Placemaking and Placemakers

Lessons from Detroit, Appalachia, New Orleans, and Honolulu

Mark Valdez

When the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET) set out to produce MicroFest USA: Revitalize, Reconnect, Renew, we wanted to look at the positive impact that art and artists were having on communities around the country. Our intent was twofold: to acknowledge and advance the pioneering and current work of ensemble theaters committed to community-based practice and positive community change (placemaking), and to foster mutual learning with a wider spectrum of artists, cultural workers, and community partners also contributing to community well-being and social change (placemakers).

The MicroFest journey included Detroit, Appalachia (Harlan County, Kentucky, and Knoxville, Tennessee), New Orleans, and Honolulu, places challenged in the extreme by economic, social, and environmental issues. At the same time, these are places where rich and distinctive cultural forms and artistic communities have thrived and where art and artists are innovating strategies for renewal and revitalization as part of a vibrant ecosystem of interdisciplinary, cross-sector, collaborative work.

We believe communities like these and their creative agents and partners can inform and expand our views of creative placemaking and community development with a wider range of creative strategies toward healthy and just places.

What MicroFest illuminated about cross-sector, creative placemaking:

  1. There is a spectrum of cultural production that is artist-driven, grounded in community-based and social practice, and that is operating from both an established history of methodology and community/social change intention. This creative work is incubating and exploring exciting aesthetic possibilities; it is driven by community-based and ensemble theater leaders and partners.
  2. There is a need for expanded vision of creative placemaking beyond physical enhancement, amenities, art spaces, tourism, and economic engines that brings greater focus on people/culture, social justice, and equity.
  3. Effective placemaking embraces cross-discipline and cross-sector work, along with its challenges and rewards. Complex problems require the combined and integrated expertise of different fields and sectors to maximize complementary knowledge, resources, and skills in order to think outside the box and “incubate possibilities.”
  4. Equity and social justice are moral imperatives underpinning healthy communities. In these places, leaders care about all residents, including those who have been disenfranchised due to economic, racial, and social inequities and injustices, and artists and cultural organizations play a role in helping make transformative positive change. Along these lines, we also witnessed a shift from an emphasis on a market/monetary-based economy to alternative human-based economies and models (barter, time banks, collaboration, do it yourself [DIY], etc.).

What Is a MicroFest?

MicroFest USA was a journey — part festival, part learning exchange — structured as a three- to four-day performance-tour that used art to animate discourse. Each event included performances that highlighted art in community; discursive events that identified what changes have occurred because of cross-sector placemaking; and visits to the places where the placemaking work has happened. All of these experiences gave attendees a deeper understanding of the work and of our host communities.

The key components included:

Opening. Each event opened with a session to orient attendees to the nature of the festival, and provided context for our host community: “Think of it as a three-day performance, in which each day is like an act of a play. Things get set up in Act I that may not pay off until Act III, so hang in there.”

Tracks. Participants select one of three tracks to follow. The idea behind these sessions was twofold: (1) to allow us to cover more ground, seeing a broader range of projects in more locations, and (2) to allow for in-depth conversation about the topics. Thematic focus/inquiries for these tracks included, among others,

Art and Environment
Art and Neighborhood Development
Art and Youth Development
Art and Penal Reform

Plenaries. Each day included one or two opportunities for the larger group to come together, to share their track experiences, and to collectively consider the implications of their experiences and the work they were seeing as it applied to their own work and communities.

Performances. Performance and art sharing were central to each event and provided a springboard for the discussion. Evening performances celebrated local and national work.

The Spectrum of Cultural Production

MicroFest highlighted a spectrum of cultural production that is artist-driven, grounded in community-based and social practice, and traditionally under the radar of conventional creative placemaking strategies. By putting this range of socially and civically engaged creative work on the radar, NET aims to enhance the understanding of this work within the ensemble theater community and bring the work to local and national dialogues.

Vince Carducci, dean of undergraduate studies at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, asserted, “We need to see cultural production as a continuum.” In Detroit alone, MicroFest participants experienced a varied and vast array of creative contributors: an ensemble theater; a youth theater and youth arts/development organization; single-artist projects and artist collaborations; artist-activist groups; DIY arts entrepreneurs; informal unincorporated creative ventures; collaborations between artists and with allied professionals (architects, designers, crafts, and tradespeople); and artists engaging with other fields, such as science. Participants also collaborated with community members to make a meal, work the soil, and create art.

Earth & Sky Repose, a public artwork in the North End of Detroit, not only provides a place to sit and contemplate beauty, but also functions as a passive water collection system for a community garden, greenhouse, and landscaping on a once-vacant lot owned by the adjacent church. Local stonemason Tom Davis created the cross-shaped stone pathway, the water collection system, and other stone features in collaboration with local glass artist Karen Sepanski, whose handsome sculptures punctuate this small oasis.

Sepanski and Davis contrast the experience of this public art project with others typically decided by committee, often with only limited community interaction. Here, cultural production is grounded in community. The actual site was chosen and the artwork came to fruition through substantial church and neighborhood participation. When asked what was needed from this public art opportunity, community members answered, “Food, jobs, and a safe place for our kids.” So the church partnered with Vanguard Community Development Corporation (CDC), a youth service organization; the Greater Woodward CDC, a service organization for the homeless that buys food from the garden with a grant from Whole Foods; the Central Detroit Christian organization; and Home Depot, which donated supplies. Gardening labor is supplied by individuals working off community service hours as well as by young people who have taken “real ownership” of the garden. Seven people were being trained at the time of MicroFest to install solar panels at the garden.1

So what does it look like when arts and culture contribute effectively to revitalization and renewal guided by an ethos of equity and social justice?

  • Art directly supports community needs such as jobs, food, and beauty.
  • Art taps the identity and soul of place to bring community together to create positive public spaces and experiences and to enhance the meaning of sustainability of place.
  • Art integrates into cycles and systems of community support, revitalization, and life.
  • Art is resourced by forward-thinking funders that let the community lead, support needed infrastructure, and sustain commitment to allow change over time.

Expanding the Vision of Creative Placemaking

MicroFest happened at a time when a growing number of arts funders, researchers, and practitioners are adopting the term creative placemaking to describe the ways that arts, culture, physical infrastructure, and economic development can be coordinated to change the demographic and economic composition of economically distressed neighborhoods and communities.

While encompassing social outcomes such as bringing diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired, the emphasis is often focused on livability and economic development outcomes. These creative placemaking initiatives are supporting an array of good projects and organizations. They are fostering creative entrepreneurs and cultural industries that support job growth, new products and services, economic development, physical improvements, and so forth (a few of them were also presented at MicroFest).

Yet, many find the term creative placemaking somewhat problematic. As described by Erik Takeshita, deputy director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) in Minneapolis:

What is hard about some of these conversations is that they seem to suggest that “places” need to be made and that they didn’t exist before. This, of course, is false. There are vibrant places throughout the country. Some areas may need additional support or investment, but they are places with a rich history and people who call it “home.” One challenge is that much . . . seems to be focused on short-term interventions rather than long-term, sustainable change. This is particularly difficult when dealing with historically disenfranchised communities. It is simply unreasonable to assume decades of disinvestment can be turned around with short-term investments of a year or two.2

A long and wide view is needed in which an expanded range of arts and cultural strategies are embraced and in which the communities who live and breathe the issues of place are engaged to achieve long-term sustainable change.

In Oahu, native Hawai’ians are engaged in placemaking that perpetuates a culture and language that were on the brink of extinction. Organizations such as the PA’I Foundation and Partners in Development, as well as educational institutions, like the Hālau Kū Māna Public Charter School, are implementing programs and structures to teach and bring forward traditional practice, culture, art, and language. Sonny Ganaden reports:

“After a century of assimilation, the founders of the native education movement sought to return to an `āina (earth)-based knowledge, to build an indigenous Hawaiian cultural base,” said Auntie Mahina, director of Hālau Kū Māna. It’s a project of survival — aloha `āina, which translates as love of the land, but means so much more — nourishment, governance, procreation. Colonialism overlooked a history of self-education, so this movement looks back to a pre-colonial time for historical antecedents of self-education. Mahina continued, “As contemporary Hawaiians we are reclaiming our history, we’re finding our ancestors. aloha `āina is the root of Hawaiian resistance to colonialism. It provides a foundation for an intellectually challenging and holistic system. Aloha is an active verb. It’s a practice.”3

An expanded vision of placemaking must acknowledge that place and time matter.

The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, which helps organize both Stand with Dignity and El Congreso de Jornaleros (Congress of Day Laborers), has integrated theater practice into its services as a social justice organization. Through story circles and the creation of productions, both of which are meant to improve conditions and policies for laborers, members of the two organizations have gotten to know one another and become friends. Through performances at worker gatherings and at soccer games in which day laborer teams compete, they educate fellow immigrants about their rights and what to do if they are stopped by the police or immigration officials. Performers hand out little cards immigrants can keep in their wallets or purses with key phone numbers and phrases in English and Spanish, such as, “I want to speak to my attorney.” These groups now work together and show up at one another’s actions, for example, testifying at Housing Authority of New Orleans meetings for equal employment opportunities.4

The work of El Congreso and Stand with Dignity has impact because:

  • The authenticity of the work — the truth and accuracy of the stories, the direct source and genuineness of their delivery — gives the plays poignancy, authority, and a power to motivate and activate primary audiences of fellow Latino immigrant and African American workers and their communities.
  • The workers themselves have agency, determining how and when they activate and how and when they employ cultural strategies.
  • A skilled social justice organization equipped to deal with immigration issues links to local artists to learn and incorporate creative strategies, helps build the bridge between different communities of color, and helps immigrants determine personal and collective ways they can protect their rights and influence policy.

Understanding the context and dynamics of place is critical to doing the most potent art and the most responsible community work. “The stakes are high because the work is consequential,” Gerard Stropnicky has written. “When we work in and with communities in crisis, we are talking about people’s lives. It’s incumbent upon us to get it right.”5 To get it right, the work has to be sensitive to political, social, and cultural context and to be accurate.

Embrace Cross-Discipline/Cross-Sector Work

The most successful and creative strategies for making a vibrant place and addressing complex social and civic issues include cross-sector collaborations.

As Maria Rosario Jackson pointed out at a MicroFest funders’ plenary in Honolulu, creative placemaking strategies need to take a holistic look at the challenges, recognizing that both problems and solutions are interconnected. If you want to address graduation rates, you need to look at transportation issues, health care, housing, food security, and other factors.

Cross-sector work is most effective when collaboration is ingrained in the practice and organizational DNA. What seems to make the most provocative work effective is collaboration that doesn’t just use art as a tool for some other end but that also embraces the holistic integration of creativity as a core part of any civic or social endeavor. In her Complex Movements performance, Detroit’s Invincible provides examples of science that reveal cycles and processes that are anything but linear. “This holism seems to ground the city’s most insurgent artistic, civic, and social efforts.”6

RogueHAA describes itself as a “design, architecture, and urban advocacy collaborative” and a “complementary personality to the architectural firm, Hamilton Anderson Associates (HAA).” While HAA focuses on the design and construction of buildings and landscapes, rogueHAA operates outside the boundaries of traditional professional design practice. The studio’s primary directive is to serve as both a forum and a catalyst for thoughtful design discourse through publications, competitions, installations, a lecture series, and a blog. The result of boundary crossing between the nonprofit and commercial sectors, different design fields and urban planning, and direct work with artists, produces hybrid work that reveals and explicates issues in new ways and seeks to contribute to actual change.7 One example is a community-led pop-up coffee shop and event space located in a vacant storefront in a strip mall, a collaboration with businesses and community members that was accomplished in under four weeks for $4,000.

Similarly, The Music Box, an interactive musical village created by the New Orleans Airlift, activated an abandoned lot in the Bywater district of New Orleans. More than twenty-three artists — sound engineers, architects, musicians, and visual artists — converted the remains of collapsed houses into musical instruments that were enjoyed by thousands of community members.8

About Cross-Sector Collaborations

In the work of equitable, responsible, and creative community revitalization, particularly in distressed communities, what needs to be uplifted is the transformational change that artists, cultural workers, and art can effect. In Knoxville, Carlton Turner, director of Alternate ROOTS, talked about cultural transformation, pointing out a challenge: within institutions and systems, art is often seen only as a product instead of a resource. The arts are not viewed as a transformational means that can contribute to the targeted outcomes of other sectors, such as health and wellness.

It takes cultivating open-minded partners and identifying pivotal bridge builders who are effective translators and boundary crossers. Key local advocates are necessities — people who can negotiate between arts, government, and business in order to successfully incorporate community-based arts into community development and other civic processes.9

To do this, we must learn to navigate the challenges of working across sectors related to language and communications, including professional vocabulary, norms, expertise, cultures, and underlying misperceptions. These are not unfamiliar to those who work in the fields of public art, community-based art, or even across artistic disciplines. It takes a commitment of energy and time to learn and to be present in the other’s sphere of work, to be vulnerable to missteps and open to correcting them, and to challenge and be open to being challenged.

Similarly, we need to confront issues of power and privilege if we seek transformational community development that is grounded in and determined with community. MicroFest raised myriad questions about how power plays out in cross-sector work and how to level the playing field. Michael Premo, a cultural worker and organizer with Housing is a Human Right, noted, “Our predicament is further complicated by the paternalism and transactional nature of much of the way we interact with the civic structures of our representative democracy. Too often experts speak for us when we are already fluent in the matters that impact us most deeply.”10

Equity and Social Justice

“If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will, and you may not like how it comes out.”
— Coal miner in Appalachia11

When art-based, cross-sector placemaking has its greatest social impact, it is because the people of a place are invested and involved from the outset in defining and framing issues from their lived experience and project outcomes are based on what matters to them. The question, “Who drives the work of community change?” is critical in the context of disenfranchised communities that have been “studied,” “done to,” and “deliberately disempowered” by political, corporate, or other forces over time. The ethos of community agency was prominent throughout MicroFest, looking at how arts and culture can be a powerful tool to empower and activate people to effectuate change in their lives and communities.

Gerard Stropnicky describes two plays about incarceration from MicroFest: New Orleans to highlight distinctly different intentions:

In his play Angola 3, Parnell Herbert’s intents are to raise consciousness about the horrors of solitary confinement and the endemic injustice of a system that makes this sentence happen, and to provoke public pressure so the system might change. To support these intentions, creative and engagement elements are chosen — a clear outside villain, select evidence to build an argument for a particular position, and a call to action.

The other play, Did You See Me?, was created by The Graduates, a group of women once inmates of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. The play poetically weaves together stories of these women’s own lives, focusing on how they were shaped by their experiences with the criminal justice system. The intended outcomes are healing, restorative justice, and peace building. To support these outcomes, the artists use several techniques: a first-person narrative to give voice and authenticity to the experience; a story presented as complex with many, even contradictory, viewpoints; acknowledgment of personal responsibility by the women that establishes credibility; and no clear hero or clear villain, which opens up the performance space as one where personal and community healing can occur.12

This analysis shows how clarity of intent as held by artists (as well as by community partners and the balance between them) is critical to making aesthetic choices and engagement strategies to reach social outcomes.

A New Economy

There is need for new paradigms to guide work at the intersection of arts and other sectors and systems. Of particular interest and merit are alternative and more expansive notions of economy that are values based; that, as Caron Atlas wrote, “go beyond producers, consumers, and profit margins toward equity, sustainability, and meaning; that support place rather than destroy it.”13 MicroFest brought forward activist-scholars’ concepts of moral economy and human economies of value in pursuing equitable community development and the renewal and sustainability of healthy communities. Both suggest a powerful role for arts and culture as agents of change.

During a visit to Beardsley Community Farm in Knoxville, where arts and culture are connected to issues of food justice, Matthew Glassman, of Double Edge Theatre in rural Ashfield, Massachusetts, described how his theater company is learning from localization advocate Helena Norberg-Hodge’s concept of human economies. Communities are coming together to rebuild more human-scale, ecological economies based on a new paradigm — an economics of localization.14 Double Edge Theatre moved from Boston to purchase a disused 105-acre dairy farm in a rural part of their state as a retreat and rehearsal space. Glassman said, “Once we made Ashfield our home, we realized that the rural location was instead a new prism for seeing how interconnected our work is with the place where we live.” Over the past fifteen years, Double Edge has begun to renew the agricultural potential of its land, while the increasing curiosity of neighbors has prompted the creation of a public performance space and performance season at the farm.15 An economics of localization is playing out combining culture and agriculture in ways that can potentially sustain Double Edge and contribute to community economic vitality.

Effective models of institutional and philanthropic support that honor and uphold the values of responsible arts- and culture-based revitalization need to be made visible. There were some exemplary approaches cited within MicroFest that offer models for other responsible place-based funding, all of which respect and honor the people of place and support their agency to define the use of resources.

Terry Holley of the East Tennessee Foundation described how the wealth created by the extractive industries of the region (first timber, then coal, now water) does not stay in the region. She contrasted that with how small investments made by the East Tennessee.

Foundation have supported and grown local cultural assets and their economic potential. A $1,500 grant supported the town of Coker Creek (620 families, 80 percent living below the poverty line) in conducting a door-to-door asset survey that revealed a wealth of people with traditional arts and artisan skills but no clear way to bring them to a higher level. The next investment, $2,500, engaged those local artists who were nationally recognized for their skill to teach others, with the objective of getting to marketable quality creative work. Demand for the workshops grew beyond local artists and artisans; demand for the objects secured a $5,000 grant to repurpose a closed post office as a gift shop space for local artists to sell their work on the hiking trails, a collaboration with the US National Park Service. These small incremental investments provided impetus and enabled a natural evolution of the project to help poor families develop an income stream.

A core principle of both the moral economy and of ensemble theater, Caron Atlas notes, is being part of a greater whole. She concludes her essay:

During disasters, be they floods in New York or Appalachia, or collapsed coalmines, people step up to help one another in extraordinary ways. In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit writes about this civic capacity that gives us a “glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.” The question is how do we build this capacity and incorporate it further into our everyday lives? Is our policy making built on fear and competition? Or does it support the compassion and solidarity that is being part of a greater whole? . . .

We can’t be limited to either/or paradigms. If our economies and our communities are complex and adaptive ecologies, our job in both urban and rural areas is to work across sectors, strengthen our interdependence, and stretch our vision and practice. MicroFest asks how we know if the work works. I think that it is unrealistic to make claims for arts and culture in isolation. But, if they are part of an interwoven moral economy, creative civic action, and sustained activism, then the work works. With strength and joy we step up, stand together, and create a greater whole.16


  1. Eddie B. Allen Jr., “Making Art, Making Detroit, Making a Difference,” Network of Ensemble Theaters, 2012.
  2. Erik Takeshita, “Art and Community Development, New Orleans Style,” Network of Ensemble Theaters, 2013.
  3. Sonny Ganaden, “Theater and Society in the Center of the Sea,” Network of Ensemble Theaters, 2013.
  4. Takeshita, “Art and Community, New Orleans Style.”
  5. Gerard Stropnicky, “Three Lenses on MicroFest USA: Intentions, Values, and Prepositions,” Network of Ensemble Theaters, 2013.
  6. Michael Premo, “Re-imagining Revitalization: Thoughts on MicroFest: Detroit,” Network of Ensemble Theaters, 2012.
  7. Detroit Lives! applies multimedia and social branding skills to public art, documentary film, a clothing line, and other products that carry messages aimed at shifting negative perceptions of the city.
  8. Mark Valdez, “The Network of Ensemble Theaters’ Microfest USA: Part 1, Detroit.” HowlRound, August 12, 2012.
  9. Mark Kidd, “MicroFest: Democratic Arts in Appalachia’s Coal Country,” Network of Ensemble Theaters, 2013.
  10. Premo, “Reimagining Revitalization: Thoughts on MicroFest: Detroit.”
  11. Stropnicky, “Three Lenses on MicroFest USA.”
  12. Ibid.
  13. Caron Atlas, “Creative Engagement and a Moral Economy in Appalachia,” Network of Ensemble Theaters, 2013.
  14. Wikipedia,
  15. Kidd, “MicroFest: Democratic Arts in Appalachia’s Coal Country.”
  16. Atlas, “Creative Engagement and a Moral Economy in Appalachia.”