Wherein I Compare Creative Placemaking To Spaghetti Sauce

I don’t remember how I came across it, but a few weeks ago I bookmarked an interview Michael Rohd, a faculty member at Arizona State University, conducted with Roberto Bedoya, City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Manager; Jamie Bennett, Executive Director of ArtPlace America; and Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, a professor at Arizona State University.

They were discussing the process of creative placemaking and how it should be applied in the future in order to acknowledge and honor the needs and concerns of the communities impacted by creative placemaking efforts.

The prologue to the interview mentions the term creative placemaking has been criticized for:

1) suggesting that the people and cultures rooted in a place had not already made it; 2) initially lacking a clear statement of values regarding who was meant to benefit from the community development of which the arts and culture were a part.

In response, people have started using the term creative placekeeping instead. I have heard this come up at a number of conferences I have attended. However, Bedoya notes that while there are legitimate concerns about gentrification and displacement– or replacement, especially in the eyes of communities of color, there is a need to be cautious with the term placekeeping as well.

The trap around place-keeping is sentimentality — “I want the old days” — and it’s not thoughtful. What are we trying to keep, and how, so it stays fresh and new? I think the future of creative placemaking is people not as intensely problematizing it, but trying to figure out the actions associated with placemaking or keeping, to create agency and a notion of civic commitment.

I found this idea of examining how to bring freshness to the elements we are trying to “keep” very intriguing. If you fear the loss of front stoops/porches in your neighborhood, what it is that will be lost? Is it the safe place for kids to play away from the streets? It is the socialization found in waving to neighbors as they pass or inviting them to mount the steps to chat? Is there a way to maintain that somewhere or someway else?

Though as I continued to play my example out in my head, I would think it would almost be preferable that porches and stoops replace a central gathering place that is being repurposed than to lose the stoops and send everyone to gather in a central place.

Another section I that caught my attention was Bennett’s comments about the scope of vision needed for implementing placemaking/placekeeping plans so that it encompasses all potential benefits and consequences. (my emphasis)

How do you figure out if your actions contributed toward healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities? Professor Andrew Taylor at American University reminded me that the first rule of systems thinking is that there is no such thing as side effects, there are only effects. If you are experiencing something as a side effect, it means you haven’t drawn the boundaries of your system widely enough. Many people say, “I’m making an economic development play, and there is an unfortunate side effect that people are displaced or replaced,” to borrow from Roberto. We need to draw the boundaries of our system wide enough that we understand that those are not unrelated or accidental, but part of one system.

At first I thought about how difficult it is to anticipate all the effects a plan might have. But as I considered longer, I realized if you are paying attention to what is happening in other communities that are implementing similar efforts, it isn’t difficult to become aware of the potential positive and negative impacts. Using the term “side effect” in these instances seems like an attempt to minimize the importance of these problems. Acknowledging it as an effect of a plan is to take responsibility for the problems it may cause.

If someone tells you one of the side effects of eating spaghetti sauce is a 80% chance you will have a sleepless night of heartburn, that really isn’t a small issue to you. If that is something you face, you consume the marinara sauce fully aware that any difficulty sleeping is a consequence of your decision and no one else. Likewise, if you are serving spaghetti and offer no other options, you should be aware that it is possible your choice will cause discomfort for some guests.

Museum 2.0 Gets Writer/Convenor 2.0

Hey all – You may or may not know that some months back Nina Simon, writer of Museum 2.0 blog, announced she was leaving her position at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) to devote herself more exclusively to OF/BY/FOR ALL which strives to “make community organizations.”

What does this mean? It means that if you want to be FOR your whole community, you have to be representative OF them and co-created BY them. If people don’t see themselves as part of your work, they won’t see your work as an essential part of their lives.

Putting up a “welcome” sign is not enough. To involve people in meaningful, sustainable ways, you can’t just make programs FOR them. You have to involve them in their creation. And that means becoming OF and BY them too.

Nina recently made her final post on Museum 2.0 saying she was handing the blog over to Seema Rao. Rao had actually done a few guest posts back in July. By quirk of the feed I use to read blogs, I caught her first few posts and, not realizing it wasn’t Nina, wondered how the heck Nina had had the time to visit all these museums she was talking about AND run MAH AND be hitting the speaking circuit so much.

Since I was already intrigued by what Rao was writing under a mistaken identity, needless to say I think the blog is being left in good hands. I look forward to seeing what she posts.

In her final post, Nina reflects on her 13 years of blogging and how conflicted she was with her sense of obligation to the blog and readers. Then how she came to accept the trade-offs of going to a more infrequent, but perhaps more satisfying publishing schedule.

I can relate with her feelings on the subject having had many of the same thoughts myself throughout the years. Like her, I have often regarded blogging as a way to “think out loud” and organize my thoughts on different subjects. When I go back through the archives, I can certainly see how both my personal philosophy and the collective mind of the arts and cultural industry have evolved over the last decades.

I write this post as a tribute to the difficult and thoughtful work Nina has done over the years, providing leadership for many of us in the arts community as she is likely to increasingly do in the future. I am also writing to encourage people to pay attention to Museum 2.0 as a blog because Nina’s choice to transition it to a new writer is really a manifestation of the philosophy and intent she has long espoused:

Nina writes:

1. Museum 2.0 is about participation, but I never fully succeeded in making it participatory. Because I’d built the blog originally to do my own writing and learning, I rarely invited guest writers. I never experimented here with models for collective writing. … I wished Museum 2.0 could break free of me and become more dialogic, led by a strong writer AND online convenor. I believe Seema Rao is this person and I hope you’ll join me in reading and participating as Museum 2.0 grows. There will be new experiments and approaches – alongside the archive of what we’ve built thus far.

What Is Your Arts Employees Rights Policy?

Barry Hessenius recently wrote a post about Arts Employees Rights. Given the amount of conversation and news stories about sexual harassment and other unwelcome activities throughout the creative industries, this seems a very timely subject. I see the topic appearing with increasing frequency on the schedule of arts and culture conference panels.

In addition to issues of safety, Hessenius discusses the need to examine pretty much every category heading of an employee manual. It occurred to me that while I have seen many of these topics discussed separately in posts, I can’t recall many “this is everything that should be in your employee handbook” posts.

I don’t know that we should necessarily take it for granted that every arts organization has an formal employee handbook much less that people have a complete sense of what should be included in the document.

Since equal compensation is a focus of broad conversation these days, it is no surprise that concept straddles a number of his category headings. (Which include Safety, Support, Equality, Compensation & Benefits, Termination, and Career Trajectory.)

He asks many of the difficult questions facing non-profits (this is only a smidge):

Should that minimum wage for full time employees be a living wage – defined as sufficient enough to cover minimal living expenses of room, food, transportation, et. al. for the cost of living of a given area?  (So someone working in Silicon Valley or New York City would need greater revenue that someone living in Fresno or Buffalo).  But can small and mid-sized arts organizations afford such a suggested requirement?  What would have to change to make that a reality?   Should all arts organization employees be provided a minimal level of health insurance?  Is that affordable?  What about retirement benefits or contributions by the employer?  Is that possible?

These are difficult questions for many arts organizations. The better you treat your employees, the fewer you may be able to employ, especially in the face of declining philanthropy.

You may recall about three years ago the Department of Labor was preparing to implement rules that would raise the salary criteria for non-exempt employees, meaning that many, many more non-profit employees would have been eligible for overtime pay than before.

I wrote about an Atlantic article that noted that this placed many non-profits in a strange position ‘“…between the values that many nonprofits hold and the way they treat their own staffs.”

Basically, non-profits work hard advocating for better pay and working conditions for people in general, but find themselves opposing that for their staffs due to lack of funding for operations.

More recently, the CEO of a Goodwill in Illinois tried to shame the governor into vetoing a minimum wage hike by laying off people with disabilities the organization employed, blaming it on the increased costs.

Hessenius acknowledges providing people with appropriate compensation is difficult, but challenges arts organizations not to discard it as a topic of serious discussion. It is easy to say the revenue stream will never support our ideals about compensation so it is futile to even discuss the question. He says there is a need for a conversation about how compensation fit holistically into the organization policy and philosophy on  employee rights.


This Is Not The World We Planned For

When the topic of strategic plans is discussed, there is often an admonishment actively reference the planning documents throughout the plan period rather than drop it on the shelf until it is time to create a new strategic plan.  The organization is supposed to be measuring itself and its success against the plan.

I recently read a piece on Medium that suggested an organization should scrap parts, if not the entire plan, and create a new one if the operating environment has changed so much that assumptions upon which the plan is based are no longer valid.

Laura Weidman Powers, writes that when she was CEO of Code2040, the organization sat down during the early part of 2016 and underwent a pretty comprehensive process to develop a strategic plan.

And then Donald Trump was elected president. Our core communities (Black and Latinx people) were and felt threatened and silenced as white supremacists were emboldened. Tech companies who had been publicly pro-diversity in the Obama years clamped up. And as the winds continued to shift, my heart sank.

We had created a beautiful, functional, coherent, inclusive, actionable strategic plan — for a world we no longer lived in.

She writes that they knew there would be a need to make some course corrections throughout the life of the strategic plan, but had no sense that things would change so quickly and radically and moot most of their strategic plan.

In hindsight, she says she would have made sure that the assumptions upon which the plan was based were specified in the plan. If those environmental factors no longer existed, it would be time to scrap the plan and start over again. She is careful to specify that constantly challenging a strategic plan can lead to organizational paralysis. At the same time, if the ground beneath your feet is no longer stable, efforts to make progress become increasingly futile.

If I were doing it again, I would have had a section up front that enumerated the 2–3 key assumptions that needed to hold true for this plan to be valid. I would have kept an eye on those and empowered anyone on the team to throw up a flag if they thought they had evidence that the assumptions were no longer holding. Outside of that, our goal would have been to execute against the strategy as written.

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