-measure impacts in the year that they happen, even if they catalyze spinoff activities, while the potentially clearer impact of brick-and-mortar projects may take years to materialize.
We know from our case studies and from decades of urban planning and design experience that changes in place take long periods of time. For example, Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District, a case study in creative placemaking, required at least five years for vision and conversations to translate into a feasibility study, another few years to build the streetscape and renovate the two existing shuttered theaters, and more to build the new one.
Because it’s unlikely that the data will be good enough to chart creative placemaking projects’ progress over time, we are likely to see indicators used in a very different and pernicious way — to compare places with each other in the current time period. But every creative placemaking initiative is very, very different from others, and their current rankings on these measures are more apt to reflect longtime neighborhood evolution and particularities rather than the impact of their current activities. I can just see creative placemakers viewing such comparisons and throwing their hands up in the air, shouting, “But … but … but, our circumstances are not comparable!”
One final indicator challenge. As far as I can tell, there are very few arts and cultural indicators included among the measures under consideration. Where is the mission of bringing diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired? Shouldn’t creative placemaking advance the intrinsic values and impact of the arts? Heightened and broadened arts participation? Preserving cultural traditions? Better-quality art offerings? Providing beauty, expression, and critical perspectives on our society? Are artists and arts organizations whose greatest talents lie in the arts world to be judged only on their impact outside of this core? Though arts participation is measurable, many of these “intrinsic” outcomes are challenging data-wise, just as are many of the “instrumental’ outcomes given central place in current indicator efforts. WolfBrown now offers a website that aims to “change the conversation about the benefits of arts participation, disseminate up-to-date information on emerging practices in impact assessment, and encourage cultural organizations to embrace impact assessment as standard operating practice.”
The Political Dangers of Relying on Indicators
I fear three kinds of negative political responses to reliance on poorly defined and operationalized indicators. First, it could be off-putting to grantees and would-be grantees, including mayors, arts organizations, community development organizations, and the many other partners to these projects. It could be baffling, even angering, to be served up a book of cooked indicators with very little fit to one’s project and aspirations and to be asked to make sense out of them. The NEA’s recent RFP calls for the development of a user guide with some examples, which will help. Those who have expressed concern report hearing back something like, “Don’t worry about it — we’re not going to hold you to any particular performance on these. They are just informational for you.” Well, but then why invest in these indicators if they aren’t going to be used for evaluation after all?!
Second, creative placemaking grants create competitors, and that means they are generating losers as well as winners. Some who aren’t funded the first time try again, and some are sanguine and grateful that they were prompted to make the effort and form a team. But some will give up. There are interesting parallels with place-based innovations in the 1990s. The Clinton administration’s post–Cold War defense conversion initiatives included the Technology Reinvestment Project (TRP), in which regional consortia competed for funds to take local military technologies into the civilian realm. As Michael Oden, Greg Bischak, and Chris Evans-Klock concluded in our 1995 Rutgers study (full report available from the authors on request), the TRP failed after just a few years because members of Congress heard from too many disgruntled constituents. In contrast, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, begun in the same period and administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has survived because after its first exploratory rounds, it partnered with state governments to amplify funding for technical assistance to defense contractors struggling with defense budget implosion everywhere. States, rather than projects, then competed, eager for the federal funds.
Third, and most troubling, funders may begin favoring grants to places that already look good on the indicators. Anne Gadwa Nicodemus raised this in her GIA Reader article on creative placemaking (vol. 23.2, summer 2012). ArtPlace’s own funding criteria suggest this: “ArtPlace will favor investments … and sees its role as providing venture funding in the form of grants, seeding entrepreneurial projects that lead through the arts and already enjoy strong local buy-in and will occur at places already showing signs of momentum.” Imagine how a proposal to convert an old school in a very low-income and somewhat depopulated, minority neighborhood into an artist live-work, studio, and performance and learning space would stack up against a proposal to add funding to a new outreach initiative in an area already colonized by young people from elsewhere in the same city. A funder might be tempted to fund the latter, where vibrancy is already indicated, over the other, where the pay-off might be much greater but farther down the road.
In an Ideal World, Sophisticated Models
In any particular place, changes in the proposed indicators will not be attributable to the creative placemaking intervention alone. So imagine the distress of a fundee whose indicators are moving the wrong way and which place them poorly in comparison to others. Area property values may be falling because an environmentally obnoxious plant starts up. Other projects might look great on indicators not because of their initiatives but because another intervention, like a new light-rail system or a new community-based school, dramatically changes the neighborhood.
What we’d love to have, but don’t at this point, are sophisticated causal models of creative placemaking. The models would identify the multiple actors in the target place and take into account the results of their separate actions. A funded creative placemaking project team would be just one such “actor” among several (e.g., real estate developers, private-sector employers, resident associations, community development nonprofits, and so on).
A good model would account for other non-arts forces at work that will interact with the various actors’ initiatives and choices. This is crucial, and the logic models proposed by Moss, Zabel, and others don’t do it. Scholars of urban planning well know how tricky it is to isolate the impact of a particular intervention when there are so many others occurring simultaneously (crime prevention, community development, social services, infrastructure investments like light-rail or street repaving).
Furthermore, models should be longitudinal; i.e., they will chart progress in the particular place over time, rather than comparing one place cross-sectionally with others that are quite unlikely to share the same actors, features, and circumstances. If we create models that are causal, acknowledge other forces at work, and are applied over time, “we’ll be able to clearly document the critical power of arts and culture in healthy community development,” reflects Deborah Cullinan of San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts in a follow-up to our NAMAC (National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture) panel.
Such multivariate models, as social scientists and urban planners call them, lend themselves to careful tests of hypotheses about change. We can ask if a particular action, like the siting of an interstate highway interchange or adding a prison or being funded in a federal program like the Appalachian Regional Commission, produces more employment or higher incomes or better quality of life for its host city or neighborhood when compared with twin or comparable places, as Andrew Isserman and colleagues have done in their “quasi-experimental” work (write me for a summary of these, soon to be published).
We can also run tests to see if differentials in city and regional arts participation rates and presence of arts organizations can be explained by differences in funding, demographics, or features of local economies. My teammates and I used Cultural Data Project and National Center for Charitable Statistics data on nonprofit arts organizations in California to do this for all California cities with more than twenty thousand residents. Our results, while cross-sectional, suggest that concerted arts and culture building by local Californians over time leads to higher arts participation rates and more arts offerings than can be explained by other factors. The point is that techniques like these do take into account other forces (positive and negative) operating in the place where creative placemaking unfolds.
Charting a Better Path
It’s understandable why the NEA and ArtPlace are turning to indicators. Their budgets for creative placemaking are relatively small, and they’d prefer to spend them on more programming and more places rather than on expensive, careful evaluations. Nevertheless, designing indicators unrelated to specific funded projects seems a poor way forward. Here are some alternatives.
Commit to real evaluation. This need not be as expensive as it seems. Imagine if the NEA and ArtPlace, instead of contracting to produce one-size-fits-all indicators, were to design a three-stage evaluation process. Grantees propose staged criteria for success and reflect on them at specified junctures. Funding is awarded on the basis of the appropriateness of this evaluative process and continued on receipt of reflections. Funders use these to give feedback to the grantee and retool their expectations if necessary, and to summarize and redesign overall creative placemaking achievements. This is more or less what many philanthropic foundations do currently and have for many years, the NEA included. Better learning is apt to emerge from this process than from a set of indicator tables and graphics. ArtPlace is well positioned to draw on the expertise of its member foundations in this regard.
Build cooperation among grantees to soften the edge of competition for funds. Convene grantees and would-be grantees annually to talk about success, failures, and problems. Ask successful grantees to share their experience and expertise with others who wish to try similar projects elsewhere. During Leveraging Investments in Creativity’s ten-year lifespan, it convened its creative community leaders annually and sometimes more often, resulting in tremendous cross-fertilization that boosted success. Often, what was working elsewhere turned out to be a better mission or process than what a local group had planned. Again, ArtPlace in particular could create a forum for this kind of cooperative learning. And, as mentioned, the NEA’s webinars are a step in the right direction. Imagine, notes my NAMAC co-panelist Deborah Cullinan of Intersection for the Arts, if creative placemaking funders invested in cohort learning over time, with enough longevity to build relationships, share lessons, and nurture collaborations.
Finally, the National Endowment for the Arts and ArtPlace could provide technical assistance to creative placemaking grantees, as the Manufacturing Extension Partnership does for small manufacturers. Anne Gadwa Nicodemus and I continually receive phone calls from people across the country psyched to start projects but needy of information and skills on multiple fronts. There are leaders in other communities, and consultants, too, who know how creative placemaking works under diverse circumstances and who can form a loose consortium of talent: people who understand the political framework, the financial challenges, and the way to build partnerships. Artspace Projects, for instance, has recently converted over a quarter century of experience with more than two dozen completed artist- and arts-serving projects into a consultancy to help people in more places craft arts-based placemaking projects.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in a few years’ time, we could say, look! Here is the body of learning and insights we’ve compiled about creative placemaking — how to do it well, where the diverse impacts are, and how they can be documented. With indicators dominating the evaluation process at present, we are unlikely to learn what we could from these young experiments. An indicators-preoccupied evaluation process is likely to leave us disappointed, with spreadsheets and charts made quickly obsolete by changing definitions and data collection procedures. Let’s think through outcomes in a more grounded, holistic way. Let’s continue, and broaden, the conversation!