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Why Building Arts-Based Communities Is So Important

Jamie Bennett, from ArtPlace America, makes a strong case

By Suzanne Gerber

You might not be familiar with the term “creative placemaking,” but you've probably seen a lot of it. Think “art in public places” with very specific goals.

For the past decade, creative placemaking has come to describe projects in which “art plays an intentional and integrated role in place-based community planning and development.” That definition is from Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America (APA), a consortium of federal agencies, banks and philanthropic foundations who believe that artists and arts organizations can shape the social, physical and economic characters of their communities.

Putting art at the heart of a community enhances our lives by stirring hard-to-articulate feelings and inspiring us to look beyond what we believe to be possible and imagine a more vibrant, exciting future. It also reminds us that we're all creative beings — and that whether we're making art or music, telling stories or cathartically sharing in the experience, we're all connected.

Since its inception in 2011, ArtPlace America has invested $85 million in 233 creative placemaking projects in 154 communities of all sizes across the United States. It will announce recipients of an additional $10.5 million later this year. Which, when you consider how arts budgets are often the first line item to get slashed from budgets, is pretty impressive.

Public Art vs. Creative Placemaking

But unlike that cool mural that local school kids painted on the side of an abandoned lot, creative placemaking has specific goals. Projects must define the community whose lives they seek to enhance, describe the positive change that the group of people wants, clearly outline an arts-based “intervention” to bring about that result and create a method of measuring the change.

While it’s impossible to describe the breadth of projects APA supports, here’s a tiny sample of current ones: Choreographers and dancers are collaborating with the Tacoma Park, Md., Department of Transportation to redesign a streetscape. A visual artist in Ashland, Mass., is planting a polychromatic garden atop an EPA Superfund site to bring visibility to the project while remediating the soil. And in Camden, N.J., artists are creating light-based work to bring residents onto the street at night to help increase public safety.

I sat down with Brooklynite Jamie Bennett and discussed how he got involved in this field, how ArtPlace America is helping unite artists, community planners and communities and why this is such an important initiative. Highlights:

Next Avenue: You’ve said that creative placemaking is "literally ancient." How so?

Jamie Bennett: In ancient Greece, the theater was the center of the community, as well as the center of government, religion and social life. And it goes back further than that. Our earliest recorded human history is of communities, and their boundaries were sketched out by art.

So in between the ancient Greeks and today’s phrase creative placemaking, what did people call it?

Community arts, asset-based community development… There’s also a school of visual-arts folks who think of it as a social, or civic, practice. Whatever you call it, it’s the same work that comes from a similar impulse. It’s something of a trend, a way of thinking, and is usually associated with cultural affairs, urban planning, public policy — and today it’s a big element of philanthropy.

It’s a cornerstone of urban planning background: How we come together as neighbors to collectively shape the spaces that we inhabit. We’ve just added 'creative' to the old tradition of 'placemaking' by inviting artists and arts organizations to join their neighbors in doing this.

Why does creative placemaking frequently occur in underserved or marginalized communities?

Because philanthropy and government tend to invest their resources where the market isn’t. By definition, you’re talking about underserved communities, where there’s the greatest need for some kind of intervention.

What in your background prepared you for this job of allotting tens of millions of dollars to deserving communities and artists?

I grew up in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. And I eventually came to NYC to study theater. I performed a bit, but was more into producing and stage-managing. After college, I landed a job in the alumni office and launched myself in a career of fundraising before moving on to fundraising at The New York Philharmonic and The Museum of Modern Art. One of the museum’s trustees invited me to work for her foundation, which is when I made the leap to giving away money. I also worked for New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment of the Arts. I was a hardcore arts guy who got a day job that combined all these amazing fields.

What are some things that cities have done on their own initiative?


People in New York City’s Mayor’s Office have always supported the arts. Under Mayor Bloomberg, they put a work of art on the cover of every city publication, including the budget. There’s an artist-in-residence at the Department of Sanitation. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul mayors have put artists-in-residence in City Hall. L.A. recently put out a call for an artist-in-resident for its Department of Transportation to work on an initiative to reduce the number of traffic deaths. Taos and Santa Fe are known for art being in the very fabric of everything you look at. And I’ve seen this in every kind of community in the country.

Can you think of any projects focused on aging per se?

There’s a fascinating woman named Joan Jeffri, who used to be a professor at Columbia University, who’s done interesting studies about aging artists. One, on visual artists in New York City that she called Above Ground, had a message that 'artist' can be a 'master identity' that transcends age and socioeconomic status and can lead to a higher life satisfaction.

How can this apply to older folks living in residences?

When I worked at New York City’s Office of Cultural Affairs, we worked with seniors (in a program called Seniors Meet the Arts, or SMARTS) to teach them juggling because it involves fine and gross motor skills, which has been shown to be the best for preventing, or in some cases reversing dementia. There’s also the Bowery Street Poetry Café, a project for Alzheimer’s patients. Because even when a person couldn’t remember what day it was, they could remember that poem they had to memorize in second grade.

Mark Morris’s ballet troupe here in Brooklyn has a program for people with Parkinson’s because many of those patients are able to dance when they can’t walk. Another program connected LGBT high school students with LGBT senior citizens to share oral history. It’s a very interesting way of understanding history and identity and the breadth of that community. And there’s a whole dimension that’s art therapy, and not just painting. To regain her speech after being shot, [Congresswoman] Gabby Giffords worked with a music therapist.

Are some cities or communities more innately “art-rich”?

The thing to realize is that artists are the one asset that is present in every community. So when you’re thinking about asset-based community development, not every city will have a beautiful waterfront or strong public transportation system or major university. But every single community has people who sing and dance and tell stories. Most art is consumed in-person, in real time and with other people. So because of that, people have to go somewhere and do something together. That drives foot traffic, which is good community development 101. You want positive street presence, you want eyes on the street and public safety. And when you have big groups of people, they tend to spend money, because they want to buy a sandwich or magazine or dinner or a drink. Arts and culture can drive foot traffic, local economies and improve public safety.

Of course, if that’s all you cared about, you could invest in a soccer stadium, transit hub or big-box store and get the same result. But why we ultimately need art is because the arts do something that nothing else does, which is drive more stable communities and build community attachment and social cohesion and civic engagement. Our research shows that people who participate in the arts are more likely to participate in activities beyond the arts, like volunteering, at higher rates. I think it’s fair to say Walmart doesn’t drive social cohesion.

Beyond the sociological aspects, how can these kinds of community art projects benefit individuals?

The NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] published a research-driven white paper called How Art Works, showing that when art happens, there are benefits to communities and to individuals. Those benefits include increased creative capacity and insight, the ability to bridge and bond and make connections with people who aren’t like you. Art is unique in that it offers individualized experiences, which can comfort you, sometimes provoke you, sometimes challenge you and sometimes it does all of those things.

Art can be a painting by Jasper Johns, it can be my great-grandmother’s lacemaking…. I think of community arts as creating these “campfire moments” where we can come together with a bunch of other people to do nothing. This isn’t a meeting, there isn’t an agenda, there isn’t a to-do list. Often art is just a call to come together and be with fellow human beings, which is at the root of the individual transformation.

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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