Getting It Across: How Art Place’s Field Scans Have Emboldened New Policy Directions

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

Poetry, Robert Frost wrote, is what gets lost in translation. By this standard, literary translations can approximate but never fully reflect the attributes that make a poem worth reading in the original language. It is therefore an impossible standard. Fortunately, ArtPlace America’s cross-sectoral field scans adopt a pragmatic approach to the challenge of rendering themes and concepts from one language into another. To facilitate collaboration through the arts—as a principle in achieving equitable community development—fluidity across different fields of practice is paramount.

For organizations that are serious about integrating the arts with place-based strategies in sectors as diverse as health, agriculture, housing, and energy, ArtPlace’s ten field scans perform the necessary (and often underappreciated) craft of translation. Here we are talking not about literary tropes, but an ability to swim in the lexicon of a foreign field of practice, and to emerge with recommendations that can speak to arts and non-arts specialists alike.

At the National Endowment for the Arts, we back several initiatives, which, like the field scans, demand fluency with terms and traditions outside the arts. They include: Our Town, the NEA’s flagship creative placemaking program; Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network; NEA Research Labs; the Sound Health Network; the Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development; and Shakespeare in American Communities grants in juvenile justice settings.

The ArtPlace field scans set the stage for more intensive learning in these liminal spaces. Our Town’s administrators, working with the NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis, have conducted a two-phase evaluation of the creative placemaking program, an exercise that yielded a theory of change, a logic model, and a measurement framework. But ArtPlace’s sector-specific field scans can enable NEA staff, grantees, and partner organizations to better envision, in the terms of the Our Town logic model, the types of “innovations” and “system changes” they seek to effect.

Since ArtPlace’s agriculture scan was issued, for example the NEA has met with officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to explore the report’s implications. Similarly, ArtPlace’s scans on creative youth development and public safety may bear on a planned evaluation of the NEA’s juvenile justice grants under Shakespeare in American Communities, in partnership with Arts Midwest.

By far, the most influential product from ArtPlace’s translational work has been its field scan on public health, Creating Healthy Communities through Cross-Sector Collaboration. Through Creative Forces and through some of the NEA Research Labs, the Arts Endowment has invested in studies about the benefits of creative arts therapies or arts-in-health programs on individuals. Through the Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development, the agency has supported knowledge-sharing, across federal entities, about the arts’ contributions to health and learning across the lifespan. Most recently, by establishing the Sound Health Network, the NEA has been harvesting and promoting research and information about music, neuroscience, health, and wellness.

All of these investments occurred independently of ArtPlace’s research agenda. And yet, Creating Healthy Communities brought a whole new series of outcome domains into sharp focus for researchers and practitioners at the nexus of the arts and health. By identifying “five urgent public health issues”—collective trauma, racism, mental health, social exclusion and isolation, and chronic disease—and by showcasing arts-led strategies that confront these problems, ArtPlace succeeded in elevating the importance of understanding and addressing community-level health outcomes, in contrast to solely pursuing research or practice that targets individual-level change.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and amid long-suppressed public outcries over racial injustice, these public health issues have become mainstream, not a side current. Consequently, it may come as no surprise that the report’s lead author, Jill Sonke, University of Florida Center for Arts and Medicine, is now senior advisor to CDC’s Vaccine Confidence and Demand team.

Jill and her colleagues at the University of Florida also helped Metris Arts Consulting, with PolicyLink, to produce WE-Making: How Arts & Culture Unite People to Work Toward Community Well-Being, a report and series of resources that had been commissioned by several funders, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Bush Foundation, ArtPlace, and the NEA. These tools are designed to assist community-based arts practitioners in advancing health equity through social cohesion. Separately, the University of Florida Center for Arts and Medicine is a NEA Research Lab dedicated to understanding the relationship between the arts and public health through analysis of U.S. longitudinal datasets. The project, known as the EpiArts Lab, is also supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

With delight, I still remember a call one day from Jamie Bennett, formerly ArtPlace’s executive director (and, previously, the NEA’s chief of staff), when he still was mooting the idea of conducting cross-sectoral field scans. As novel and well-reasoned as the idea sounded at the time, I was not prepared for the inveterate patience, humility, and acumen that ArtPlace’s research director, Jamie Hand (also a NEA alum—just sayin’!), and her team and partners brought to this formidable agenda. Thanks to their efforts, we and other funders now have a basis on which to build sustained collaboration with other sectors in meaningful areas of social impact.