Our Town: Supporting the Arts in Communities Throughout the United States


Jane Chu and Jason Schupbach, National Endowment for the Arts

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Volume 10, Issue 2 | December 13, 2014

Why are a farm, a church, a museum, an arboretum, and a festival working
together to create a new environmental arts center in rural Freeman, South
Dakota? Why are a community loan fund and an office of economic and
workforce development working with a local arts agency in San Francisco
to secure permanent space for arts organizations? Why are a bank, an energy company, and
a music organization collaborating on a series of pop-up performances in suburban Maize,
Kansas? The answer: They are all working on projects funded by Our Town grants.

A vast diversity of places and projects have been funded through the National Endowment
for the Arts (NEA) Our Town grants. Since Our Town’s inception in 2011, the NEA
has awarded 256 grants totaling more than $21 million in all 50 states and the District of

Why Our Town?

The social, educational, economic, and aesthetic benefits of the arts for communities are
well documented. Artists and designers provide a powerful aesthetic imprint on communities
with their craft, sparking vitality and creating an environment conducive to ideas, creativity,
and social engagement. Artists and designers provide amenities for consumers and rejuvenate
downtowns and neighborhoods and strongly connect people to one another. Artists
and designers help form the core of community development practice, along with public
safety, land use, transportation, education, and housing, among others.

The NEA created Our Town as a catalytic investment tool. It has served as the Obama
administration’s signature place-based arts program, supporting a network of practitioners
and neighbors who are positioning the arts as a driving force for creating opportunity and
building strong communities. As part of President Obama’s “Ladders of Opportunity” agenda,
and in strategic partnership with sister federal agencies, the NEA makes Our Town grants as
anchor investments. Motivated by these grants, communities form coalitions between their
elected leadership and other key civic leaders. These grants create an opportunity for artists
and arts organizations to connect with various development areas including public health,
housing, economic development, and even agriculture, thereby bringing these stakeholders
together for their community’s benefit.

How Did It All Get Started?

Arts-based community development is nothing new. For example, Italian sculptor,
painter, architect, poet, and engineer Michelangelo was a creative “placemaker” in his own
right. Many artists, arts organizations, and their supporting networks have been engaged in
this work for years in the United States. The foundation for the NEA’s efforts began in 2007
when Jeremy Nowak, with key support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the University
of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project, published the groundbreaking paper
“Creativity and Neighborhood Development—Strategies for Community Investment,”1
based on research in Philadelphia for The Reinvestment Fund, a Community Development
Financial Institution (CDFI). This research placed arts-based work in the language and
context of community investment, outlining the role of the arts in building social capital,
documenting the arts as economic assets, and showing how they affect market relations.

After reading Nowak’s paper and related research—and observing the success of the
arts-driven community development communities in Philadelphia, his native St. Louis, and
his home turf of New York City—former NEA chairman Rocco Landesman decided that the
federal government could be a more effective partner for community-based arts efforts.
“When I came to the NEA,” Landesman said, “I wanted to focus on…how the arts can be a
force for social cohesion and economic development in neighborhoods, communities, [and]

Landesman launched a three-part strategy that continues to unfold. First, he created a
new NEA fund to support arts-based community development that ultimately became Our
Town. Second, understanding that any NEA place-based funding alone would be insufficient
on its own, he pursued strategic partnerships with other federal agencies that were
also implementing place-based programs. His team identified where other agencies were
investing and sought to develop alliances among federal officials, and arts and community
development stakeholders.

These efforts have yielded a more comprehensive federal commitment to the arts,
expressed in both funding and policy. For example, NEA’s work on the White House Council
on the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2)3 initiative has yielded new projects focused
on chronically economically distressed cities. NEA provides staff support to the SC2 Council,
providing technical assistance to SC2 cities—leveraging their arts sectors in support of their
revitalization strategies and long-term economic planning. NEA staff is also participating
in the White House’s Promise Zones4 initiative, strategically linking Our Town investments
and grantees to Promise Zone communities. Staff also provides technical assistance and
policy guidance to the selected neighborhoods, working with arts policy makers, organizations and artists to drive positive community transformation. Further, NEA is supporting
the place-based policy efforts of the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative and the White
House Rural Council, and its partnership with the US Department of Agriculture on the Citizens’
Institute on Rural Design.

As the final part of the strategy, Landesman encouraged new philanthropic investment in
arts-based community development. The most visible example is ArtPlace America, a consortium
that includes the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Kresge Foundation,
the Knight Foundation, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, as well as banks with a strong presence
in community development such as Deutsche Bank and Bank of America. Landesman
understood the federal government works best partnering with philanthropic organizations
and the private sector to experiment and build capacity of local organizations and individuals.

Our Town and the Mayor’s Institute on City Design 25th Anniversary Awards

In 2010, on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Mayor’s Institute on City
Design, the NEA commissioned Creative Placemaking, a white paper by Ann Markusen and
Anne Gadwa.5 The paper placed Nowak’s research in a new framework and coined the term
creative placemaking. It also laid out the many challenges and opportunities for the field and
helped shape the guidelines for an NEA creative placemaking program—the Mayors’ Institute
on City Design 25th Anniversary Awards (MICD25)—which was created to test if there was
interest from communities in NEA funding for creative placemaking activities.6

MICD25 were one-time grants for cities that had participated in the Mayor’s Institute on
City Design. Grantee projects ranged from public art invigorating a new greenway beneath
a railroad track overpass in Greensboro, North Carolina, to plans for a cultural district in
downtown Shreveport, Louisiana. The 21 awards confirmed a demand for a federal program
supporting art-based development in US communities.

NEA based guidelines for the Our Town grants program on a few key elements that
reflected the best research on creative placemaking: Broad partnerships are necessary to
achieve good project outcomes; political support is essential; all communities have unique
“arts assets” and projects should be tied to local assets and knowledge; and arts-based activities
must work in concert with other community development efforts, plans, and goals.
Hoping that Our Town’s partnership structure would foster new collaborations, the guidelines
were broad enough to allow a range of organizations and geographies to apply.

The NEA wanted to validate and support the many cultures found in the United States
with Our Town. The program was designed to support high-capacity communities, with many investment opportunities and long-standing relationships between arts and community
stakeholders, as well as communities lacking those attributes but possessing a clear
vision and committed leadership. The NEA decided to take a risk and see if requiring a partnership
between arts organizations and local governments as a condition of each Our Town
grant would produce successful collaborations.

What’s Happened?

After a coordinated release of the Our Town grant application guidelines with the help
of federal and field partners, the response has been enormous. Every year, the Our Town
budget is only sufficient to fund approximately one-fifth of the applications received. Applicants
can apply for up to $200,000, and the average grant size is $75,000. All grants from the
NEA must be matched one-to-one by the grantee, and Our Town grantees typically match
grants up to three or four times. And the diversity of places and projects where the grantees
are working is astounding: the Native Village of Mary’s Igloo on the Bering Strait in Alaska;
Last Chance, Colorado, a town of 23 people; the urban neighborhood of Willowbrook in Los
Angeles County; Bloomington, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis and home to the Mall of
America; the jazz district of Kansas City, Missouri; Miami Beach; the Acadian villages on the
border of Maine and Canada; and New York City.

Many communities have used their Our Town grant to catalyze multi-stakeholder partnerships.
As of 2014, 246 partners are involved in 66 projects funded by Our Town grants,
averaging 15 partners per project. Community development sponsored by the NEA creates
incentives for artists and designers to participate in conversations from which they might
have been traditionally excluded. Approximately one-third of the partners in Our Town projects
are arts organizations from all fields the NEA supports: filmmaking, theater, folk arts,
dance, literature, arts education, museums, symphonies and opera companies, and others.
The range of other institutions that have stepped up to partner on Our Town projects is vast
and exciting: aging services agencies, botanic gardens, religious institutions, scientific organizations,
local businesses, banks, farms, business improvement districts, education institutions,
and land trusts. Government is represented at the local, state, and federal levels.

Trends We Have Seen

Our Town projects generally fall into two categories: engagement activities, and planning
and design activities. In engagement projects, the focus is on artistic programs that
foster interaction among community members, arts organizations, and artists, often by
leveraging existing community assets through public art, festivals and performances, artists
working in storefronts, or pop-up artist studios. Planning and design projects develop the
infrastructure necessary for community development to succeed, such as creative asset
mapping; master planning for a cultural district; support efforts benefiting creative businesses;
and designs for artist space, cultural facilities, and public spaces.

At the beginning of the Our Town program, more of the applications and the grants were
focused on design and planning activities. Projects such the Opa-Locka (Florida) Community
Development Corporation’s project focused on removing metal barricades placed around
the predominately minority Magnolia North neighborhood in the 1980s. The barricades
were erected by the local leadership to, as they saw it, isolate and mitigate high levels of
crime and violence at that time. With Our Town support, a community-wide collaborative
design process addressed removing the barricades and transforming intersections into
inviting neighborhood entryways with new public open spaces and public art.

More recently, applications have moved toward arts engagement activities. For example,
the Music City Opera Project by Nashville Opera is challenging dominant conceptions of
what constitutes opera. In an open competition, amateur and professional composers, librettists,
and arrangers will create new operatic works. Finalists will perform in unexpected places,
such as honky-tonks and country music venues in downtown Nashville. Several other projects
are focused on preserving Appalachian musical heritage. For example, Hindman, Kentucky
(population, 777), will celebrate its local dulcimer-making tradition, and in Pickens, South
Carolina (population, 3,012), a senior citizen group is creating the Center for Southern
Appalachian Music.

In addition, some of the most interesting projects are happening on tribal lands. Southwestern
Native American nations in Arizona and New Mexico are working to better design
their communities. In addition, famed architect Maya Lin is working with northwestern
tribes on the Confluence Project, a large-scale multisite public art project on the Lewis and
Clark expedition.

Other Creative Placemaking Efforts at the NEA

Our Town is only one of the NEA’s projects to support arts-based community development.
In addition to our expanding interagency work through SC2 and Promise Zones, the
agency is funding convenings, research, and expansion of field building efforts for communities
that engage artists as generators of social and economic capital. Three of agency’s
efforts merit mention:

Performing Arts and Transforming Place Convening

Performances have multifaceted ways in which they transform places, people’s relationships
with their communities, and community development processes. On November 3,
2014, the Arts Endowment hosted the “Beyond the Building: Performing Arts and Transforming
Place” convening to develop a better understanding of how performance-based
organizations, and the artists they engage, transform places through their artistic practices.
The convening archive is available online.7

Sharing Lessons Learned

In late September 2014, the agency launched “Exploring Our Town” on the NEA
website.8 It is an electronic storybook chronicling more than 70 case studies on, and insights
from, Our Town investments. This resource was created in response to calls from the field for
lessons learned throughout the country.

Developing Results Indicators

NEA researchers have constructed arts and livability indicators from publicly accessible
national data sets. In 2013, the NEA worked with the Urban Institute to validate the indicators
for a representative sample of towns and cities that participated in the Our Town or
MICD25 initiatives. The resulting report, “The Validating Arts and Indicators Study (VALI):
Results and Recommendations,” is available on the NEA website as a tool for tracking
contextual data deemed to be important for a variety of creative placemaking projects (see
the article by Morley and Winkler in this issue for more on the VALI project).9

Artists’ and designers’ work with partners as diverse as farms, churches, and energy
companies signals an exciting future for communities. Together, arts and community development
practitioners are building communities with enhanced quality of life, increased
creative activity, a distinct sense of place, and opportunity-rich local economies. Collectively,
this work has demonstrated—for the first time at a national scale—that arts stakeholders are
fundamental players in a community’s transformation. They are working authentically and
equitably, and they are building on existing community assets. The NEA strives to support
these efforts to make the arts available to everyone.

1. Jeremy Nowak, “Creativity and Neighborhood Development—Strategies for Community Investment.”
(Philadelphia, PA: The Reinvestment Fund, 2007).

2. Email correspondence. Rocco Landesman, Jane Chu, and Jason Schupbach. September 4, 2014.

3. For more on the SC2 Initiative, see http://www.huduser.org/portal/sc2/home.html.

4. For more on Promise Zones, see https://www.hudexchange.info/promise-zones.

5. Ann Marksuen and Anne Gadwa, “Creative Placemaking.” (Washington, DC: The Mayors’ Institute on City Design,

6. Since 1986, the NEA and the US Conference of Mayors, with the American Architectural Foundation, have run
the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. The institute has trained more than 1,000 mayors in the basics of city
design and frequently addresses art-based community development issues. These mayors were the perfect
first-time audience for the new research on creative placemaking.

7. Convening archive for “Beyond the Building: Performing Arts and Transforming Place,” http://arts.gov/partnerships/beyond-the-building-performing-arts-and-transforming-place.

8.National Endowment for the Arts, “Exploring Our Town,” http://arts.gov/exploring-our-town/.

9. National Endowment for the Arts, “Validating Arts and Indicators Study (VALI): Results and
Recommendations” by Elaine Morley and Mary K. Winkler, http://arts.gov/publications/validating-artslivability-indicators-vali-study-results-and-recommendations.

Jane Chu, PhD, was confirmed by the US Senate in June 2014 as the 11th chairman of the National
Endowment for the Arts. Since 2006, Chu served as the president and CEO of the Kauffman Center
for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri, overseeing a $413-million campaign to build the
center. As the performance home of the Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, and Lyric Opera of
Kansas City, the Kauffman Center has hosted more than one million people from all 50 states and countries
throughout the world since its grand opening in September 2011. She was a fund executive at the
Kauffman Fund for Kansas City from 2004 to 2006, and vice president of external relations for Union
Station Kansas City from 2002 to 2004. Previously, she was vice president of community investment
for the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation from 1997 to 2002. Chu also served as a trustee
at William Jewell College and on the board of directors of the Ewing Marion Kauffman School and the
Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. Chu was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, but was raised
in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She studied music growing up, eventually
receiving bachelor’s degrees in piano performance and music education from Ouachita Baptist University and master’s degrees in music and piano pedagogy from Southern Methodist University.
Additionally, Chu holds a master’s degree in business administration from Rockhurst University and a
PhD in philanthropic studies from Indiana University, as well as an honorary doctorate in music from
the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.

Jason Schupbach is the director of design programs for the National Endowment for the Arts, where
he oversees all design and creative placemaking grantmaking and partnerships, including Our Town
and Design Art Works grants, the Mayor’s Institute on City Design, the Citizens’ Institute on Rural
Design, and the NEA’s involvement in the HUD Sandy Recovery Taskforce Rebuild by Design Competition.
Previous to his current position, Jason served Governor Patrick of Massachusetts as the creative
economy director, tasked with growing creative businesses in the state. He formerly was the director of
ArtistLink, a Ford Foundation funded initiative to stabilize and revitalize communities through the
creation of affordable space and innovative environments for creatives. He has also worked for the
mayor of Chicago and New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs.