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An Inaugural Local Leaders’ Institute Focuses on Creative Placemaking

Local government officials and cultural leaders are increasingly embracing creative placemaking as a tool to strengthen communities. In urban and rural places across the country, they are collaborating with residents to develop arts, culture, and design projects that help transform the economic, social and physical landscape in tangible—and equitable—ways.

Some local leaders describe creative placemaking as a refocusing of the planning process, with artists and residents reimagining community planning and development. They stress the importance of recognizing and valuing the history and culture of people who live in a place when developing plans for the future, noting that developing a plan together can be as important as the resulting initiative.

To extend the reach of this strategy and develop the field of creative placemaking, National Endowment for the Arts and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) brought six teams of partners from small, medium, and rural places together for the inaugural Local Leaders’ Institute on Creative Placemaking.

At the two day convening in the summer of 2019, these local leaders shared community goals and ideas for implementation of creative placemaking projects designed to strengthen their local communities. The Arts Endowment and LISC organizers also invited creative placemaking experts from across the nation to offer tailored advice on a range of topics including partnership with artists, community engagement, project management, and sustaining creative placemaking work.

Jennifer Hughes, director of design and creative placemaking at the Arts Endowment, described the Institute as “...an opportunity to support the local work in a new way, facilitating hands-on learning and peer exchange.”

The organizers invited recent applicants for a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town creative placemaking grant to apply for the Institute. A large number of those invited chose to apply, and the six communities were chosen based upon the commitment of local leaders to work together on creative placemaking and their specific statements of need for assistance from the expert resource advisors.

At the Institute, the six teams received feedback on their proposals and they saw presentations from the resource team members on a range of creative placemaking best practices and case studies.

“Arts and culture are powerful catalysts for strengthening social cohesion, and building equitable economic opportunity in communities of all sizes,” said Lynne McCormack, national program director of creative placemaking at LISC. “This kind of shared learning supports local leaders who want to develop creative placemaking plans and projects that will serve their communities’ development now and in the future.”

By the end of the Institute, the local teams exuded energy and confidence about moving forward. Greer Smith, Founder and President of TRANSART & Cultural Services in Ulster County, NY, describes the Institute as a “Creative Placemaking Bootcamp.” She feels it was “remarkable to be in a professional environment with others who understand what we are trying to do and where everyone had something to offer, the experts and the peer city representatives.”

The opportunity to carve out time for learning and deeper discussions with partners was inspiring for the participants.

“It was practical and helpful to see how other places are designing their projects,” says Timothy Wiedemann, Assistant Deputy County Executive in Ulster County. He notes the benefits of walking away with contact information for a national network of expert advisors and the chance to spend time with his local partner, strengthening their team for future work.

Participants said that the resource team experts provided valuable feedback. “Hearing from knowledgeable and well-respected national authorities focused on our own community and proposal was exciting,” says Julie Gilberto-Brady, a cultural leader from Dorchester County, Maryland.

The discussions were energizing for the teams and gave them a lot of confidence about what they need to do. “We feel we’re able to do the work more purposefully and strategically now,” she reports. “The Institute was so enriching that our team spent the entire two hour ride home discussing what to do next.”

She especially appreciates the fact that local leaders left with concrete suggestions. “For instance, we knew we needed a community advisory group to assist with planning and to understand more deeply how people think about the heritage of our region. This is already in the works with a survey of residents that will be used to design our next proposal.”

“Arts and culture are powerful catalysts for strengthening social cohesion, and building equitable economic opportunity in communities of all sizes”
— Lynne McCormack, LISC's director of creative placemaking

A second step Dorchester County leaders agree upon as a result of the Institute experience is inviting artists to a leadership role in the planning going forward. Feedback during the Institute prompted the team to look at the proposal with a fresh eye. To their surprise, the experience made them realize they need to do more work on the concept development than they expected.

Like other Institute participants, she notes the team has a better understanding of the importance of the proposal design process itself. “We aren’t going into a meeting knowing the result and just getting tweaks from residents. We want them to tell us what they want.”

Weidemann offers that a major outcome of the Institute is his realization that he can build understanding among local government officials about this work by creating an artist residency for Ulster County. “That should help create awareness of the value artists and creative work can bring to the multi-disciplinary nature of local government problem solving,” he said.

The Arts Endowment will continue to invest in future Local Leaders’ Institutes to reach additional communities that are interested in workshopping their creative placemaking concepts and integrating arts and culture into their approach for community development. In fall 2019, the Arts Endowment and LISC will release an action-oriented, how-to resource workbook to assist communities in planning and executing local creative placemaking projects.