Carol Coletta, President, ArtPlace

Carol Coletta, President, ArtPlace

Launched last month, ArtPlace is a public-private collaboration designed to drive revitalization in cities and towns by putting the arts at the center of economic development. During its inaugural funding round, ArtPlace awarded more than $11 million to thirty-four community-based projects across the country working to integrate artists and arts organizations into local transportation, housing, community development, and job creation efforts. Prior to joining ArtPlace, Carol Coletta served for six years as president and CEO of Chicago-based CEOs for Cities, a national network of "urban leaders catalyzing a movement to advance the next generation of great American cities." While there, Coletta and her team worked to convince urban leaders of the importance of "quality of place" and the attraction and retention of talent. When tapped to help establish ArtPlace, Coletta said she thought it was an opportunity "to work directly on quality of place, which I knew to be such a key element of what makes communities successful."

Philanthropy News Digest: ArtPlace has been described as an initiative to accelerate "creative placemaking" in the United States. What is creative placemaking, and why is it important?

Carol Coletta: That's a good question. It has been used as a very broad umbrella to describe many things, but it all boils down to this: a portfolio of strategies with art and culture at the heart aimed at changing the trajectory of community.

For the past six years I've been running an organization called CEOs for Cities, and prior to that I ran the Mayors' Institute on City Design, an NEA program. While I was at CEOs for Cities, we came to the point where we understood that much of what makes cities successful is talent. The quality of place becomes really essential to the attraction and retention of people, and that's the most important thing you can do for community. So, I think what makes creative placemaking and ArtPlace so important is that it's not an add-on. It's not a nice to-do. It really becomes an essential part of a community's economic success.

PND: The ArtPlace approach is based on the idea that the ability to attract and retain talent depends, as you say, on quality of place, and that the best proxy for that is "vibrancy." How do you plan to measure the vibrancy of a place?

CC: By examining the changes that take place in the people, the activities, and the value created in a community. We're actually developing a new set of vibrancy indicators — including a transparent analysis of data collected by others on a regular basis — that can be updated inexpensively and used by anyone. We expect to make it available through our Web site by the second quarter of 2012.

PND: The idea of a creative class serving as an engine of economic growth and prosperity figures prominently in the work of Richard Florida and others. But the context for their work is almost always urban. Is ArtPlace doing anything to promote the concept of creative placemaking in suburban and rural areas?

CC: Absolutely, because we think it has the same impact there. Let me just say as an aside that the creative class is a very broad term. It defines a very broad group of people, essentially those with college degrees, but I think in many ways the more useful measure is that of human capital. To your point, however, we are interested in what happens in rural and certainly suburban communities. One of the greatest challenges in rural communities is how they retain people. How do you make those places more appealing to keep people there? We are seeing some exciting reinventions happening in rural places, including the Wormfarm Institute in Sauk County, Wisconsin, the Vollis Simplson Whirligig Park in Wilson, North Carolina, and the Art and Agriculture project in Yolo County, California. And, while we still have some testing to do, we believe our vibrancy indicators will work in different parts of the country.

PND: Given that artists, designers, and arts organizations are engaged in creative activity by definition, what are you and your colleagues looking for as you review applications from potential grant recipients?

CC: In many ways we're looking for places where there are real partnerships happening — not just endorsements or letters of support, but real partnership among artists and other organizations. So when you look at the outcomes, you can imagine one plus one equaling three. Let me give you an example. I think the work we funded in St. Paul, Minnesota, for a project called Irrigate represents a solid partnership of the City of St. Paul, Springboard for the Arts, and the Local Initiative Support Corporation. Since a new light rail corridor is being developed in the same area, you could even include the federal government and the Minnesota Department of Transportation in that partnership. What's interesting is that any one of these organizations could have done their work and it probably would have turned out well, but the fact that they've formed a strategic alliance makes the potential of the work much stronger. That's part of what we'll look at, whether there's real collaboration and the opportunity to leverage the impact of the work.

We also are looking for work we believe has the opportunity to change the trajectory of the community and generate vibrancy. Not all artistic work is intended to do that. It doesn't make that work less worthy or less valuable. We're just not in a position to fund everything, so we've chosen to fund for this purpose to see if we can make a difference. Frankly, we believe that if we can demonstrate that investing in the arts in this way actually does contribute to vibrancy and to changing the trajectory of a place, that will result in a whole lot more money for arts and culture.

PND: Is it your hope that ArtPlace becomes a permanent feature of the arts landscape in America?

CC: What I hope is that funding for these kinds of initiatives becomes a permanent feature in the landscape of civic decision making, whether that involves a city or county government, a metropolitan planning organization or the federal government, a community foundation, or individual philanthropists. I will consider ArtPlace a success if we are able to influence the field in such a way that people begin to act on the belief that creative placemaking matters to the success of communities.

Regina Mahone