At this point we’ve reviewed some of the problems with the theory of the creative class and the limitations of the way creative placemaking is being approached and evaluated. Despite all the problems I’ve outlined related to these areas, I still believe that using art and design is a valuable approach to strengthening communities. I just think we need to challenge some of the commonly accepted assumptions in how we approach, execute, and evaluate this work. Here, then, are my four recommendations for how we can do this work better. As this point, these should be considered rough guidelines that I will tease out and refine over the second half of the semester.
Four things to keep in mind when using art and design for rural community development:
1. Respect the artists and the community. In some ways, you would think that this would go without saying, and yet often enough this is a major issue. You cannot be informed and respectful of the needs and dynamics of a community if you do not spend significant time in the community interacting with the people. This is a reason why I think residency programs are particularly well suited to doing community development work—requiring people to live in the community where they are working is the best way for them to develop relationships, learn about the community, and identify potential areas for improvement.
2. Think systemically and holistically. This is an area where the current one-size-fits-all indicator systems of the NEA falls well short. For example, one of the vibrancy indicators for the Our Town program is the rate of homeownership within the community. Many rural areas are seeking to attract young people, especially young college graduates. Your average 20-something college graduate is probably not going to be able to afford a mortgage. Thus, a rural community could be making excellent progress in attracting young people to live in the area and yet that important achievement might actually reduce the percentage of people living in homes they own and therefore make the community look less vibrant on paper according to the indicator. But beyond that, as the mortgage crisis of 2008 showed, a high rate of people taking out mortgages can actually be disastrous for the long-term health and stability of communities. We need to more carefully and thoroughly think through what rural communities need and be mindful of defaulting to conventional wisdom that may in the end do more harm than good.
3. Focus on sustainable approaches. Community development means more than just economic development. It also means recognizing and preserving the natural resources and quality of the landscape, as well as ensuring social equity for the community’s residents. The arts can be used to develop community capacity, civic capacity, and social capital.
Additionally, in Rural Design: A New Design Discipline, author Dewey Thorbeck outlined seven key principles for encouraging sustainable rural development:
• Empower community members
• Strengthen democracy
• Encourage women to be key leaders
• Involve youth
• Encourage systems thinking
• Encourage innovation
• Foster rural and urban linkages (p. 211).
Incorporating these principles into community projects is a useful way to keep various aspects of sustainability central to the work being done.
4. Be realistic about what can be accomplished and honest about how progress will be gauged. Rather than attempting to tie short-term programs to long-term nebulous impacts such as “regional revitalization,” focus on the outputs and outcomes of the work. What are the tangible assets the community is receiving? How can they be used moving forward? A mix of qualitative and quantitative approaches is also useful in fully describing the effects of any given project. Finally, there’s no shame in having something fail. Be honest about failures and use them as learning opportunities rather than pretending that everything just works (or refusing to collect the data that would demonstrate if a program is working or not).
Photo credit: Ted Birt for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design