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This text is by Steve Panton in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Art that knows its place

Steve Panton

In the 2010 show ”Nocturnal Translations” at the gallery Public Pool, eight of “our dreamers” were invited to journal their dreams, which were then used as source material for eight artists to create art.  The dreamers were mainly local entrepreneurs, one of whom had indeed conceived the show. If there was a “meta-dream” encoded in the show's formulation it was that entrepreneurs own the vision for the city and the artist's role is to translate it into something tangible.

More recently, in their Fall/Winter 2014 newsletter, the Center for Creative Studies highlighted a project in which a recent graduate established a gathering place for young Bengali women1.  The article made it clear that the project was conceived by the recent graduate and created by her using a CCS grant.  The aims of the project are no doubt admirable, but what might be questioned is the institutional positioning of the artist as the agent of change in the artist/community interaction, and the dynamic summarized in the article's apparently non-ironic title, “CCS art and farming projects empower communities.”

The CCS article concludes by stating that the artist intended to apply for additional grant funding to “continue to grow the project,” highlighting a couple of other phenomena: that grant money from institutions like the Kresge and Knight Foundations is currently flooding into the city, and that these institutions have some preference for channeling this money into neighborhoods through artists.

The above cases are examples of ways that under a general movement of “development” or “revitalization”, art and artists have quietly become enmeshed in a complex network involving entrepreneurship, community empowerment and grant giving foundations.  Often the artists' position has become characterized by a belief that they bring an inherent capacity for positive social change in the city's neighborhoods, combined with a tacit acceptance of the primacy of entrepreneurial and philanthropic foundational leadership.

The common thread through which different grant giving foundations conceptualize the relationship between the arts, entrepreneurship and community is found in Creative Placemaking.  For example, ArtPlace America2 is a joint initiative between a dozen separate, philanthropic foundations; in 2013 alone they distributed over $15M in grants3.  The entrepreneurial imperative in Creative Placemaking is clear: to use the arts to attract (wealthier) people and investment into a neighborhood.  The quintessential example of Creative Placemaking in Detroit is Midtown.

The social impact of Creative Placemaking is debatable.  The relationship between the narrative presented by the philanthropic foundations and the research in this area is in a state of shambles.  For example in March 2014, Rip Rapson, Kresge Foundation CEO and President, praised a “meticulously documented” 20 year study by the “Social Impact of the Arts” research project and highlighted a long list of desirable social outcomes4.  Two months later the lead author of the original report published another report admitting that work was still needed to clarify the “conceptual foundation of creative placemaking” and that “creative placemaking has several outcomes problems.”5  In simple terms, this means that no one really knows what Creative Placemaking means or has a clue how to assess its effects.

One group who are undoubtedly well positioned to assess the effects of promoting neighborhood development through the arts are those who are displaced, typically the poorest residents.  If bell hooks's concept of the importance of “homeplace” to black societies' ability to care, nurture and resist is accepted, then this displacement is particularly destructive to African-American communities6. One of the problems in measuring the outcomes of Creative Placemaking is the “spatial” one, which means that how you draw the boundaries effects the statistics. For example, displacing poor people from a neighborhood results in an apparently positive effect of reduced poverty levels -- great if you need some evidence of the social benefits of Creative Placemaking, not so good if you're one of the people displaced.

A more subtle criticism of Creative Placemaking is that the grant giving process atomizes the arts community by encouraging individuals and institutions to compete for funding. In essence this disciplines the arts community to conform to one of the basic tenets of the neo-liberal project, that all aspects of society should behave as if they were part of a competitive enterprise. Hence the net effect of grant giving foundations is to strengthen the entrepreneurial capacity of individuals and  institutions  while disintegrating pre-existing communities.

The desirability of funding artists as agents of social change in neighborhoods, rather than channeling it directly into the community, is also debatable.  The grant giving agencies would probably argue that it brings much needed skills into disadvantaged neighborhoods.  Skeptics would argue that it is a mechanism for re-inventing neighborhoods without empowering long-term residents.  It should also be noted that the direct impact of artists is rarely large, but it becomes amplified in the creation of narratives about the city7.  Long-term residents are often justifiably angry that new “Creative Class” arrivals are regularly and prominently featured in media, while the long history of local creativity is overlooked – see for example this recent op-ed piece by Malik Yakini8.  This distorting and alienating effect is reinforced as artists feel their value legitimated by grant giving and publicity, and hence start to massively over-estimate their own importance.

On a recent visit to the city, noted art theorist Lucy Lippard was escorted to a number of community based arts projects before being whisked in front of an audience who were informed that she was “going to comment on what she had seen.”  It felt like a scene from Soviet-era Russia, in which the visiting dignitary is shown a few showcase projects before publicly endorsing the local party leadership.  To her credit, Lippard was diplomatic but non-committal, at one point exclaiming perplexedly “isn't anyone asking why this (the destruction of Detroit) has happened?”  The answer to Lippard's question is basically no, since, at least in part, grant giving and entrepreneurship favor an ahistoric approach and incentivize artists to imagine the city as a blank state.

The phrase “knowing your place” implies either the authenticity that comes from a deep familiarity with a specific location, or a subservient relationship to power.  A vibrant art community would have the former but not the latter.  An art community that acts as an adjunct to entrepreneurial imperatives and grant giving agencies most likely has the opposite.

1 http://www.collegeforcreativestudies.edu/articles/ccs-art-and-farming





As quoted in Haynes. Race, Culture, and the City: A pedagogy for black urban struggle. SUNY Press: Albany, NY. 1995: pp.112-113.



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link - issue 12: December 2014