When Bryan Fonseca walked around Flow Fest last June, he saw months of work coming to fruition. Iridescent bubbles floated by families walking near the grounds of the Indiana Medical History Museum; people were stretching and warming up for yoga; and a slew of arts organizers hurried to their outdoor programs.
But there was something that felt amiss — though the festival was full, there was almost no one from the neighborhoods where Fonseca had spent so much time.
“That’s where we felt like we weren’t as successful,” says Fonseca. “We were successful in bringing people down there. … But not as successful getting people from the community to it. So once again we started evaluating what is not happening. Where is that disconnect.”
Last year, Fonseca was awarded the Transformational Impact Fellowship by the Indianapolis Arts Council — one of two $100,000 fellowships. According to the Arts Council the program was “created to place professional artists at the forefront of community development in Indianapolis.”
Fonseca’s original proposal involved the Near Westside neighborhoods of Haughville, Hawthorne, Stringtown and We Care. He hoped to work with each of the communities to create theater productions — based on their stories — and sparking arts organizing in the area.
Indy Convergence — an art and community incubator, now based on Indy’s west side — has since opened its doors and partnered with Fonseca and Big Car to bring creative placemaking west of the White River.
Creative placemaking is a buzzy phrase, but it’s not a new strategy. The idea, at its core, is to use art and design to serve a community — all in the hopes of art projects acting as a greenhouse for the quality of life to improve. An example would be the House Life Project using blighted homes on the eastside for studios, galleries and art demonstrations.
The problem, that artists and organizers often run into, is measuring the success of these programs.
Are they really what the people in the neighborhood want? Are they helping in a way that doesn’t act as catalyst for displacement and the negative impacts of gentrification? Can the success of creative placemaking be tangibly measured?
Jason Kelly, director of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, and Pamela Napier, a professor at Herron School of Art and Design, want to know exactly that.
“When things are done, what are the effects on the city?” asks Kelly. “How do we measure that and go back to funders and arts organizations — and even artists — and say, ‘what are you doing, and how are you changing it?’ ”
Kelly is developing a PhD track — that will bring in its first round of students in the fall of 2017 — called the American Studies program. It will have a section focused entirely on Cultural Ecology — where students spend three years measuring how public art and creative placemaking impact an area. And Indianapolis will be one of their focal points.
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Kelly notes that they are starting the process now; helping Fonseca, Musical Family Tree and the House Life Project gauge how their programs are changing the areas around them.
“Our take is that artists should be spending time doing the things they are best at,” says Kelly. “And one of the things we do well is analyze social change. … We look at urban environments as cultural ecologies.
“It’s like in a river; if you throw something in a river, it changes everything,” continues Kelly. “So if we put something in the community, it also forces the community to rearrange around it.”
He and Napier believe that far too often “success” is measured by how many people come to an event, not the impact it made. But the question remains how to show that quantitatively.
“It’s because it’s so difficult, expensive and time-consuming,” says Kelly. “Which is why we are working with community funders to work with students, whose full-time job for their PhD is learning how to do this, and doing it while they are getting their PhD.”
Napier, who runs a design firm called Collabo Creative and teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in the Visual Communications program at Herron, spends most of her time on the front end of these issues.
“We are asking, do you need that thing thrown in the river?” says Napier. “Right? What is that thing in the river? What should that be? And then doing that. Then there is the other side too — what was the effect?”
She tries to use her teaching and her design consultation to make sure that those in the Near Westside are being heard when it comes to decisions about their own neighborhood.
She has asked her graduate students to host community forums in River West and the Near Westside and to come up with ways to visually translate what the community wants to artists and architects who can make it happen. Right now, they are specifically working with creative placemaking projects that are attached to Great Places 2020.
To her, there is a constant tightrope between design and community development.
“How do you facilitate the design process and bring in people from the community, and all people who are stakeholders within the problem you are trying to solve?” asks Napier. “How do you bring them into the design process and help them to solve problems that are affecting them?”
She gave the example of her students leading a meeting where they designed an origami replica of a westside neighborhood. The community members could point out what areas they wanted to see change.
The model acted as a translator between the architects and the neighbors, bringing them all to the same page. It was strong communication — something that is so often lacking from creative placemaking, public art and development.
“People and community is always at the center of it [for me],” says Napier. “… They are included throughout the entire design process; from the moment we are trying to identify problems to when we are finding solutions and actually making stuff at the end.
“It’s about designing with people, not for them,” says Napier.
To Kelly, successful placemaking is all about listening and patience. It requires building trust.
“How does engaging with something transform the individual, the neighborhood, the community?” says Kelly. How does it change attitudes? We don’t know. We always say things like, ‘art is good; it gives you a broader perspective on things.’ I believe it does. But we haven’t done any sustained analysis on if it’s happening and how it’s happening.”
The first step in that analysis is a lecture series at centered around public art. The first event boasted a wait list.
“One of the outputs of this first round, given the interest… [will hopefully be] what do we even mean when we are talking about public art,” says Kelly. “We haven’t even been able to answer that question yet as a community. We are doing these things, calling them tactical urbanism or doing these things called placemaking, but I don’t think in general we are questioning what we mean when we say that.
“It forces us to think about how we are doing what we are going and why we are doing what we are doing; and that gets to the ethics and values,” says Kelly, noting that this series has a tie to ethics due to the funding source. “We all bring value systems when we do this placemaking.”
Julia Moore, the director of public art at the Arts Council of Indianapolis, was one of the first lecturers. To her, successful public art and creative placemaking happens when the intentions are clear up front: Is the project to further the vision of the artist or to serve the community? The two can be very different.
“Sometimes the piece is just the piece and sometimes it’s a monument of the process and what has come before,” says Moore, referring to the process of asking the community what will make their neighborhood better.
The idea of a successful art project — whether that be creative placemaking, public art, social practice art or tactical urbanism — are typically only measured by tangential things like was it built well, did it come in on time and was it under budget.
“I don’t think you can take those as measures of success,” says Moore. “Those are sort of measures of how you accomplished it.”
Seeing “success” in a more holistic light is something that the Arts Council notes in their description of the Transformational Impact Fellowship:
“Assessment and evaluation is key to the success of this program, and following the 2016-2017 pilot, the Arts Council will conduct a comprehensive review of the community impact of the pilot program.”
“I don’t like projects where an artist drops in, does something and then moves,” says Moore. “Especially if they are calling themselves a social practice artist. It is a long-term commitment.”
One of the other questions on her mind is balancing what the neighbors might ask for and what the artist hopes to accomplish. She gave the example of a social practice artist in Pittsburgh who set up a way for neighbors to get their soil tested for lead. They also set up a pop up shop cafe to discuss it.
“Now this was a community that was very much affected by this issue but if you were to ask them, ‘what do you think would advance your community,’” says Moore. “Would they have come up with the idea about let’s get our soil tested and have discussions about the politics of lead in soil remediation? No, I think that was definitely brought to them by the artist. I think there are gradations in that kind of social practice as well.
“Did it do anything? Did it actually help? Did the city come in and do any soil remediation? I don’t know.”
“You have to think about how much of this social practice art is really selfish to the artist in investigating what they want to investigate,” says Moore, highlighting the need for balance between the artist and the community.
“Creative placemaking is a buzz word that is maybe 10 years old for something that has really been happening maybe organically in a lot of places for a really, really long time…” says Moore. “I think it can help look at the community from one angle but it’s not the only one.
“Public art can acknowledge something that everyone understands is there,” says Moore. “Creative placemaking, I think it can help look at community development from one angle but it’s not the only angle.
“Tactical urbanism, where you are creating little parklets and stuff like that, is it really going to turn around a community? Yes and no,” she says. “It can awaken people to the possibilities of a place that they may not have seen before.”
That is the goal of most social art — to shed a light on an area, showing the life that already exists there and giving it place to be celebrated. We can see this in practices like the River West Art Alley, the Heart of the Community work on Market Street and at City Market, and the endeavors taken on by the House Life Project and Bryan Fonseca’s work on the westside. It’s critical that projects like these are measured against their own intentions and used a guide for artists and community leaders in the future.
“For me, especially now, I think the importance of having dialogs across the city is maybe more important than it’s been” says Jason Kelly. “The changing political contexts mean that we need to talk to each other more. And we need to make sure that we aren’t just talking to the people who we are comfortable talking to, about the things we are comfortable talking to them about. And so this is just one small space… If you are putting a piece of art into a community everybody has an opinion, whether they voice it or not, they have an opinion. Art is one of those things where we can focus in on bringing people together, that starts larger conversations.”
For Napier, the balance comes from listening to those values and finding a way to represent them through artwork and business.
“[It’s about] the side too of being able find out what the community and people’s needs and wants are revolving around public art and what it can do within their community,” she says. “Versus the approach of ‘put it here and see.’ Finding out what would make their environment or neighborhood richer. What would they like to see.”
Napier and Kelly’s approaches to design and creative placemaking are similar to the path that Bryan Fonseca is now taking.
“We thought initially, oh, we will put together a company of artists,” says Fonseca. “It will include performances, storytelling, gathering stories from the community.”
He wanted to pull from, what he saw as the three distinct cultures from that community: Caucasians with Appalachian roots, Hispanic and African-American populations. So he went to schools, community centers and churches, ready to go with free performances and an open ear to hear what kinds of stories they wanted told.
“Even though these performances were free to everywhere we were going, we found a lack of communication — perhaps interest, perhaps distrust — in what we brought to them,” says Fonseca.
It was slow moving compared to what he anticipated.
This upcoming year he plans to have the Phoenix Theatre join forces with Big Car and Indy Convergence — who hosted the West Michigan Street Festival.
“They did a great job of getting the community there and were less successful in getting people from outside the community.” Which was the exact opposite of his own struggles at Flow Fest. He hopes that joining forces will bring an equilibrium, but his concerns don’t stop at the festival.
“One of the things we were hoping to leave behind is, who continues on the programing after the duration of this grant? … No change happens that quickly,” he says. “There has to be an investment of time to change neighborhoods.
“That was a shortcoming of the grant itself to think you can have an impact in an 18-month time. There will be greater impact in three years time, in five years time. It takes partners who are willing to invest that in the community.”
He says he is willing to take on that challenge. He plans to merge the programing under the Phoenix’s outreach umbrella after the grant runs dry.
“Once we have done the listening part from the community to find out what parts they are interested in, it’s developing those programs,” says Fonseca.
He hasn’t relinquished the idea of developing plays about the history of these communities. Right now, they are helping create one called the Duchess of Stringtown based on a historical figure who lived there.
“We decided instead of bringing things in — which has a little bit of an imperialistic approach,” says Fonseca. “Here we are bringing to your community what we will appreciate. We are instead offering classes.”
Indy Convergence is now their partner. They are renting their space, charging attendants a dollar for bilingual theater classes for children that will happen every Saturday for the next six months. The advantage, he says, is being able to talk to the parents about what they want to see happen in their neighborhoods.
Two families showed up at the first class that took place two weeks ago.
“It was an interesting question to both of them — what would you like to see happen in your community — because no one has asked them.”
Arts organizers want to make sure creative placemaking is a force for good