Does Gazing Out From The Belly Of A God Provide New Perspective?

There was an interesting video on Shanghaiist in the last week about a hotel whose architect designed three giant deities for the facade to combat rumors that the building was constructed on a cemetery.

The three deities, Fu (福), Lu (禄), and Shou (寿), represent the three attributes of a good life, “prosperity,” “status,” and “longevity,” respectively. They were added to the design of the 40-meter-tall building by a local architect to compensate for rumors that the structure was being built on top of an old cemetery.

I will let you take a look at the video first. (Let me just say I present this mostly as a diversion and basis of idle musing rather than subject for serious analysis.)

 

One of the first thoughts I had was, if this was in the US, would this be considered some form of artwashing? For example, if someone had used positive imagery on a hotel constructed on a toxic waste site or some other dubious association as a way to assuage fears.

I am not trying to conflate toxic waste with human remains. Personally, I would have no problem staying in this hotel. I have worked in enough theaters that were purported to be haunted or built on sanctified land that this doesn’t bother me. The placement of the hotel and anticipated repercussions appears it has a much stronger social and cultural significance in China than it might in the US.

I just found myself musing about cultural differences. Would something along these lines this be viewed with skepticism in the US while in China it might be viewed as an appropriate gesture given the history of the plot of land.

I also wondered why a hotel might choose to go to the expense of the extra construction. Presumably people coming from out of town wouldn’t be aware of the rumors. Though if it is the sort of place that gains more business from people visiting local residents or conducting business with government or local companies rather than tourism, they might depend more strongly on word of mouth.

I was amused by the comment made by one of the residents that the building unexpectedly became a distinctive feature of the community. I was thinking to myself, how could three 120 foot high deities NOT become a distinctive feature of the community? If nothing else, you could navigate the streets in relation to where it was on the horizon.

Perhaps people did initially see the statues as a cynical use of spectacle to make money but ended up finding that it created a unique sense of place in the neighborhood.

Thinking about all this made me start to wonder how efforts at creative placemaking might appear from the outside through the lens of other cultures. Does it appear like we are trying to manufacture a sense of community where one doesn’t exist organically? (I get the image of some foreign visitor paraphrasing Regina George “stop trying to make community happen, it isn’t not going to happen.”)

Is Creative Placemaking The Poor Man’s Gentrification?

Part of last week I was attending the Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit for the South and Appalachian region.

I am sorry to say that one of the biggest impressions I came away with is that poverty is the rule rather than the exception in this country. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. I grew up in a rural town and spent a good part of my youth consuming government cheese, rice and powdered milk. I worked in an Appalachian community that was notorious for pill mills and opioid addiction nearly 20 years ago before it was considered so much a crisis that organizations started refusing donations from pharmaceutical companies.

But these all seemed to be generally isolated instances compared to the whole of the country. More and more I am not so sure.

I spent three days last week listening to the majority of the presenters talk about the great projects they have enacted in communities where the median income for a household of four hovers between $19,000 and $32,000 a year.

One of the questions in the first session I attended was about whether placemaking was happening predominantly in rural and impoverished communities. At the time I was thinking about all the urban gentrification that has been going on so I didn’t think that was the case, but by the time I got to the end of conference, I started to wonder if anyone was using creative placemaking as a tool in affluent urban communities. More and more it seemed like Creative Placemaking is something people turn to in order to improve economically depressed communities.

I began to suspect the effort to improve in big cities it is just termed development. If there is any creative element that emerges, it is in compliance with percent for art requirements forcing projects to add artistic elements.

Most of the presenters and attendees seemed to be from small communities. There were some people from Miami and Alameda County, CA at the conference but they talked about how their projects were improving lives in impoverished neighborhoods and creating more positive relationships with the police.  No one was talking about projects on the scale of New York City’s Highline or Hudson Yards

I will confess that this is a large chunk of cynicism talking right now. So much of what is accomplished in smaller communities is definitely due to governments, developers and community advocates entering in conversations to find innovative solutions that improve the status of the entire community. Maybe bigger cities aren’t attending these conferences because they don’t feel the need to participate since they already have developers salivating to build something. As a result, I am hearing the stories of communities with fewer resources.

At the same time I listen to people talk about all small projects they bootstrapped into being viewed as a vast improvement because it added a small walking trail and pole barn pavilion. The fact that this trail is touted as something people can use to spend time with their families after a 10 day of work almost has undertones of those commercials telling us we can improve the lives of people overseas “for pennies a day.” Except that it isn’t overseas. It is kinda dispiriting.

I don’t have to tell those of you in the arts community that even when a project clearly has improved conditions, it isn’t necessarily valued. Germaine Jenkins talked about the farm she and her colleagues at Fresh Future Farm created in North Charleston, SC, transforming an empty lot into a garden with a store that charges people on a sliding scale according to their need. Her lease is up in September with no indication of whether it will be renewed.

There was a time when people were criticizing the superficial understanding of Richard Florida’s observations of the relationship between Creative Class and vibrant communities. There was a sense that you just needed to attract creative people to place and they would take care of the rest. I feel like Creative Placemaking reflects a more sophisticated understanding that a complex mix of factors from public policy, community dynamics, business and cultural resources, etc need to be in place and requires constant attention and balancing.

Yet I am starting to wonder if people see the success of creative placemaking efforts elsewhere and perceive it to be the panacea for the problems that plague their communities.

Yet, perhaps this is what is needed at this juncture– the example of success elsewhere as a model of what should be done locally. Last week Notre Dame cathedral burned down and people apparently recognized that there was a spate of recent church burning in the US that had not received the attention and support that the cathedral did and started donating toward the restoration of those US churches. The people who are undertaking these project understand that there is a lot of hard work and consensus building required. Maybe the examples of others will bring a positive result in the long run.

Don’t Forget That Failure Is An Option

It has only been in recent years that a message of embracing and talking about our failure has been part of a public conversation among arts and cultural organizations. I am not sure how many people are including these stories in their reports to funders, but little by little people are willing to admit that not everything has gone has planned.

Still, we don’t see a lot of articles and case studies where people are analyzing where they went wrong. It was for that reason that Madhavan Pillai’s account in Arts Management Quarterly drew my attention. Pillai had experienced great success with a walking project which drew attention to the polluted ecosystem along the Cooum River near Chennai, India. Buoyed by this success, he wanted to create an arts festival along the river to inspire people to take ownership in the well-being of the river.

The project concept was well received among partners and supporters, the goals and objectives were crystal clear. A proposal was written, presentations were made, budgetary details worked out, teams were set, their roles and responsibilities were defined and agreed on. A strong network was established without leaving a single stone unturned including a focus on public relations and advertisement. With all ingredients for a very successful international festival in place, the project failed

Among the factors Pillali attributes to the failure was actually not acknowledging that the project might fail. The other was using a democratic leadership style that sought the consent of all the partners. (my emphasis)

The overemphasis on democratic leadership, which is otherwise considered to be a best practice, turned around to become disastrous…During the high-point of crisis I was consulting team members and addressing everyone’s concerns….A consent with all members could never be reached. The mode of action instead geared towards an apologetic atmosphere with self-satisfied and settling egos within the team.

Based on this experience, I think that leadership should be trained to face failure as the most powerful source for know-how and understanding. It teaches survival, renewal and reinvention of yourself and the organization you are leading, but this learning about failure should be built in education. If the control over the team and partners is not strong, the leadership is forced to accept new ideas that emerge every day.

The lack of factoring the failure left no room to fight the crisis and I was left alone with unnerving thoughts, waiting for a miracle to happen. Irrational and persistent fear of failing kept me towards pushing my limits and digging inside to explore….As the famous proverb goes “success has hundred fathers, failure is an orphan”, I was abandoned.

A lot of interesting thoughts here. In addition to the text I bolded regarding how experiencing failure makes you stronger, Pillali’s mention of being paralyzed by fear and waiting for a miracle were not unfamiliar. I have seen a good number of arts and cultural organizations where miracle seeking in the face of a paralyzing crisis has been the default mode of operation. I have felt fortunate that I was not on the inside of those organizations because I have had the unfortunate experience of being on the inside of organizations that operated in this way.

Tell A Creative You Love Them This Valentine’s Day

As we come up on Valentine’s Day, a little reminder that there are a lot more ways to say, “I Love You,” than speaking those specific words.

A couple years ago Gavin Aung Than created a cartoon on his Zen Pencil’s site illustrating the sentiments of filmmaker Kevin Smith that, “It costs nothing to encourage an artist.”

Here is a small screenshot from the comic. I won’t spoil the ending, but according to Smith something is lost when you discourage an artist.

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