“Something big is going on in American cities. It is urban. It is real. It is transformative.” “It is a golden time for an urban renaissance.”
Those are just short soundbites from former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former Mayor of San Antonio Henry Cisneros during his introduction to our Town Hall session to start day two of the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention.
Following that stirring introduction, Cisneros joined five other panelists, and Americans for the Arts President & CEO Bob Lynch, in a fascinating discussion about how the arts can be involved in all aspects of creative placemaking.
In a round of opening remarks, the panelists were asked to respond to Cisneros’ statements about the arts, cities, and placemaking.
Knight Foundation Vice President of Arts Programs Dennis Scholl asked several questions including: “What role are we going to play in this urban renaissance?” (as described by Cisneros) and “How are we going to seize this moment?” More importantly, he stated unequivocally, “I want a seat at the table and a national cultural policy.”
Los Angeles County Arts Commission Executive Director Laura Zucker stated, “Arts and creativity is a special sauce…if we could bottle and resell it to people, everyone would want to buy it. The challenge is to sell it.”
Trey McIntyre Project (TMP) Executive Director John Michael Schert explained how the dance company chose to make Boise, ID, its home because founder Trey McIntyre wanted to be part of shaping the community—how the city sees itself and how others see it.
In a fine example of placemaking at its core, Schert described how vital TMP has become to the community as they were named economic development cultural ambassadors and the fact he can walk down the street and local residents know who he is and often look to TMP as a resource for guidance.
The “Local” Movement
The placemaking conversation later turned to the more recent “local” movement trend that has developed over the past several years—eating local, buying local, partnering with local companies—and Zucker felt it was important for the arts to take advantage of that.
It was something I hadn’t thought about in the arts marketing framework until that moment and I think Zucker is 100 percent correct. “Give Back & Support Local Arts!” should be on banners down every Main Street, tourist area, or cultural district in America.
Storytelling & Untapped Resources
In addition to the unofficial theme of “The New Normal” during this Convention, I also realized that we are all also talking about storytelling. Americans for the Arts President and CEO Bob Lynch said that arts organizations need to tell their arts community stories to any decision-makers who will listen.
Schert supported Lynch by saying, “We need to better monetize process, not product” and suggested that the community needs to invite the public into the art-making process because that’s an untapped market and resource. Once the community gets involved in your art, it’s pretty hard to get them to no longer care about your future or the future of the arts in their city.
Urban Institute Senior Research Associate Maria Rosario Jackson also zeroed in on a key concept in creative placemaking and that is making sure cities and towns are working toward authentic experiences. Citing history, Jackson said that in the past, taking away the culture and traditions of a community were tools used to destroy it, but the opposite must be true. Why not use that community culture to build it up?
She cited post-Katrina New Orleans as a great example as the city’s cultural community didn’t want to lose that identity and they were the first ones back to help revitalize the city.
Aetna Vice President and Head of Community Relations Floyd Green III added that knowing who you are and what you bring to the table are extremely important.
Green made the point that there is power in collaboration and the more that businesses, civic groups, and political leaders work together, the stronger the community. From that, cities then create points of differentiation as they have the chance to show what makes them unique and create even more chances to collaborate.
Schert agreed, saying that TMP has taken a sense of ownership in the community, making sure that they were at the table with the local chamber of commerce, for instance. Through some persistance, TMP is now one of the organizations at the table when a new business is considering to move to Boise, for instance.
Schert said the keys are to be firm, know what the partner wants out of the arrangement, find their sweet spot, and negotiate your terms.
Cisneros added that the solo nature of the arts made it traditionally difficult for artists and arts organizations to work in teams with the rest of the community and arts supporters just need to find the language that they are comfortable with that allows for greater involvement.
National Arts Policy
Scholl mentioned that the Knight Foundation is beginning work on a project to spur the creation of a roadmap to a national arts policy and asked Cisneros how it could lead to a potential cabinet-level position for the arts.
Cisneros responded that it would be a tough road now due to the current contraction of the federal government, talking more about the elimination of departments, not additions. Also, the political climate is difficult, but the way for it to happen would be to aggregate all of the arts progams under one entity and then link to partnerships within other federal departments and divisions.
UPDATE: The full video of the session has just been added below. Enjoy!