The Seven Recurring Puzzles of Equity in Place-making

The Arts Research Center recently participated in a convening at YBCA organized by Emerging Arts Professionals / SF Bay Area which, among other goals, allowed participants to connect, share knowledge, and examine opportunities and pitfalls when working with hybrid arts and neighborhood revitalization projects. ARC Director Shannon Jackson and Associate Director Michele Rabkin presented these seven “Recurring Puzzles” of Equity in Place-making that have begun to take form through ARC’s work with the Art + NEIGHBORHOOD research team, and in particular through conversations at the ART/CITY symposium:
General ARC Points in Relation to Place-making:
Recurring Puzzle #1) “The Arts” mean many things to different stakeholders, who all have different values for what it will do.  Some think that the Arts are about Beauty, some about Community-building, some about Critique, some about Provocations of the Imagination whose outcome is not fully nameable.  Often people bring these different hopes into the room in conversations about Place-making and find themselves confused when they realize that they have different value systems and goals.

Recurring Puzzle #2) “The Arts” also derive from many different forms, each of which may seem to have a different purchase–or not–on place-making. Some are more discursive (poetry, fiction, non-fiction), visual (sculpture, painting), or bodied-based (dance). Even if most practices involve many elements (site-specific theatre, public art social practice, or dance installation), different artists or artist groups may bring different skill sets and artistic standards for evaluating the strength of a place-making art work.  In addition to understanding their place-making function, artists may also want (and deserve) to be evaluated as artists, as people who are innovating in the forms that they create, in comparison to a history of practice and in relation to other contemporary artistic practitioners who they consider their peers.  I think that these professional and artistic aspirations needs to be valued “even” when artists work in a civic sphere. 

Sub-Themes and Questions in recent ARC projects related to Central Market and the city of Berkeley:
Recurring Puzzle #3) Can a city’s planning language on the role of the arts in urban vitalization be joined to an artistic language of social engagement in the arts?  Our experience is that there is a rich and methodologically varied conversation in each of these fields, but that the terms and goals of these fields are often developed in parallel conversations.  The habits of research, planning, and practice do not always engage with each other–and do not always understand each other when they do.  For example, my own personal research as a sole-author has been on socially-engaged art, working from an awareness of the past attempts to join the arts to social programs (and the potential and perils that ensue).  The work of my colleague Karen Chapple, Associate Director of the Institute for Urban & Regional Development at UC Berkeley, came from a different direction, where there is awareness of the long history of many civic initiatives, civic value systems, as well as city planning research methodologies. Is it possible to integrate these trajectories better, to take seriously the artistic significance of these projects without seeming to dilute their significance for urban planning–and vice versa?   And to what degree must this integration come to terms with different understandings of “outcome”?

Recurring Puzzle #4) How can we develop standards and support systems for artist projects where the “material” of the art event is itself a place-making practice?  This is my way of trying to integrate an aesthetic imagination into the city-planning discourse, hoping we could also evaluate the strength, techniques, and effects of different projects in both artistic and social terms. To use a vocabulary from the arts, I myself am interested in projects where “the context” is not outside the text, where what is usually the background is part of the foreground.  In site-specific projects, the city infrastructure becomes “the set” or the “exhibition space;” in social practice and documentary theatre projects, the processes of creating social relationships are part of the process and product of the art event and/or of the “dialogue” of the play.  As more artists begin to identify themselves as “research-based” artists, how can urban planning research be conducted as part of the art process itself? Examples of this conjunction arose in both our Central Market Arts practice as well as from conversations that came forward in our recent Art/City gathering.

Recurring Puzzle #5) Can the Creative Class discourse think more about class difference?  Many art-based place-projects invoke the language of “creativity” and the “creative class.”  We know that this language actually does not always think about actual class difference, between “creatives” and existent neighbors as well as within the “creative class” itself–artists, hairdressers, technology entrepreneurs, and restaurant owners are all part of the so-called “creative class” but enjoy very different levels of economic security.

Recurring Puzzle #6) There is a constant tension in the effort to legitimate artists’ creativity in urban arts planning.  On the one hand, artists and artistic groups are celebrated for their “out of the box” thinking and valued as key to the economic vitalization of neighborhoods.  On the other hand, artists and artistic groups are also critiqued for not being “fiscally fit,” for not having the know-how to be viable economically.  If both of these assumptions can be true at once, how can we reconcile the fact that they seem quite contradictory?  Is each frame missing something that the other is recognizing?

Recurring Puzzle #7) How can we better reward artistic organizations for collaborating in the production of a shared arts ecology?  There are more instances of attempts to do just that in San Francisco, certainly in Oakland, and hopefully more in Berkeley.  However, there can be a concern that often one organization wants to be the “lead” organization in developing the ecology. Often granting agencies reinforce the sense that one organization needs to lead–and will receive the economic capital to serve that function. Additionally, there is a feeling that large art organizations–the larger museums, theaters, or festivals–are using up all the oxygen from a neighborhood or city, leaving little for small and mid-size organizations to thrive.  How can we incentivize larger organizations to mentor, support, or release opportunities to small organizations?  Can we combat the mistrust that some small organizations feel toward larger ones? How can equity in ‘place-making’ also mean equity amongst arts organizations, creating a reciprocal, nimble, and thriving playing field for all different kinds of art organizations and constituencies?