Positioning Arts and Culture for this Historic Moment

This post is part of the series, Future of the Field: Cross-Sector Creative Placemaking Series.

The first decade of federal and philanthropic investment in creative placemaking was both exciting and experimental; seeding new relationships, pilot programs, local projects, and resources to support an emerging field. For the National Endowment for the Arts, the Our Town creative placemaking program offered a new entry point and invitation for rural, tribal, urban, and suburban communities to seek support for community change work that centers arts, culture, and design. Partnership – across sectors and between government and nonprofit sectors – has served as a central tenet of all projects funded by the Our Town program.

Not surprisingly, the work by Our Town grantees has evolved over the past decade. The early years, beginning in 2010, were focused on livability and economic development outcomes. But over time there was a noticeable shift in grantees seeking to advance social change and civic engagement on the local level, rather than driving economic development. Similarly, there was a shift in the grantee portfolio that moved from a focus on the artistic output of a project (such as a piece of public art, a newly-designed public space, a cultural plan) to elevating the artistic process (such as artist-led community engagement). The artistic process has demonstrated a compelling way to drive long-term change in a place and seed new local partnerships that have proven to be transformational.

The work of ArtPlace made these shifts and the work of creative placemaking apparent to a broad audience. ArtPlace’s field scans sought to capture the multiple and sometimes non-linear ways that arts and culture help to advance community development goals, from improving public safety to advancing environmental justice. The field scans helped to demonstrate the multiple ways that arts and culture benefits us all, and that those benefits are measurable, palpable, and understood in ways that may have been unspoken in the past. Beyond that, they opened numerous doors to new partnerships and conversations at both the federal and local levels. On the federal level, the field scans and sector-focused work have helped to drive a rebirth of federal interagency partnership, helping set the stage for events like a joint U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and National Endowment for the Arts rural placemaking convening hosted in March 2021.

Building on the momentum of the past decade, now is the time to lean into more permanently embedding arts and culture in every sector of community development. The field scans and remarkable community projects can model a path forward in this exceptional moment when historic sums of money are flowing from federal to local. Now is the time for arts and culture to shine a light on the myriad ways that the sector and the people advance equity, build resilience, strengthen social ties, and support health and healing. The creative placemaking research (and ArtPlace’s archive of field scans) serve as an important tool for the arts and culture community to reference as they articulate their undeniable value to society and help support a robust national recovery. Creative placemaking has been building muscle for this moment, especially throughout the pandemic; delivering creative approaches that address community challenges and preparing communities for what lies ahead.

One notable example has been Smart Growth America’s launch of the Arts & Transportation Rapid Response project, which connected artists with city transportation agencies in cities across the country. This project was poised to launch quickly and was embraced by transit agencies from coast to coast. The transit and arts sectors were hit especially hard from the outset of the pandemic, as transportation agencies moved through uncharted territory, struggling to make transit riders feel safe and welcome and experimenting with open street policies to enable recreation and social distancing. By deploying artist-partners for transit agencies the program demonstrated, yet again, just how agile artists are in advancing community development goals, particularly in the face of an unknown future.

The success of this initiative can be attributed in part to the ArtPlace-commissioned Arts, Culture, and Transportation field scan. Authored by Smart Growth America, the scan documents seven challenges and seven case studies that demonstrate how arts and culture benefitted local transportation, from making streets safer to engaging multiple stakeholders for an inclusive process. The field scan prepares the way for the rapid response project by making clear the multiple ways that artists advance goals of the transportation sector, positioning the arts sector as a resourceful partner.

This research offers both a provocation and roadmap for the future, with compelling case studies that speak to various community development audiences. In order to take on bolder local agendas demanded by this moment, local leaders need validation and proven examples in order to depart from the entrenched ways of doing things. Collectively we must remember the lessons learned over the past decade of investment in creative placemaking and acknowledge that arts, culture, and design deserve a leadership role at the community development table – not just a seat – leading our nation’s recovery with an inspiring vision for a better future for all.