Questions we ask, and what’s revealed

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

Start some place, where?
Engage some people, who?
Find sweet spots, what?
Use arts and culture, how?
Make change, why?
Start, when?

Asking variations of these questions, ArtPlace America inspired thousands of arts, culture, and community development organizers to become more deliberate about community building and development. As part of its ten-year rollout – which included research, field building, and an incredible grant opportunity – ArtPlace asked what seemed simple questions. Answering them, though, was not so simple. In fact, it led to more questions and required new ways of working, imagining new approaches, and thinking about community.

Who leads change?

Toggling between an evolving field of theorists and practitioners, between formal and informal understandings and approaches to arts and culture, within and between rural, tribal, and urban settings, the context for ‘where, with whom, and why’ set the stage for many iterations of ‘creative placemaking’ during a decade of learning and growing in a field that continues to evolve.

The South Carolina Arts Commission had set artist services, arts education, and community development as fundamental pillars of its work, so stepping into these new waters seemed just in time in 2010-2011. With a decade of work in arts participation initiatives spurred by The Wallace Foundation – remember the terms ‘broadening, deepening, and diversifying?’ – we were primed to further consider how we as a state agency engaged our public and to take a hard look at a new approach for more equitable funding.

Working across sectors required new thinking about how we, a funder, could act as a strategic partner in communities. We asked if this approach would create new value for arts and culture. How would challenges within health, education, community, and/or economic development sectors be addressed? Would the inclusion of arts and culture help us listen and engage more meaningfully with one another? Could we create a new flow between ‘the state’ and local places? Between neighbors?

The timing was right. As the National Creative Placemaking Fund grant process was opening for a new cycle, we seized the opportunity to share information with our communities by asking ArtPlace to host a webinar on creative placemaking and cross sectoral approaches. Near the end of ArtPlace’s run, one organization in South Carolina received the ArtPlace America grant award, which was as much a win for the state as for the Charleston Rhizome Collective, aka TinyisPowerful.

Certainly, we celebrated at the state and local level. We had learned a lot along the way and engaged a number of organizations who were enticed by the four simple grant questions. We rejoiced, not only for the important new funding coming into our state, but also because it meant our state would be ‘on the map’ and part of a community of field builders contributing to a national learning community.

At the same time we were promoting the ArtPlace grant, we were also learning from our field of community builders right here at home. While we collectively ‘ooo’ed’ and ‘ahhh’d’ over the variety of grants ArtPlace funded, it was becoming clearer and clearer that readiness was a factor unaccounted for in our promotion of the use of arts and culture as strategies for community building. We needed to back up and take another look at the realities facing our constituents, especially those in rural communities.

So, while we continued to learn locally what ‘creative placemaking’ entailed, we were also taking notes at the state level. This consideration ultimately led us to question:

  • The hierarchical nature of our relationships with local communities;
  • The role of arts and culture in change-making;
  • Grantmaking that meets people and communities where they are;
  • What elements constitute ‘arts and culture’ and meet funding requirements;
  • What ‘success’ looks like; and
  • Timelines and readiness. This is not short work. Not everyone is ready.

How we imagined new approaches with ‘creative placemaking’

The opportunity to learn and grow with national leaders and local practitioners has been extraordinary professional development. Being proximate to all the ArtPlace staff, and field leaders including Chuck Fluharty of the Rural Policy Research Institute, Pam Breaux of the National Assembly of Arts Agencies, Bob Reeder of Rural LISC, Dixie Goswami of the Breadloaf NextGen Teachers Network, and many others provided support for the development of a learning community centered on local realities and encompassing themes of home, belonging, connection, story, and traditions. Understanding that, in a state which is largely rural, where resources are thin, capacity limited, and private foundations few, we must use what we have to claim our place in this arena, all while building collective power.

A framework for this new learning community was created in 2015 with funding from USDA-Rural Development and named The Art of Community: Rural SC; the context for ‘where, with whom, and why’ was set. As the arts commission had earlier considered its own portfolio of relationships – where little funding landed in rural communities, and local arts and cultural participation often did not match local demographics – this new, grassroots-focused effort began in a six-county rural Promise Zone designated area of South Carolina.

The notion of ‘creative placemaking’ as a learning and engagement tool as well as a vehicle for more generative and equitable funding across our state became real when six ‘mavens’ (respected grassroots community leaders) accepted an invitation to learn together, build local teams who reflected their communities and loved where they lived, to practice a new way to be together, and meet local challenges head-on. They each agreed to create a small demonstration project to address a local concern and center their community. The mavens committed to finding partners to join their efforts and subsequently share their process, learnings, and challenges within South Carolina and beyond – and celebrate local assets while they were at it.

Five years into this initiative, and with additional funding from the state legislature and The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Mavens and their teams continue to document their work and build on their original cross-sector projects. The network has expanded to now include a total of 14 counties and one tribal nation. A growing emphasis on creativity has become integral to the Art of Community initiative so that creative expression dovetails with creative placemaking. Engagement with local arts and culture makers – or creative connectors – in each of the participating counties is coupled with an emphasis on creative mentorship provided by seven artist leaders. Deep relationships and connections have formed as a result of this network; respect for one another, community, and a network for creativity has grown.

The excitement and quest for anchoring our work within the ArtPlace frame served as a catalyst to develop new approaches to equitable community development and to realize the power of arts and culture within this realm. As we crossed sectors, we gained new partners and collaborators; we built collective power through the energy of a network within our state and nationally; we created a community that prioritizes and elevates local voices, leadership and youth. In this dynamic environment, we’re learning together as ideas are sparked and engines for change ignited. Our constituents are showing us how. And we’re listening.

Image: Courtesy - Art Pot Multicultural Group

“We are showing the larger community that we are here, that we are invested and that we care about our places and all people,” Maven Lydia Cotton said, describing a local project called The Path of Hanahan. It is one of 15 examples of cross-sector, community-engaged efforts supported by The Art of Community: Rural SC initiative of the South Carolina Arts Commission. After months of planning and engaging with Latino residents and families, Cotton and a local team led the creation of seven handmade wooden benches that were added to the landscape at the Hanahan Amphitheater and Park. Nearly 50 people participated in all aspects of the creation. "We were in conversation from the start, every person was engaged; we compromised and worked in a synchronized way. And finally, the community can enjoy the park with extra comfort since the benches make it feel more like home,” Maven Lydia said. See more about the local project here. Learn more about the Art of Community: Rural SC initiative here.