Humility In Service

I was attending a creative industry conference today which gave me a lot to think about. One of the topics that came up was creative placemaking. Right now that is a big push for improving communities around the country. ArtPlace is one of the bigger efforts to this end.

However, one of the things keynote speaker Tom Borrup noted was that often placemaking has an element of placetaking.

It is widely acknowledged that gentrification displaces artists which planted the seeds for vibrancy within neighborhoods. The process of placemaking seeks to improve conditions in neighborhoods which may end up displacing a wider spectrum of residents beyond artists. Even if it doesn’t immediately displace them, the placemaking vision may implicitly be imposing a different type of art and culture than already exists there.

Borrup suggested one of the most important questions to ask is whose art and culture is being employed in the placemaking effort. Should there be an effort at placekeeping? That is, an intentional effort to determine what should be left in place rather than replaced.

This reminded me of the woman I wrote about two weeks ago who was selling a condo in San Francisco’s Mission District at below market rate. She was requiring the condo buyer to commit to a cultural promissory note to contribute to the community. One of the conditions I hadn’t mentioned was that she required the buyer not to complain about the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Whether that is a reasonable expectation of a property buyer or not, this shows a concern that the existing culture of the neighborhood not be disparaged or displaced by new residents.

Along the same lines, in another session Marc Folk, Executive Director of The Arts Commission in Toledo noted that arts people often talk about the necessity of going out into the community since the community doesn’t come to them. He said that he often approached that as if he was metaphorically riding out on his white horse to save the community.

He said after a time he learned that really first you needed to go out as a guest and ask to be hosted at meetings, gatherings, etc. which is a much more humble approach. I had visions of the electoral process in NH where people host intimate meetings with political candidates in their homes. Though I also suspect he may have meant being a true guest and not being the focus of attention at all the first few times out.

Similarly, in another session a panelist noted that after experiencing a lot of resistance from educators, they finally asked what they were doing wrong. They were told that generally arts organizations come along and ask the schools to participate in their programs rather than asking what initiatives the schools were pursuing that they could participate in. (I guess in some cases, arts organizations put schools into grants as program participants without even consulting with the schools.)

This general sentiment reminded me about the diversity panel I attended at the Arts Midwest conference this past Fall.  When I wrote about the session, I noted:

..the focus of engaging diverse communities has been on how the arts/cultural organization can benefit from the inclusion. This can make the effort feel disingenuous and leave people feeling marginalized. Few organizations can say why engaging diverse audiences is meaningful beyond seeking to expand sources of revenue.

The first step then is to articulate why it is important and what the organization’s concept of diversity is given that the term can encompass cultural, ethnic, social, sexual and other affinity groupings.

The Arts Midwest panel talked about consulting representatives of the segment that aligns with your concept and letting them tell you what is relevant to the community rather than engaging an artist or program and expecting/telling that segment they should find your offerings relevant to them.

If you think about what is required to do any of this, you realize that you need to take the approach of truly serving the community rather than doing things you think the community will like.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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