Jun 5, 2015

Making Place by Building Stewardship & Public Art-Making

by: Elena Swartz

“Creative placemaking” is the one of the trendiest terms in art and urban design these days, bandied about by artists, urban planners, politicians, and business leaders alike. Some say that the growing role of creative placemaking in arts funding undermines opportunities for artists who struggle to adapt their vision to the requirements of creative placemaking grants. Of course, not every valid and exciting artistic vision fits the tenets of creative placemaking as a physically-based, multi-stakeholder practice. On the other hand, creative placemaking is lauded for bringing together stakeholders from the arts and business to pilot innovative approaches to chronic social problems like poverty. Last month, we partnered with Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation for the event Making Place by Building Stewardship & Public Art-Making, which featured prominent placemakers Majora Carter (Majora Carter Group, LLC), Jennifer McGregor (Wave Hill Public Garden & Cultural Center), and Gonzalo Casals (Friends of the High Line). Each speaker helped me to better understand placemaking and its possibilities in important and refreshing ways.

Majora Carter is instantly recognizable from her well-known 2006 TED talk where her quick and energetic speech is riddled with moments of emotional depth that engross the listener in her story. Carter established the nonprofit Sustainable South Bronx and more recently, StartUp Box, a social enterprise for South Bronx community members to engage in the tech economy. Last year StartUp Box employed some community members who conducted user experience testing for Digital.NYC and later attended a formal website launch event. Though these South Bronx residents, all people of color, initially felt out of place amongst an overwhelmingly white audience, the value of their work dawned on them once the website presentation began and one participant asked Carter, “Shouldn’t the Mayor have his picture taken with us?” As Carter put it, these youth made a place for themselves on a larger stage even though they were not in place in their community. This thought struck a chord for me. Placemaking efforts tend to emphasize highly localized results from grantees, but StartUp Box expanded what place meant to the individuals it empowers.

In a different corner of the Bronx, Jennifer McGregor is cultivating individual experiences that inspire artists and visitors alike at the Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center. Wave Hill offers programming, such as a Winter Workspace residency, that supports experimental work of individual artists. In the current arts funding landscape where stakes are high for artists to present fully envisioned ideas to prestigious grantors such as ArtPlace America and the National Endowment for the Arts, opportunities for true experimentation can be limited. McGregor clearly values individual experiences at Wave Hill. She spoke about a young girl who saw an installation that prompted her to say to her mother, “Is this what artists do? I want to be an artist.” Empowering individual artists to validate their own vision may be key to sustaining creative placemaking as an inherently creative practice, as opposed to other community development practices that involve government and business initiatives but do not involve members of the creative economy.

Gonzalo Casals is a natural storyteller, a self-proclaimed “cultural producer” who is able to communicate the qualitative results of creative placemaking in eye-opening ways. This is a priceless skill considering that significant quantitative data for creative placemaking projects can take years to develop. Organizations need storytelling to inspire funders and the public to maintain their projects while quantitative data can be gathered. Casals is driven by a memory from his childhood in Argentina where he visited a life-size Parthenon created out of books previously banned by the country’s dictatorship. This encounter with socially-inspired art catalyzed him to direct projects that involve community members to make art that validates their culture. He has done this work for different New York City communities as the Founder of Queens Media Arts Development, Director of Education and Public Programs at El Museo del Barrio, and now as Director of Public Programs with Friends of the High Line.

Each of the speakers on the panel highlighted new definitions of creative placemaking that can keep the trend radical and abundantly productive. The event was a great opportunity for Philadelphia, and hopefully the seeds of a few ideas were planted in the local attendees so that the conversation can continue to evolve and innovative placemaking strategies can continue to flourish here and elsewhere.

Photo by Kathy Stull

Last updated: Jan 27, 2016

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