Building Creative Communities?

January 12, 2011

You’ve heard from Leo Vazquez from Rutgers University’s Arts Build Communities when he blogged about the New Jersey Creative Vitality Index and looked to the environmental movement for lessons about advancing the arts in New Jersey. Today, he shares some important lessons in engaging stakeholders in building creative communities.

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Building creative communities?
It’s more about the connections than the art

By Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP
Arts Build Communities

Creative communities tend to be picturesque. We see images of galleries, street performers, and children doing art. What we see is usually built on a foundation of collaborations among artists, cultural professionals, businesspeople, and elected officials and their advisors.

Two recent reports talk about how to build these connections: Creative Placemaking, by the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Arts Ripple Effect by the Fine Arts Fund.

Creative Placemaking report The Arts Ripple Effect report

Both reports come to the same conclusions: It’s not enough to talk about how special the arts are; you have to connect with your audiences to show how the arts can add value to the things they care about. That means first you have to understand what your audiences care about most and then show how the arts can give audiences more of what they want. In some, if not most, cases, it also means creative people showing themselves to be good, caring neighbors. This is also what Arts Build Communities learned when it interviewed more than 40 cultural, community and economic development professionals throughout New Jersey.

Imagine dozens of people painting on a moving canvas with paints that fade, glow and blend in ways that you can’t predict. That’s why creative community building is so difficult. But it is easier with stronger connections among artists, public officials, civic leaders, businesspeople, and communities.

The first step many creative professionals use is the “pretty pictures/big numbers approach.” This involves showing inspiring images (at least one of which has kids doing something adorable) from creative communities and talking about the millions of dollars and thousands of jobs generated by the arts in their state. And some of these artists and professionals have been frustrated when their audiences nodded politely – and that was it.

It’s not hard to convince audiences that the arts are good. The challenge is in getting others to believe that the arts are good for them (or what they care about) and getting them to act on those beliefs. For example, it’s not enough to say that the arts benefit the economy. Public officials and business leaders want to know if the arts are a safer and better investment than something else.

Creative professionals could be more successful by speaking to the practical challenges of community and economic development. This means more than throwing out terms like “sustainable” and “workforce development.” It is about understanding the challenges of trying to balance the interests of diverse and competing communities, businesses, and those of future generations.

And building a creative community requires a different approach than most artists take in creating their art. Usually in creating an art work, the artist has a clear vision, develops it – sometimes with helpers – then tries to sell the vision. Most painters don’t expect their buyers to change the colors or add new figures.

The creative community builder tends to share, rather than sell, a vision for a better and more creative place. The vision – like the place – gets built by many people. How much effort and resources they put in depends a lot on how much the vision affects the things and people they value. As people and places change over time, creative community builders have to be more alert, connected and adaptable.

Creative Community Builders HandbookOne of the best guides on this subject is The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook, by cultural planning consultant Tom Borrup. (Full disclosure: Arts Build Communities is working with Tom Borrup on two of its classes and is planning to work with him on at least two creative placemaking projects.)

Arts Build Communities offers several courses and events to help creative community builders and creative placemakers. Building Creative Communities is part of a series of online classes in creative placemaking. Designed by Leonardo Vazquez and Tom Borrup, the class runs from January 19 to February 26. On February 11, there is the ABC Cultural Planning Leadership Conference. It focuses on building, growing and sustaining creative communities.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, directs Arts Build Communities at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Arts Build Communities supports local officials, civic leaders and arts professionals seeking to build more sustainable and prosperous communities in New Jersey through the arts. ABC helps leaders make more informed decisions through practical research, continuing education, and technical assistance; and by connecting leaders to other resources they need to make better decisions.