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How Can Creative Placemaking Serve Us in this Moment? A Look Back to Look Forward

Ten years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts released the seminal publication “Creative Placemaking.”  Written by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, this white paper launched a movement grounded in harnessing design thinking, artistic practice and community-driven problem solving to build more creative and equitable communities.

At the time of the release, I was working as the director of the department of Art, Culture and Tourism in Providence, Rhode Island.  Like the rest of the country, we were in the midst of recovering from the recession and still adjusting to what was then, “the new normal.”   The concepts and case studies in the publication may not have been new ideas; artists have been working in community since the dawn of time. But the way in which the concepts were articulated and the case studies were presented was new.  This white paper offered the arts and culture field a research-driven theory of change to talk about how arts and culture directly impacted planning, city building, and economic and community development.  During that time of recession, it offered the arts and cultural community an opportunity to demonstrate its relevance to elected officials, corporate leaders, and high-level decision makers. 

We know this work strengthens our neighborhoods and solves difficult problems. We know this work heals.

The Arts Endowment launched the “Our Town” grant program to incentivize partnerships between municipalities, county and tribal governments and arts and cultural organizations to directly invest in creative placemaking.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was enacted in 2009, and when the dollars were flowing into our city, we used the paper as resource for backing up our requests from our city council, mayor’s office, tourism bureau and planning department.  And because our national advocacy organization, Americans for the Arts, had worked so diligently to include “arts and culture” in the language of the legislation, we were able to leverage workforce development funds, brownfields money, and planning dollars toward the community’s arts and culture ecosystem.

Over the past ten years, the Arts Endowment, The Kresge Foundation and Artplace America (and the many foundations that support it), have built a movement around creative placemaking.  As we navigate the uncharted territory of Covid-19, we face unprecedented challenges – nationally and globally.  These challenges will require communities to solve existing and emerging problems in new and innovative ways.  These challenges will also push against assumptions of values and ethics. Creative placemaking is the arts and culture solution to much of this work.  During the past decade we have seen artists in the role of community organizer, community developers partnering with culture bearers and arts organizations, designers working with planners to empower residents by putting design-based thinking to work in civic processes, and large cultural institutions working with local artists to strengthen their communities, physical, socially and economically.  And, thanks again to Americans for the Arts, national community development intermediaries, and service organizations, arts and culture has once again been included in national recovery legislation.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides for $75 million appropriated to the National Endowment for the Arts, which will award 40 percent of the funds directly to state and regional arts agencies to distribute through their funding programs. Sixty percent of the funds are designated for direct grants to nonprofit arts organizations all across the United States. CARES also includes relief for individual artists, by including gig economy workers, allows arts and culture non-profits to apply for the Payroll Protection Program and Small Business Loans.

My hope for us in this current moment of crises is that we leverage the full potential of all we been working together to build over these past ten years through the creative placemaking movement. Through creative placemaking, we have diversified arts investments, establishing cross-sector partnerships that have built muscle memory and capacity to respond in this moment in interdisciplinary and inclusive ways.  Together, we have created a more comprehensive arts ecosystem where artists and designers are relied upon to help address historically difficult problems and innovate imperfect community processes. Sectors outside arts and culture have come to understand how including a more creative approach to community engagement and planning results in discovering root issues and getting to equitable solutions that serve local residents.  The geography of funding for arts and culture has expanded to support  projects in small rural towns, Indian country, and underinvested urban neighborhoods. These are fundamental transformations in the arts and culture ecosystem of this country, and I will be so bold to claim all of this in the name of “creative placemaking.”  

So let us move forward into these dark waters ahead with the understanding that arts and culture is not a stand-alone sector, and that we must continue this way of working we call “creative placemaking.”  We must build on the partnerships and values of the movement to support the resilience within our communities and cast a creative vision for their future.  We must continue to weave arts and culture into the fabric of community development.  Now is the time to double down and support our artists and community organizations on the front lines.  We know it creates social cohesion in chaos.  We know this work strengthens our neighborhoods and solves difficult problems.  We know this work heals. 


Lynne McCormack, Senior Creative Placemaking Officer​
As head of the creative placemaking program, Lynne, an artist by training, oversees LISC’s many projects that bring arts and culture into the work of comprehensive community development. Before joining LISC, Lynne served as the director of Art, Culture and Tourism for the city of Providence. For over thirty years, she has worked at the intersection of arts and community, forging partnerships that brought grants, festivals, employment opportunities and increased funding for arts-based development to the city. Lynne holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.