Art Is an Asset in Every Community: An Interview with ArtPlace America’s Jamie Bennett

11 Mar 2016 | Alexis Stephens
Art Is an Asset in Every Community: An Interview with ArtPlace America’s Jamie Bennett
Above: Jamie Bennett, executive director, ArtPlace America

Just outside of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, a winter arts festival takes place in a pop-up village of ice fishing shanties. In Louisville, Kentucky, an artists’ collective is leading public workshops that blend traditional West African and Appalachian arts with contemporary urban performance. In Detroit, artists and local youth are designing a plaza and green space to boost entrepreneurial activity. These projects and 35 others are recipients of the ArtPlace America 2015 National Grants program, which aims to support artists and arts organizations to strengthen and transform the physical, social, and/or economic fabric of communities.

Jamie Bennett is the executive director of ArtPlace America, a 10-year collaboration of foundations, banks, and federal agencies launched in 2011. (PolicyLink is working with ArtPlace on its Community Development Investments Initiative, which is investing $3 million in each of six place-based organizations to investigate what it means to sustainably incorporate arts and culture into community development work.) Bennett sees creative placemaking as a way for arts and culture to act as a core sector of comprehensive community planning and economic development. America’s Tomorrow spoke to Bennett about the philanthropic world’s embrace of place-based strategies and the equitable economic impacts of ArtPlace America’s work.

Q: How are you trying to promote equity within the world of philanthropy and the arts?

A: The general definition [of arts and culture] we use is one that we borrowed from National Endowment for the Arts, which is “any generative act that's intended to communicate richly to others.” And when you use that definition, yes, you're talking about symphonies, operas, and ballets, but you're also talking about my grandmother's lacemaking; you're also talking about a Lakota dance. We tend to plot it out on a matrix, just by way of understanding it. And when you have that kind of bingo card, you can begin checking yourself and asking, “Am I working with all parts of this landscape or am I only connecting with certain parts?” So I think having that understanding of how the arts and culture ecology is organized really is a necessary first step towards making sure that you are engaging with all of it — and all of it equitably. 

Q: How is ArtPlace trying to bring equity into the language, traditions, and rituals of the philanthropic world?

A: I think it is important to understand philanthropy as a sector that does require a certain level of cultural competency in order to intersect with it.  And exactly as you said, there is a language, there is a series of rituals, and there is a semi-hidden, opaque power structure in place.  Navigating all of that can be tricky. I think it's really incumbent upon those of us in philanthropy to make sure that we offer an on-ramp that is as easy as possible and that is as accommodating as possible to the broadest range of people. 

An example is that those of us who have been working in philanthropy for 25 years know what an LOI [Letter of Interest] is.  Right?  It's a shorthand.  To the other 98 percent of America, LOI are three letters that might as well be PDF or STD or whatever other three-letter abbreviation you use.  So instead of saying we're releasing an LOI, we're simply saying, “Would you like to ask us for money?” We've [also avoided certain language] around outcomes assessment, outputs, and project evaluation.  And instead we simply say, “What is it you're trying to do?” and, “How are you going to know if you've done it?”

Q: What do you see as the role of arts and culture in community development and neighborhood change?

A: Arts and culture are assets that are present in every community. Not every community is on a waterfront, not every community has strong public transportation, and not every community has a hospital or university to anchor it.  But every community has people who sing and dance and tell stories.

We have to understand that every artist is somebody's neighbor and almost everyone has an artist as a neighbor. Issues of displacement are hugely important and need to be addressed, but I don’t know that arts-driven displacement issues are any different than any other kind of displacement issues driven by community development. I think we need to solve them together.

Q: Should place-based interventions be tailored to a neighborhood’s income level?

A: The mayor of New York City has just upzoned East New York, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Change is going to come to that neighborhood and we know what the change is going to be and when the change is coming

At the moment, there are many people focusing on affordability. How do we keep it so that if you are low-income you can continue to live there? Another thing that can help solve involuntary displacement is you can also make residents richer. I think we need to think about a strategy, for instance, that comes in and says to the barbershop that's been in the community for 30 years, “Change is coming; You need to negotiate a lease now that will be 20 years, or you need to try and buy your site; and maybe you want to put in three manicure stations and take advantage of the change in the market that's coming.”  And so if we came in with a market investment, if we came in with an equity investment for that, I think that is going to do so much more to keep that small business in that neighborhood than just giving a local group a $50,000 dollar grant for organizing around preserving affordability.  So I think in general my question is, “How do we bring in the market as a tool to work alongside philanthropic investment and/or community organizing investments?”

Q: Why are place-based strategies in philanthropy more than a trend du jour?

A: If you build really high-quality fabulous housing, but it's two hours away from any job, that's not going to work in terms of helping someone to build wealth and have an extraordinary life. So, the current movement I've seen with a lot of philanthropy is to really look at all of the systems that are at play in a community. So if a foundation cares about children, they realize that a child can't be healthy, happy, and achieve his or her full potential unless that child's family is also healthy and happy.  So if you care about children, you also care about their parents and caregivers having jobs.  And you care about all of them being educated.  And you care about there being a safe environment.  So whatever your point of entry, you really have to care about how all of these systems work together, which, I think in many ways, is Angela [Glover Blackwell]'s point about the series of systems that together add up to equity or inequity.  It is about how housing intersects with transportation, which intersects with the economy, which intersects with the education system.  So for ArtPlace and for philanthropy and government to say, “Okay, let's understand all these systems and how they intersect in their totality,” I think is a good move.