This Must Be the Place

Research and writing about integrating art and design into efforts to build sustainable rural communities in Minnesota and beyond


The second post of a three-part series; you can find the first post here.

In my last post, we looked at the theory of the creative class and found that it rests on some rather shoddy foundations. Despite the lack of compelling proof the presence of creative professionals causes economic development, this premise continues to be influential in shaping how foundations, arts nonprofits, and local governments approach economic development—in fact, it is at the center of the idea of creative placemaking. That a theory which touts the importance of creative professionals and presents an economic justification for the importance of art is popular and promoted by various arts organizations doesn’t surprise me. Of course these organizations are going to be seduced by an idea that can be used to demonstrate to the general public the importance of art and the creative economy. But I am surprised at how little push-back there has been despite some very major flaws with the idea of creative placemaking.

As I see it, the largest problem related to the idea of creative placemaking is one of vagueness. In a white paper for the National Endowment for the Arts, noted expert in the field Anne Markusen writes that

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes,improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.

Wow, that sounds amazing, right? It’s no surprise the NEA two years ago launched its ArtPlace initiative, which focuses on using private and foundation money creative placemaking and has as it mission:

ArtPlace is investing in art and culture at the heart of a portfolio of integrated strategies that can drive vibrancy and diversity so powerful that it transforms communities.

In addition to ArtPlace, the NEA also founded the national Our Town initiative, which supports “creative placemaking projects that contribute to the livability of communities and place the arts at their core.”

Good stuff! But I wonder exactly how does the presence of artists and the focus on cultural activities lead to better communities? Well, here comes the vagueness problem that I just mentioned. No one seems to know how the hell creative placemaking actually works and not nearly enough people are trying to figure it out.

When we talk about evaluating programs or project, a very common method is to examine three kinds of results—outputs, outcomes, and impacts. In a program evaluation for its Creative Communities Initiative, the Knight foundation provided the following definitions:

  • Outputs are the direct products of the project being undertaken.
  • Outcomes are specific changes in participants and/or community knowledge, behavior, and skills following the completion of the project.
  • Impacts are fundamental and long-lasting systemic changes.

In this model, if a program is effective,  the outputs of a particular project influence outcomes following the project’s completion, which in turn leads to impacts. So, for example, a project which provided capital assets to a local community arts center could result in the output of a new and expanded studio spaces and community arts class offerings, which in turn could lead to the outcomes of more people taking classes at the center, which could lead to an impact of a greater community-wide appreciation for the arts.

This strikes me as a useful cause-and-effect model of examining the work being done related to arts-based community building and revitalization. Unfortunately, neither of the NEA’s major creative placemaking efforts are using this kind of evaluation model. Instead, the NEA has focused on a number of community indicators. In turn, they list potential impacts in the form of four hypothesis—that creative placemaking will have a positive effect on artists and the surrounding arts community, that residents’ attachment to communities will be increased by creative placemaking, that creative placemaking will improve the quality of life for neighborhood residents, and finally that local economic conditions, from household incomes to business and property values, will be positively affected by creative placemaking.

The NEA conducted a study to determine what indicators they should use to gauge whether their four hypotheses are working, with the intent to “advance public understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities.” Here’s what they came up with:

Hypothesis:  Creative placemaking will have a positive impact on artists and arts communities
Indicators: Median earnings of residents employed in entertainment-related industries, number of employees or art organizations, payroll at arts organizations
Hypothesis: Resident’s attachment to communities will be increased by creative placemaking
Indicators: Length of residence, percent of housing owner occupied, percent of housing occupied
Hypothesis: Creative placemaking will improve quality of life
Indicators: Mean commute time to work, number of retail businesses, crime, addresses not collecting mail, number of  anchor institutions
Hypothesis: Economic conditions improve because of creative placemaking
Indicators: Loan amounts for housing property sales, median income, total number of jobs, number of in-service business addresses

But on a conference call/webinar to discuss the results of the study, when asked about providing evidence that investment in the arts is what lead to improvements in the cited indicators, the NEA’s deputy director of the Office of Research and Analysis, Steven Shewfelt, stated that

“A lot of the language I’ve used today has been very carefully chosen to avoid suggesting that we are trying to design a way to specifically address the causal relationship between creative placemaking and the outcomes we’re interested in.”

In other words, they’re not providing any data that could demonstrate evidence that the work being done in creative placemaking is actually causing community improvements they are citing as indicators. Guys, that is some seriously weak methodological mojo.

Blogger and arts administrator and researcher Ian David Moss has written extensively about the issue, and in a insightful post on the issue of creative placemaking and outcomes, he notes that the NEA’s choice to use the indicator system instead of a more rigorous evaluation significantly diminishes its ability to achieve its stated goal of advancing public understanding of how creative placemaking works. He writes:

The project will no doubt result in a lot of great data, but essentially no mechanism for connecting the Endowment’s investments in Our Town projects to the indicators one sees. A project could be entirely successful on its own terms but fail to move the needle in a meaningful way in its city or neighborhood. Or it could be caught up in a wave of transformation sweeping the entire community, and wrongly attribute that wave to its own efforts. There’s simply no way for us to tell.

In that same post, Moss goes on to note four major problems with trying to judge impacts of creative placemaking projects using an indicator system instead of a holistic evaluation:

  • It doesn’t give a clear road map for project selection that will identify investments most likely to make a difference.
  • It doesn’t give us the tools to go back and analyze why certain projects did and didn’t work.
  • It doesn’t acknowledge the complex nature of economic ecosystems and the indirect role that arts projects play in them.
  • It provides little insight on how to pursue arts-led economic development while avoiding the thorny problems of gentrification.

Beyond just the indicators for the Our Town project, the ten “signals of momentum” and related “vibrancy indicators” for the NEA’s ArtPlace project are also imprecise and unable to untangle the issues cited above. For good measure, the NEA’s website admits that “while we are not able to measure vibrancy directly, we believe that the measures we are assembling, taken together, will provide useful insights into the nature and location of especially vibrant places within cities.”

This may all seem like a theoretical discussion up until now, but there are real-life consequences of such a lax approach to understanding creative placemaking and how it works. Let’s return to the program study conducted for the Knight Foundation on their Creative Communities Initiative (KCCI). The project, which was undertaken in cooperation with Richard Florida’s consulting group, focused on three metro regions, including Duluth, Minnesota. The Knight Foundation spent $580,000 on the initiative. It didn’t work. From the program evaluation:

KCCI was built on an innovative theory of economic development. However, it lacked a clear set of connections between its specific projects and the broader changes it sought to achieve. In addition, the initiative did not articulate its rationale about the ways in which change could or would occur. In other words, KCCI knew what its destination was but did not have a roadmap for getting there.

My broader point related to all of this is that given the relative scarcity of funding for the arts, we as the arts community need to focus on programs and tactics that can be demonstrated to work rather than murky theories of economic development that outright ignore issues of causality. We need to be systemic and holistic in our thinking and approaches. We owe it to ourselves to be honest about what works and what doesn’t.

And yet, just last week two items were published locally that demonstrate the continued popularity of a willfully-shallow approach to promoting creative placemaking. Last Friday, an editorial appeared in MinnPost written by two prominent Twin Cities arts advocates in favor of creative placemaking. Even allowing for the space constraints and that it was an opinion piece rather than a news item, the piece was stunning in its lack of meaningful content. For example, in writing how creative placemaking can improve quality of life, the authors state:

Creating or experiencing art can give people a fulfilling sense of personal power. We all have something to say about the world, and art helps us find our voice. It can also help us find each other. Arts activities provide valuable opportunities for people to gather and interact. Personal power gained through art can become community power, and collective action that results from that power can be transformative.

Again, as with most every source I’ve cited in this piece, the authors offer no mechanism for how this is actually supposed to happen. They mention several examples from the metro area that yield some basic outputs, and they talk about their ideas for larger regional impacts, but there’s no demonstrable outcomes to connect them.

The other study related to creative placemaking that dropped last week was the Minneapolis Creative Index 2013. Unlike the MinnPost editorial, there’s actually quite a lot of data provided in the report, and some of it is useful, but the index omits some very important context that would provide a more comprehensive understanding of the metro’s creative economy. For example, the index touts the number of photographers currently living in the metro area. At over 2,800 of them, photography is the top creative occupation in the Twin Cities. The study notes that the number of photographers has increased 27% between the years 2002 and 2011. What the study fails to include is any information on the actual employment rate of these photographers. Last fall, MCAD conducted an alumni employment survey of graduates of the past thirty years; our internal data shows that alumni who graduated with degrees in photography are among those who have the hardest time finding work in their field. But you’d never know that just by looking at the Creative Index report, and so a major piece of understanding the creative workforce in Minneapolis—namely, that while the sheer number of creative workers is impressive, the market has areas that are over-saturated and that employment rates and compensation for artists in these areas suffer—is simply not included.

OK, I’ve spent thousands of words thus far detailing the problems with the idea of the creative class and creative placemaking as means to spur economic development and community revitalization. I’m starting to feel like the art grinch at this point, and I appreciate everyone hanging with me. In my next post, I’m finally going to start talking about my ideas of better ways to approach using the arts as a tool for building more sustainable communities. If we are willing to be systemic and holistic in our thinking and honest about what is and is not possible, then I think we can work together to create a better roadmap for moving forward.

Photo credit: Ted Birt for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design

1 year ago