Get into it: ArtPlace’s Research Activities

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

In 2014, I wrote about Creative Placekeeping in the context of race and spatial justice as a counter-frame to the discourse in the academy and investment by philanthropy to the field of Creative Placemaking. I was surprised when Placekeeping became a sticky word, especially for cultural activists as the forces of gentrification were revving up — troubling neighborhoods, displacing communities of colors, and changing the nature of cities. The power of place was upended by the power of real estate. In witnessing how the meaning of “creative” was being deployed in this relationship, there is a need to be mindful of how politics and poetics shape civic life.

Seven years have passed since that critique, and much has changed … the most significant a growing awareness of how imagination and policy condition each other in activities of community cultural development that enliven place.

As a city boy, the ideal of a Just City informs the work I do as a public funder who is mindful of the ways folks in Oakland, CA talk about creativity and place. Creative placemaking, creative placekeeping, and creative placeknowing are the terms often used here. And I know imagination will mess with these terms and generate new knowledges associated with our understanding of place.

ArtPlace has been at the center of one’s understating of place and the ways we animate it. This initiative has ended with a thoughtful and informative set of offerings that prompt “creative placemaking knowledge for and with a diverse range of community development practitioners”

Here’s a link. Get lost in it.

In the 13 ways that ArtPlace has outlined “the role arts and culture can…” there are two categories that I want to comment on. They are “arts and culture can build collective power” and “arts and culture can heal community trauma”

Regarding power: how do we understand power? It is about building power, sharing power, and standing in one’s power — these are the various meanings of power I hear from folks. ArtPlace’s mapping of the ways power building enlivens locales is good and considers the various contexts that shape actions, e.g., housing, law, community activities, economies, etc.

Let me add to this reference of “collective power” a comment about workforce. Community cultural development is intersectional work that shapes a social justice workforce that includes artists, housing advocates, youth development, activists, researchers, environmentalist, and many other folks who work to create place as a baseline for a just society and a fully realized democracy. Going forward in the post-ArtPlace years, let us keep in mind our social justice workforce and how it shapes our work in philanthropy and places.

Regarding trauma: as a public servant I think of the “we the people” — we as in the civic body of a city. ArtPlace’s “Arts and culture can heal community trauma” heading successfully illuminates the ways trauma shapes our lives. I prefer the language of civic trauma as a specific way to foreground the collective response and responsibilities to trauma asked of us.

The roles of the artist, cultural workers, and policy makers are evolving as we face the simultaneous civic traumas of COVID-19 and the institutional racism of now and therefore demand changes to how we manifest “We the People.” In Oakland, there is a rich and deep history of an artists’ community that has been addressing the subject of trauma — racial trauma, sexual trauma, police trauma, displacement trauma, eco disaster trauma — for decades, and who are creating wonderful art works that prompt the social imaginary of our democracy, of how we live together, of our understanding of place, of beauty.

Embedded in these works is the pronoun “I.” I’ve been traumatized…here’s my story. The traumatic experiences that have caused the sorrow, abuse, pain I have dealt with are revealed in this creative work. These difficult truths must be voiced, heard, and supported. And this work also requires something more.

Let’s move from the “I” to the “we” for a moment. American individualism privileges the “I,” one must pick themselves up by their bootstraps, work it out with the therapist, or deepen one’s spiritual practice as a pathway though this trauma. Can creative placemaking, creative placekeeping, and creative placeknowing be accomplished through bootstrapping? Is creative placemaking, creative placekeeping, and creative placeknowing about the “I” or the “We” in the context of trauma? How are we holding civic trauma? It is our responsibility to look at the systems and the agency we have within them to address trauma? To bear witness, offer remedies, be grounded in the ethos of care and belonging?

COVID-19 as a civic trauma is everybody’s trauma, and the degrees of this trauma vary. We started working from home, we went online, we experienced the weakening of our social networks. We experienced loss of lives and loss of connectedness imbedded in place, in creative placemaking, in creative placekeeping, and in creative placeknowing. Yet, imagination runs deep and is a remedy as we proceed and envision our lives together.

Regarding reflection: Let me end with a round of applause for the great staff at ArtPlace America and the funders who went down the path. In my mind they had a rocky start as it caged itself in the build-environment-understanding of placemaking. Their research activities show how, during their 10 years of labor, a wider aperture has been supported that leans into creative placemaking, creative placekeeping, and creative placeknowing strategies which enrich our lives and locales. This aperture acknowledges the poesis, policy, and politic that shape places are rich, complicated, and a never-ending enterprise.