Ann Markusen, University of Minnesota; Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, Metris Arts Consulting

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Volume 10, Issue 2 | December 13, 2014

In four years, Our Town, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA),
has invested more than $21 million in creative placemaking in all 50 states and the
District of Columbia. ArtPlace America—an unprecedented consortium of foundations
with national bank partners and government agencies serving as strategic advisors—
has invested $56.8 million in projects where art-making improves community or place. The
Kresge Foundation has adopted this framework for all of their arts funding. And both the
US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the US Department of
Education have revised funding guidelines to encourage arts strategies as part of the Choice
and Promise neighborhood programs.

We played a role in this story. In fall 2009, the new NEA chairman, Rocco Landesman, and
deputy chair Joan Shigekawa commissioned us to write a white paper to frame a new Our
Town funding initiative.1 With their help, we chose a framework of creative placemaking.
We spent six months surveying successful forerunners, identifying ingredients of success as
well as common challenges. Our case studies cover many types of communities from older,
industrial, inner cities to younger, lower-density cities to rural towns to Native American
reservations. Through this process we honed a definition of creative placemaking that we
hoped would fit them all:

  • In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community
    sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood,
    town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative
    placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and
    streetscapes, improves local businesses viability and public safety, and brings
    diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.

The definition emphasizes three features: strategic action by cross-sector partners, a
place-based orientation, and a core of arts and cultural activities. The definition speaks to
both instrumental and intrinsic outcomes—economic benefits, physical and social impacts, and the arts’ ability to inspire. This broad framing has helped creative placemaking win
unprecedented policy action,2 with practitioners and funders adopting multiple definitions
to suit their particular circumstances.3

The framing and resources may be new, but the work has been unfolding organically
in American towns and cities for decades, as we document in our Creative Placemaking case
studies. In this article, we focus on how to do creative placemaking well, including challenges
in partnering, project design, securing finance, and evaluating progress. We go beyond the
limits of our initial definition and case studies, adding insights from subsequent research,
consulting, public speaking, and community engagement.

Partnerships: Essential and Challenging

Cross-sector partnerships are fundamental to creative placemaking. Our Town funding
requires that at least one public-sector agency and one nonprofit organization partner on a
project, one of whom must be focused on arts and culture. In an example from Creative Placemaking,
three Cleveland nonprofit theater companies partnered with a community development
corporation to create the Gordon Square Arts District.4

What are the features of good partnering? First, partnerships are made, not born. We
found that a single person, often an artist, initiated a surprising number of successful cases.
His or her vision and persistent search for the right partners paid off. And second, successful
initiators choose partners—and not too many—who bring complementary skills to the project.
For Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District, a musician who wanted to restore a defunct
community movie theater sought out two local live theater companies who needed performance
space and a community development corporation (CDC) that had successfully built
low-income housing for 30 years. The three theater companies formed a cultural district in the
city’s underserved working-class west side.5 The CDC contributed development, fund-raising,
and conventional finance experience. Together, the four organizations proposed and raised
funds for an artist-designed streetscape to herald the theater capacity to come. They then won
funding to restore two historic theaters and to build a third for the youth theater company.

Partnership challenges include coalition building, courting public will (winning mayoral,
city council, city staff, and community support), and navigating imbalances in power, skills,
and resources. To make partnerships work, each party must understand and take seriously the
priorities of its partners. Each must acknowledge what it does not possess in terms of skills and resources and patiently teach and share what it can bring to the table. Personal rough edges
must be tolerated or addressed diplomatically. The partnership also must incorporate input
from diverse community constituencies affected by the initiative.

Organizational time and resources also pose daunting challenges. Each Gordon Square
partner reported that for as long as five years, lead staff devoted one-third of their time to
the district effort, a considerable tax on their own agendas. To raise money for the streetscape
and theater renovations and construction, each partner had to restrain its own funding-raising
efforts lest it compete for the same funding pots.

Designing around Distinctiveness and Local Patronage

Building on uniqueness of place and community practices is a strong predictor of success.
San José, California, for instance, has prioritized the marriage of art with technology. Its Zero1
Biennial builds on Silicon Valley’s distinctive technology leadership while attracting and
retaining artists.6 In another example, the Fond du Lac reservation in Minnesota purchases and
incorporates artworks by contemporary Ojibwe artists in all five of its social services and health
care buildings, where they quicken healing and encourage staff while generating income for
regional artists.7 In many cases, projects that place local and regional community participation
center stage tend to fare better than those that are preoccupied with attracting tourists from
elsewhere. If community members actively engage in expanded and unique arts and cultural
capacity, others will be attracted in time.

Roles for Community Development Bankers

Creative Placemaking identifies attracting private sector buy-in and assembling adequate
financing as key challenges. Community development banks play a key role in this process.
Artspace, for instance, has relied on bank finance, philanthropic grants, and low-income and
historic tax credits to create and maintain dozens of affordable art spaces in both large and
small US cities since the early 1990s. To create artist loft housing in an empty auto plant in
Buffalo, NY, Artspace assembled $17.6 million from 19 different lenders and grantmakers.8
This nonprofit has consistently been able to secure bank mortgages based on demonstrated
long-run rental returns and evidence of prospective artist occupancy. Bank finance, along with
nonprofit foundation grants, enables Artspace to create and manage arts-dedicated residential,
presentation and commercial space with positive benefits and minimal displacement.9

Community development banks can also finance artist homeownership. In Paducah,
Kentucky, a local bank extended loans to artists to convert buildings into artist-owned, livework
space. Paducah’s city planning director Tom Barnett picked up the idea from an artist
who had renovated an old Lowertown building into studio space and housing. Barnett spearheaded
the budgeting, land acquisition and transfer, and regulatory, marketing, and public
meetings required for the project. Advertising nationally for tenants, the city extended $2,500
per artist to subsidize the cost of professional fees and architectural services, turning over
property titles for as little as one dollar. Paducah Bank provided the renovation financing
for artist owners: low-interest loans for up to 300 percent of appraised value to cover artists’
purchase and renovation costs. Starting with a $370,000 demonstration project loan that
renovated three storefront buildings, Paducah Bank increased its lending to $2 million
within the program’s first year. Ten years later, in 2010, the city had achieved a 10-to-1 return
on public investment, thanks to Paducah Bank’s willingness to invest in artists.10

Banks with community development experience can help ensure the success of creative
placemaking loans by counseling clients about regulations they must navigate. In Paducah,
the city’s planning department liberalized its zoning ordinances to permit both residential
and commercial uses, designating the city’s Lowertown as a historic district, requiring that
renovations follow design guidelines, and adopting and enforcing strong health and safety
codes. Banks can also coach loan applicants on future maintenance and programming costs
so that projects will remain viable beyond their initial construction.

Evaluating Creative Placemaking Outcomes

Public-sector and nonprofit funders find it challenging to define and monitor desired
outcomes for creative placemaking. Within local initiatives, partners often struggle to define
success and measure it. In Creative Placemaking, we call for evaluation and performance
metrics charting impacts on artists, the area arts community, local businesses, residents,
quality of life, civic engagement, return on the dollar, and opportunity cost.

Three pioneering empirical studies serve as role models in demonstrating whether
outcomes match aspirations: economist Stephen Sheppard’s documentation of the impact
of MASS MoCA and other visual arts spaces on neighborhood property values and social
networks11 and two studies by urban planners Anne Gadwa and Anna Muessig of five
Artspace live-work buildings that measured the impact of those spaces on artists, arts communities, neighborhoods, and businesses.12

Early on, the NEA and ArtPlace both launched efforts to create indicators from secondary
data sources such as the American Community Survey. The NEA initially laid out four general
goals for creative placemaking projects: 1) strengthen and improve the local community of
artists and arts organizations; 2) increase community attachment; 3) improve quality of life;
and 4) invigorate local economies. They planned to generate indicators for each goal from
existing data and to “build out this system and publish it through a website so that anyone
who wants to track a project’s progress in these areas will be able to do so, whether it is NEAfunded
or not. They can simply enter the time and geography parameters relevant to their
project and see for themselves.”13

As its work evolved, the NEA developed indicators for the four goals as a way to help
creative placemaking project planners be more intentional about generating local outcomes.
They also hoped the indicators would help them to better understand the broader context
(and geographical area) of their project’s impact, and support the design of program evaluations
for specific projects. The NEA took care to ensure that all of the resulting 23 indicators
were available from publicly accessible data sources. In general, the promotion of open
data tools—both for decision-making and for the NEA’s better understanding of its own
work—conforms to guidance from the Office of Management and Budget ensuring greater
transparency and accountability.

To test the viability and usefulness of their indicators, the NEA commissioned a study
from the Urban Institute to canvass creative placemaking grantees.14 Respondents generally
considered indicators such as violent crime rate, median commute time, and proportion of
housing units occupied as good measures of quality of life and attachment to community.
But they were skeptical of the utility of indicators for assessing creative placemaking results,
especially indicators seeking to capture changes in homeownership rates, election turnout,
and median commute time. Respondents from both urban and rural areas also “expressed
strong concerns about the relevance of data at large geographies—county or ZIP code—as
indicators for smaller areas.”15

In a parallel effort, the ArtPlace consortium wanted to explore whether its funded projects
had a transformative impact on community vibrancy (and within this, “people, activity and value”).16 But concepts like “vibrancy” are fuzzy.17 One group’s passions (e.g., loud evening
concerts) may be another group’s nightmare. Even if groups can agree, how can concepts
such as vibrancy be operationalized? ArtPlace proposed tallying smartphone location
requests on Saturday night as a measure of vibrancy, but smartphone ownership is heavily
biased toward younger people and those with higher incomes, and many people turn off
their phones while dining or at a performance. A rise in homeownership? That discriminates
against young adults, seniors, and lower-income households who are more likely to rent.

Even when measures are well-designed, data that focus on the small target area are
often unavailable. Other data sets, like the American Community Survey, are simply not
robust enough to capture features such as artist density in a neighborhood or community
area. Above all, changes in any of these indicators could be caused by other unrelated forces
or community changes independent of a creative placemaking project. And if ill-fitting indicators
are used to gauge success, funders will be tempted to favor those proposals where
indicators will turn out well rather than projects with the greatest potential impact.

Both the ArtSpace and the NEA indicator initiatives raised many questions. What would
these indicators mean, how would they be constructed, and would their projects be
compared across places and across time? These concerns led to a healthy and broad-based
debate.18 Recently, ArtPlace leadership has been turning away from words like “outcomes,”
“evaluation,” and “metrics.” Instead, it asks grantseekers to articulate their goals, in their own
terms, for art projects that will intentionally move a place closer to what the community
aspires to be. ArtPlace hopes that evaluation in this fashion will be less intimidating and
more useful to grantees, as well as helping to inform current and future projects. They are
still contracting for vibrancy measure updates and making them available, but they are no
longer using them for evaluation.

The NEA creative placemaking team is currently working to help applicants and grantees
understand the evaluation challenge and to articulate goals, be they artistic excellence, social
change, cultural bridging, or quality of life. NEA is encouraging groups to work with professional
evaluators and planning to actively work with creative placemakers to show them good
examples of evaluations. They have commissioned Exploring Our Town, an online resource
that includes case studies of more than 60 Our Town grants and an insight section of lessons
learned. The NEA is also broadening partnerships with organizations and universities whose
staff can help with local evaluations.

Improving the Model

Four years have passed since we wrote Creative Placemaking. Would we tweak our characterizations?
Yes, thanks to the burgeoning experiments nurtured by NEA, ArtPlace, foundations,
arts organizations, city and state governments as well as an outpouring of research and

For one, we would stress the intrinsic contributions of arts and culture as co-equal with
instrumental contributions. Many creative placemakers and their patrons strive for more
than job creation, reuse of abandoned buildings, commercial retail sales—traditional
economic development results. They aim for a more expansive notion of livability. They also
deliver what arts and culture do best: beauty, heritage, innovation, bonding within cultures
and bridging across them, social critique, entertainment, and expression, or as former NEA
chairman Bill Ivey put it, a “right to an expressive life.”19

For another, we’d emphasize more fully the importance of equity. Creative placemaking
initiatives should be designed to expand opportunities for low-income communities,
people of color, and artists. They should also take care not to displace (either directly or via
property value and rent escalation) existing residents, their practices and cultural gathering
places. Forceful voices from within the creative placemaking community have articulated
these concerns and pointed to alternatives, as we have on gentrification and equity research

Given current initiatives and proposed improvements, creative placemaking will likely
be deepened and sustained. Appropriate financing will play a key role in that future. Many
communities are embarking on efforts tailored to unique cultures, environments, and
capacities. Applications to the NEA’s Our Town and ArtPlace are robust. Many communities
not yet funded are proceeding anyway. In this decade, arts and culture are coming into their
own, having won interest from mayors and city councils and community development organizations as well as commitments of time and energy from artists and arts enterprises.21 As
more partners become engaged in this work, we expect to see more innovation, tailoring
to meet specific community circumstances, and learning from shared experiences among
many participants.

1. Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, “Creative Placemaking” (Washington, DC: Mayors’ Institute on City Design
and the National Endowment for the Arts, October 2010),

2. Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, “Fuzzy Vibrancy: Creative Placemaking as Ascendant U.S. Cultural Policy,” Cultural Trends, 22 (3–4) (2013): 213–22.

3. Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, “Creative Placemaking 2.0,” Grantmakers in the Arts Reader (Summer 2012),

4. Markusen and Gadwa, “Creative Placemaking,” pp. 34–35; W. Dennis Keating, “The Gordon Square Arts
District in Cleveland’s Detroit Shoreway Neighborhood,” Urban Publications (Cleveland State University,
March 18, 2014),

5. Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert. “Cultural Clusters: The Implications of Cultural Assets Agglomeration for
Neighborhood Revitalization.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 29, no. 3 (2010): 262–79.

6. Ann Markusen, “City Creative Industry Strategies: the State of the Art,” Companion Report to the Otis
Report on the Creative Economy (Los Angeles: Otis College of Art and Design: December, 2012), pp. A1-14,

7. Markusen and Gadwa, “Creative Placemaking,” pp. 43-44.

8. Ibid., pp. 36–37.

9. Anne Gadwa, “How Artist Space Matters: Impacts and Insights from Three Case Studies Drawn from
Artspace Project’s Earliest Developments” (Minneapolis: Metris Arts Consulting, March 2010),; Anne Gadwa and Anna Muessig, “How Art Spaces Matter II: The Riverside, Tashiro Kaplan
and Insights from Five Artspace Case Studies and Four Cities” (Minneapolis: Artspace and Metris Arts
Consulting, July 2011),

10. Markusen and Gadwa, “Creative Placemaking,” pp. 46–47.

11. Stephen Sheppard, “Museums in the Neighborhood: The Economic Impact of Museums,” in Handbook of
Economic Geography and Industry Studies
, ed. Phil McCann, Geoff Hewings, and Frank Giarattani (London:
Edward Elgar, 2013), 191–204. MASS MoCA is a contemporary art center in North Adams, Massachusetts,
that exhibits and supports the development of visual art, music, dance, film, and video. Situated on the
former Sprague Elective Company’s 13-acre campus, it occupies one-third of the downtown business district
and is the result of a $31.4 million adaptive re-use of nineteenth century factory buildings. Its facilities
include exhibition space, office and retail space for commercial tenants in creative industries (both at
200,000+ square feet), a natural amphitheater, workshop and art fabrication facilities, and more.

12. Gadwa, “How Artist Space Matters”; Gadwa and Muessig, “How Art Spaces Matter II.”

13. Jason Schupbach, “Creative Placemaking—Two Years and Counting!” (Washington, DC: National
Endowment for the Arts, May 31, 2012),, accessed October 1, 2012.

14. National Endowment for the Arts, “Validating Arts and Livability Indicators in Selected Communities
and Developing a User’s Guide with Case Examples and Local Data Sources” (Washington, DC: National
Endowment for the Arts, August 23, 2012),

15. Elaine Morley and Mary Winkler, “The Validating Arts and Livability Indicators (VALI) Study: Results and
Recommendations” (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, April 2014), p. 3,

16. ArtPlace, Vibrancy Indicators, 2012,; ArtPlace,
Vibrancy Definitions, 2012,

17. Ann Markusen, “Fuzzy Concepts, Scanty Evidence, Policy Distance: The Case for Rigour and Policy
Relevance in Critical Regional Studies,” Regional Studies, 37 (6-7) (October 2003): 701–17; Gadwa Nicodemus,
“Fuzzy Vibrancy.”

18. Ann Markusen, “Why Creative Placemaking Indicators won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success,”
Createquity Blog, November 9, 2012. Reprinted in Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, 2013: Vol. 24, No. 1,
Winter, 2013: 22-29, 50,; and in International Journal of Urban Sciences, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2013: 291-303.

19. Ann Markusen, “Creative Cities: A Ten-Year Research Agenda,” Journal of Urban Affairs 36, (s22) (August
2014): 567–89; Kevin McCarthy, Elizabeth Ondaatje, Laura Zakaras, and Arthur Brooks, Gifts of the Muse:
Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts
, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2004), http://www.; and Bill Ivey, Arts, Inc: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural
, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008).

20. For examples of forceful voices, see Roberto Bedoya, “Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-Belonging,” Grantmakers in the Arts Reader (Winter 2013); Carolina Sarmiento, “Strategies of Fire and ICE:
Immigration, Cultural Planning and Resistance.” Doctoral dissertation. (University of California Irvine,
2014); Maria Rosario Jackson, “Developing Artist-Driven Spaces in Marginalized Communities: Reflections
and Implications for the Field” (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, Leveraging Investments in Creativity,
October 2012), Our work on gentrification includes Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, “Artists and Gentrification:
Sticky Myths, Slippery Realities,” Createquity Blog (April 5, 2013), Our work on equity research includes Markusen, “Creative Cities: A Ten-Year Research Agenda.”

21. Ann Markusen, “Creative Cities: A Ten-Year Research Agenda,” Journal of Urban Affairs 36, (s22) (August
2014): 567–89; Kevin McCarthy, Elizabeth Ondaatje, Laura Zakaras, and Arthur Brooks, Gifts of the Muse:
Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts
, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2004),; and Bill Ivey, Arts, Inc: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural
, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008).

Ann Markusen, PhD, directs the Arts Economy Initiative, Project on Regional and Industrial
Economics, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and is principal of Markusen
Economic Research. She is a frequent keynote speaker and advisor to public agencies, policymakers,
cultural businesses, economic developers, and nonprofit arts organizations in the US and internationally.
Markusen’s publications include
Creative Cities: A Ten-Year Research Agenda (2014), The
Arts, Consumption, and Innovation in Regional Development (2013), California’s Arts and
Cultural Ecology (2011), Nurturing California’s Next Generation Arts and Cultural Leaders
(2011), Creative Placemaking (2010), Native Artists: Careers, Resources, Space, Gifts (2009),
San José Creative Entrepreneur Project (2008), Crossover: How Artists Build Careers across
Commercial, Non-profit and Community Work (2006). Markusen holds a foreign service BA
from Georgetown University and a MA and PhD in economics from Michigan State University and
she has taught at Colorado, California-Berkeley, Northwestern, and Rutgers universities.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus is a choreographer and arts administrator turned urban planner. She has
advanced the discourse on arts-based community development through reports and journal articles
Creative Placemaking (Mayors’ Institute on City Design), which helped to define the field;
“Arts and Culture in Urban and Regional Planning: A Review and Research Agenda”
(Journal of
Planning and Education Research); “How Art Spaces Matter” (Artspace); and “Fuzzy Vibrancy:
Creative Placemaking as Ascendant U.S. Cultural Policy”
(Journal of Cultural Trends). Nicodemus
is principal of Metris Arts Consulting, which supports creative placemaking through research, planning,
and evaluation. She gives frequent talks nationally and internationally and, since 2012, has made
WESTAF’s annual peer-nominated list of the nation’s 50 most influential people in the nonprofit arts.