Elders & Leaders

The Long Read

I’ve been obsessed with Studs Terkel’s brand of oral history since I came across Working, which made me look at the value of work in a whole different way and inspired lots more research and reflection that might translate in the near-ish future into a live art concept.

I’ve picked up another Studs Terkel’s collection, this time his 2003 Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times, and it’s indeed just the right time for these first-hand accounts of resistance, persistence and ‘smart idealism’.

Human rights lawyers, labour movement activists, teachers, doctors, recovering addicts, death row survivors, radicals of all ages and stripes talk about what keep them jumping through every hoop in their way to make the world better than how they found it.

In the first few pages, I discovered the wonderful Tom Hayden (1939-2016), who drafted the 1962 Port Huron Statement (a radical political manifesto that called for “participatory democracy” ) in his 20s, and went on to play other major roles in anti-war, animal rights and social justice movements.

 

 

 

 

 

He’s 62 at the time of this interview with Studs Terkel, and he shares his wisdom about stages of life, the problem with the sixties and his newly-found role as an elder:

It’s not surprising that the idealists are always young. Young people are like eagles, they can see a long way and they don’t have any hindsight. They’re always discovering something new, and they don’t carry as much of the burden of the old. Then comes the second stage of life. I would call it your entry into a career, where you have to make money, you’ve got to settle down somewhat, and you become more like a coyote, more competitive with other people because this is going to determine where you are in the pecking order. So the idealism of the young is tempered by the competitiveness of the thirty-somethings and the forty-somethings. And then the third stage is you get as far as you’re going to go in your career path, you become president of the United States, or a journalist, or a school-teacher, or you get your seniority. And you realize that competition is not going to get you any farther. So you settle down more, you’re the mayor of a city or the city council person or the editor of the newspaper. Here you try to bring together the best of the idealism you had when you were a kid and what you’ve learned about the world and the rat race. So at worst you’re compromised, but at best, you’re a smart idealist, you’re learned something, you’ve matured. Then you go beyond that, in what in this society is usually called old age, but it’s the only opportunity you’ll have for wisdom. You’re no longer really needed as a mayor, because there’s always some guy knocking at the door who wants to replace you, and the end is coming. So this is the last stage. You know what that is? To be an elder. To problem with the sixties, as I look back, was a problem of the elders. It was always defined as a problem of youth, a crisis of youth. But really, that was how the elders defined it. The real problem was that the elders weren’t there. The elders missed the point entirely. I live now with one goal: to try to learn to be the kind of elder who was missing when I was a kid.

Tom Hayden in Studs Terkel’s Hope Dies Last, p. 70 (The New Press, New York, 2003)

Working

The Long Read

Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.
—Nora Watson, editor

 

I’ve come across Studs Terkel via his good friend Kurt Vonnegut, who quotes him in A Man Without a Country, his memoir-esque final book.

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do is a collection of over 80 interviews conducted in the 1970s with Americans from all walks of life. Studs Terkel, a broadcaster and oral historian, manages to both create a warm space for an intimate conversation and make himself transparent, and the transcripts read as insightful monologues constantly flowing between the personal and the universal. Working has been turned into a musical and adapted as a comic book by American Splendor’s Harvey Pekar.     

 

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all, (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of is. (…) It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.
Introduction

 

Working tells the extraordinary stories of ordinary people, and the everyday grind of those in the limelight – in their own voice. Policeman, bus driver, pharmacist, professional hockey player, farm worker, switchboard operator, airline stewardess, actor, doorman, piano tuner, gas meter reader, private eye, hair stylists… sit for a while with Terkel, in their home, in a tavern, in the boss’s office, and share a moment with him, opening up about their life, their feelings, their dreams. Some have already put a lot of thought into what they’re being asked to talk about, for others it feels like they’re discovering themselves in the conversation, revealing their inner contradictions and sometimes finding resolution. There’s a precious quality of individuality that comes through every single interview, but also a sense of interconnectedness that emerges from the accumulation of stories.

Studs Terkel made a point of scouting for people whose voice is not often heard, those who toil in the dark, are oppressed, marginalised, or trying to escape their golden cage. Class, race and gender loom large in the life choices of Terkel’s interlocutors. Barbara Herrick, a farmer’s daughter and award-winning writer / producer in the male-dominated ad world, is often ignored by clients at meetings – or asked to make them coffee – until she starts one her brilliant presentation. Roberto Acuna, farm worker, born on a cotton sack, picking the fields seven days a week from the age of 8, now organising for the United Farm Workers of America, has one wish:

 

If people could see—in the winter, ice on the fields. We’d be on our knees all day long. We’d build fires and warm up real fast and go back on the ice. We’d be picking watermelons in 105 degrees all day long. When people have melons or cucumber of carrots or lettuce, they don’t know how they got on their table and the consequences to the people who picked it. If I had enough money, I would take busloads of people out to the fields and into the labor camps. Then they’d know how that dine salad got on their table.
—Roberto Acuna, farm worker  

 

Some are fulfilled by their job:  

 

People imagine a waitress couldn’t possibly think of have any kind of aspiration other than to serve food. When somebody says to me, “You’re great, how come you’re just a waitress?” Just a waitress. I’d say, “Why, don’t you think you deserve to be served by me?” It’s implying that he’s not worthy, not that I’m not worthy. I makes me irate. I don’t feel lowly at all. I myself feel sure. I don’t want to change the job. I love it.
Dolores Dante, waitress

 

Others suffer from the daily drag, the erosion of their rights, the contempt from management:

 

All I do now is get up in the morning, go there, and I don’t be thinking about that. Like a machine, that’s about the only way I can feel.
—Will Robinson, bus driver

 

Some lose their illusions:

 

We were caught up in the American Dream. You’ve gotta have a house. You’ve gotta have a country club. You’ve gotta have two cars. Here you are at ten grand and getting nowhere. So I doubled my salary. I also doubled my grief. I now made twenty thousand dollars; had an expense account, a Country Squire—air-conditioned station wagon given by the company—a wonderful boss. We began to accumulate. We got a house in the suburbs and we got a country club membership and we got two cars and we got higher taxes. We got nervous and we started drinking more and smoking more. Finally, one day we sat down. We have everything and we are poor.
Fred Ringley, ex-salesman, farmer

 

And some take action:

 

When I worked as a bartender, I felt like a non-person. I was actually nothing. I was a nobody going nowhere. I was in a state of limbo. I have no hopes, no dreams, no ups, no downs, nothing. Being a policeman gives me the challenge in life I want.
Vincent Maher, policeman

 

Some find meaning in their life, beyond their job, by becoming reluctant leaders:

 

I was one of the organisers here when the union came. I was as anti-union in the beginning as I am union now. Coming from a small farm community in Wisconsin, I didn’t know what a union was all about. I didn’t understand the labor movement at all. In school you’re shown the bad side of it.

Before the union came in, all I did was do my eight hours, collect my paycheck, and o home, did my housework, took care of my daughter, and went back to work. I had no outside interests. You just lived to live. Since I became active in the union, I’ve become active in politics, in the community, in legislative problems. I’ve been to Washington on one or two trips. I’ve been to Springfield. That had given me more of an incentive for life.
—Grace Clements, felter in a luggage factory

 

We meet those who have found their calling, like Father Leonard Dubi, son of a steelworker and radical priest, taking on corporations and politicians to fight against pollution, poor planning decisions and corruption.

Others are making both a life and a living:   

 

I knew when I was eight years old that I wasn’t going to amount to anything in the business world. I wanted my life to have something to do with adventure, something unknown, something involved with a free life, something to do with wonder and astonishment. I loved to play—the fact that I could express myself in improvisation, the unplanned.
—Bud Freeman, jazz musician

 

And there are those who are still searching, like Charlie Blossom, upper middle class college dropout, hyperbolic hippy on a brief stint as a copy boy for a Chicago newspaper, who bring sunflower seeds to his co-workers and dreams of murdering his capitalist boss.

For a job that is similar on paper, two workers might have completely different attitudes – because so much of how they feel about it is down to the level of autonomy and responsibility they are offered or have carved for themselves. To quote Norma’s words, they are satisfied when they can put their spirit, whole and sincere, into what they do, when the job is big enough for them to be a full human being. Studs Terkel makes no comment outside his introduction, he passes no judgement on his subjects, but the fact that he features so heavily union members, second-chancers, angry young women and men and people fulfilled by creating value and connections to others and to the world is a strong hint at the kind of society he favours. And when articulating the need for change in his Introduction, he goes on to quote yet another union leader:

 

Perhaps it is time the “work ethics” was redefined and its idea reclaimed from the banal men who invoke it. In a world of cybernetics, of an almost runaway technology, things are increasingly making things. It is for our species, it would seem, to go on to other matters. Human matters. Freud put it one way. Ralph Helstein puts it another. He is president emeritus of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. “Learning is work. Caring for children is work. Community action is work. Once we accept the concept of work as something meaningful—not just as the source of a buck—you don’t have to worry about finding enough jobs. There’s no excuse for mules anymore. Society does not need them. There’s no question about our ability to feed and clothe and house everybody. The problem is going to come in finding enough ways for man to keep occupied, so he’s in touch with reality.”

 

Terkel concludes: “Our imaginations have obviously not yet been challenged”.

 

40 years on, technology has accelerated automation far beyond all expectations, education is still preparing young people for jobs and structures that don’t exist anymore, and chronic mass unemployment and underemployment are robbing many out of the right to make a life, fulfilled and dignified, out of making a living.
We need to challenge our imaginations to try out new ways of learning, of being together, of caring for each other and the world, and of valuing what is being produced within and outside formal contracts of employment. Universal Basic Income, or Citizen’s Income, is making its way into the mainstream, with pilots under way in Finland since January 2017 and starting soon in Ontario. It redefines the meaning of belonging to a community, enabling people to care for each other and removing the stigma of negative ‘benefits’; and it challenges the notion that employment is the source of all value, conflating money, status and identity.

Audience Development: The Road to Success

The Long Read

I was recently invited by Jazz North to talk to the new crop of artists selected for Northern Line – a subsidised touring scheme – about growing their audience through social media. As I’ve also done similar workshops for jazz promoters, I know it’s a great way to join the dots and tackle audience development on all fronts. However, artists and small independent promoters don’t have access to much data – so tools like the Audience Agency’s Audience Spectrum are not very helpful for their needs. For that type of public, I usually explain audience development in terms of distance, with existing audiences as the core circle, and other audience groups to be reached as being gradually further away: the more in common they have with the music, band, venue, club…, the closer they are, and therefore the easier and less costly they are to reach. It’s not a very sophisticated approach, and I felt that it was time to revise it a notch. Luckily, I came across the New York-based Wallace Foundation via a mention on France Musique of their current 6-year $40m investment in audience development, supporting and analysing the activities of 26 performing arts organisations. This funding programme is based on previous initiatives that are well documented on their website, so I started digging into their resources.

 

The Behavioural Model: The New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts

One of their landmark research pieces is the The New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, commissioned from research agency RAND Corporation in 2001. Based on 13 site visits and over 100 in depth-interviews with funded institutions, the report proposes a behavioural model to help arts organisations identify the main decision-making factors that lead to participation in the arts.

The model is based on four decision-making stages, each affected by specific sets of factors, that link background factors to attitudes, attitudes to intentions, intentions to actual behaviour, and past behaviour to future behaviour (p. 23):  

  • The Background Stage consists of the individual’s general attitudes toward the arts, a general consideration of whether to consider the arts as a potential leisure activity;
    • Influencing factors: the individual’s background characteristics: socio-demographics, personality traits, prior arts experience, and socio-cultural factors.
  • The Perceptual Stage (stage 1) is the individual’s formation of an inclination toward the arts based on an assessment of the benefits and costs of participation and where to obtain those benefits;
    • Influencing factors: perceptual factors, such as personal beliefs about the benefits and costs of arts participation and perceptions of how reference groups view the arts
  • The Practical Stage (stage 2) is their an evaluation of specific opportunities to participate;
    • Influencing factors: practical factors, such as available information on the arts, the costs involved in participation, and convenience
  • and the Experience Stage (stage 3) is the actual arts participation experience followed by a reassessment of the benefits and costs of the arts and assessment of their inclination to participate.
    • Influencing factors: the individual’s reaction to the actual experience

 

Type of Audience Development Activity

The report starts by defining three broad ways to increase participation in the arts – three types of activities that arts organisations can pursue, each with their own engagement strategy, and each responding to different organisational mission and values.

When setting out to build participation in the arts and develop audiences (both terms are used interchangeably in the report), organisations can either aim to:

  • broaden audiences (increase their size);
  • deepen them (enrich the experience of current participants);
  • diversify them (bring new groups into the fold).

Whilst all three types of direction could in theory be led concurrently, in practice only one or two at a time are likely to be both aligned with the organisation’s mission and achievable within its resources.

Audience Targeting

To build a targeted strategy, the next steps is to gather the right information about audiences, in line with the behavioural model:

  1. Background: Determine the target population’s inclinations toward the arts (eg. distinguishing between participants and non-participants, but also between non-participants who are inclined to participate and those who are not).
  2. Perceptual: Gather information about their motivations (e.g., whether they are looking for entertainment or enrichment, and whether they are more likely to prefer self-focused or social activities).
  3. Practical: Understand specific information about the lifestyles, specific programme interests and leisure activities of potential participants and how these groups stay informed about their leisure activities. This will help to adapt the programming, scheduling, pricing, and marketing efforts to the specific needs of the potential audiences.

The report recommends adopting an integrated approach to create an effective audience development strategy (p. 42):

  • Begin by considering how the organization’s participation-building activities align with its core values and purpose by choosing participation goals that support its purpose.
  • Identify clear target populations and base its tactics on good information about those groups.
  • Understand what internal and external resources can be committed to building participation.
  • Establish a process for feedback and self-evaluation (using both quantitative and qualitative methods).

 

15 Year Later: The Road To Success

Between 2006 and 2012, Wallace funded 54 organizations to develop and test approaches for expanding audiences informed by RAND’s guidance, and commissioned market researcher Bob Harlow to write case study evaluations for 10 of these organisations, presented in The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences (2014).

Across 10 very different institutions – a young people’s choir, theatre, ballet and opera companies, museums, galleries and art workshop providers – Harlow identified 9 practices that contributed to the success of their participation-building strategy:

  1. Recognizing When Change Is Needed
  2. Identifying the Target Audience that Fits
  3. Determining What Kinds of Barriers Need to Be Removed
  4. Taking Out the Guesswork: Audience Research to Clarify the Approach
  5. Thinking Through the Relationship
  6. Providing Multiple Ways In
  7. Aligning the Organization Around the Strategy
  8. Building in Learning
  9. Preparing for Success

Road-To-Results-Infographic-page-001

 

Each practice is illustrated in detail with examples from the case studies, and further reports into specific points provide even more learning opportunities to understand and adapt these principles – for example, Taking Out the Guesswork: A Guide to Using Research to Build Arts Audiences, published a year later, includes very practical tips on facilitating focus groups, including budget and timeline, guidelines on designing, conducting and analysing surveys and advice on working with market researchers.  

The key factor for success throughout these examples is the desire to learn from audiences and adapt accordingly, which implies a complex change management process that can transform an organisation from within. It doesn’t mean changing the programming offer or artistic vision, on the contrary: as these case studies evidence, the road to success starts by being confident that what you do is valuable and being proud to offer it to your audiences, but humble enough to ask them what they really think. Perceptual and practical barriers can be difficult to see or take seriously for staff who are immersed in the daily life of their organisation, and removing them requires more often than not a new collaborative effort between departments or levels, a change in organisational behaviour, a renewed sense of purpose. Across all 54 organisations that received Wallace’s multi-year funding to test and apply the RAND behavioural participation-building model, and specifically out of the 46 with reliable data, results were “surprisingly positive”:

over three years, the 11 organizations seeking to boost their overall audiences saw median gains of 27 percent. Results for the 35 organizations targeting specific audience segments were even higher—60 percent—though it’s important to note that in some cases organizations were starting from a small base.

 

The following table summarises the achievements of 10 case studies highlighted in Road to Success.

Case Studies Results-page-001

Planning Steps for Participation-Building

Without additional funding or detailed data, what can be taken from these studies to help small organisations and individual artists grow their audience? My next audience development workshop might look a bit more like this:

 

  1. Determine the direction of growth (broaden, deepen and/or diversify). Who do you wish to see at your next gig: more of the same people, the same people more often or completely different people?
  2. Understand the target audience, and specifically their levers of behaviour change: what makes them tick and what puts them off. What would they do more if they could? What are the barriers that hold them back? Observe, listen, analyse, be ready to be challenged and to change your ways.
  3. Start by applying small-step tactics that don’t cause a strain on resources, and monitor results carefully. This is a pilot phase to try new things out, which can include internal collaboration, new partnerships, modifying existing practices or implementing new initiatives. Lack of result doesn’t mean that the whole idea is wrong: it might just need to be presented or executed differently.
  4. Assess the internal changes (resource levels, processes, systems…) required to scale up successful strategies. This is an essential step to be able to deliver in a sustainable manner; this can also be a catalyst for change, as it will require long-term planning and full-organisation thinking.  
  5. Turn your mission and actions towards your audience: they should always be firmly in the picture, not an afterthought or – worse – a nuisance. This is where change can become motivational and lead to a higher level of emotional truth, a renewed sense of purpose, a more challenging – and more rewarding – way of working. 

Grow Your Own City

Programming

Gardening is my graffiti: I grow my art.

– Ron Finley

Ron Finley urban famer

Ron Finley, graffiti-gardener

Urban farming has its new hero: Ron Finley, artist-gardener, on a mission to make kale sexy in South Central Los Angeles, one of America’s food deserts. Since he planted a vegetable garden on a city-owned strip of land outside his house in 2010, then got fined for it and successfully led a campaign to make curbside gardening legal, he’s received a lot of media attention, including a TED Talk in 2013 (from which the quotes above and below are taken).

“Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus, you get strawberries.”

“If kids grow kale, kids eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes.”

“We gotta flip the script on what a gangsta is — if you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta.”

The video below, featuring Ron pre-TED fame, encapsulates the multiple benefits of urban gardening: healthy eating, communal activity, cultural heritage, sensory stimulation…

From producing fresh food in a brownfield and at the same time beautifying an area to providing a physical activity to local people while creating community links, urban farming is a multi-layered activity that keeps on giving. I’ve looked below at 3 other initiatives with deep roots – transforming a school’s rooftop, re-inventing the city as a public orchard and blowing the seeds of change from a West Yorkshire village to the rest of the world.

The Teachers: School Grown

If there is one constant with urban farming, it’s that it can happen anywhere and everywhere: on the side of the road in LA, 33 metres below the busy streets of Clapham, or at the back of a truck, anywhere. By comparison, a rooftop farm is perhaps quite banal, but the one transformed by Food Share in Toronto – that can be seen from scratch to end in the timelapse video above – is rather special, because it doubles up as a “food literacy education centre, large market garden and vibrant event space all wrapped into one”.

The 16,000 square foot rooftop currently includes over 450 garden planters, 100 shiitake mushroom logs, a dwarf fruiting orchard, seating for over 200 people, a covered area and an indoor classroom – and has plans to add a rooftop teaching kitchen, a small greenhouse, a composting area and an open air cafe.

Students sell their ‘school grown’ produce at three local farmers’ markets and also supply several Toronto restaurants.

foodshare.net/schoolgrown

@FoodShareTO

The Gleaners: Not Far From The Tree

Founder and director Laura Reinsborough got the idea for Not Far From The Tree when she was working as a Community Arts Facilitator for the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) and was asked to pick apples from an urban orchard and put them to good use.

From this first experience was born Not Far From the Tree, an initiative that picks unwanted or surplus fruit from residential properties, sharing the harvest 3 ways: ⅓ to the fruit owner, ⅓ to the the volunteers and ⅓ to social agencies. In 2008, their first full season, 150 volunteers picked a total of 3,003 pounds of fruit, and the concept has now grown into a fully-fledged, city-wide, award-winning charitably constituted organisation with permanent staff.

In 5 years, they have:

  • harvested over 70,000 pounds of fruit;
  • donated more than 22,000 pounds to social service agencies;
  • registered over 1,500 trees to be picked in our operating area;
  • registered more than 1,600 volunteer pickers.

They have also produced a pretty 5-year annual report available to view online, listing these achievements and more, and also regularly commission artists – such as the one below – for their event and campaign visuals.

Apple-by-Zeesy-Powers-Oct-2012-e1393605838297

Apple by Zeesy Powers (2012)

notfarfromthetree.org

@NFFTT

The Planters: Incredible Edible

This is the extraordinary journey of a small market town in the North of England, now a hotspot of the local food revolution. With just a handful of people and seeds to start with, Todmorden has transformed itself into a place where fruit and vegetables are grown everywhere – outside the police station, in the cemetery, along the canal – and for everyone. Pam Warhurst, one of the instigators, calls it “propaganda gardening”: a way of ensuring resilience by creating deep links between community, learning and business. It’s even created a brand new genre of tourism, with “vegetable tourists” coming to the 15,000-strong town to visit the Incredible Edible Green Route.

The Todmorden experiment has inspired over 200 local groups in several countries that form the Incredible Edible Network and are typically involved in “setting up community growing plots, reaching out to schools and children, and backing local food suppliers”.

c554_incredible_edible_todmorden_police_station_food_to_share_incroyables_comestibles_w680

Incredible Edibles, outside Todmorden Police Station

c558_incredible_edible_todmorden_green_route_food_to_share_incroyables_comestibles_w1600

Food to Share – Incredible Edibles Todmorden

incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk

incredibleediblenetwork.org.uk

@incredibledible

No There There?

Spotlight

There is no there there.
— 
Gertrude Stein

This non-there is Oakland, California, where author and art collector Gertrude Stein grew up at the end of the 19th century – and there now is a there where there once was no there: since 2005, an eight-foot high powder-coated steel plate twin sculpture spelling out “HERE” and “THERE”, by artists Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, marks the border between Berkeley and Oakland.

HERE-THERE_2-900 Steve Gillman 2011

HERETHERE by Steve Gillman (Berkeley/Oakland, CA )

According to the commissioning agency, the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission, “the sculptured letters form a poetic message of hello and goodbye and provide a sense of place”.

Maybe not enough for some residents: the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2010 that “renegade knitters … sewed a multi-colored tea cozy onto the letter T”.  The knitters were asked by Berkeley’s civic arts coordinator “to remove their handiwork because modifying public art is against state and federal law”, but instead “resisted and … held a knit-in at the sculpture”.

There yarn

Knit-in at the HERETHERE sculpture – Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

One of the artists expressed his support for the knitters, applauding them for “start(ing) a dialogue where possibly only a monologue had existed before”. Unfortunately his views were not echoed by the civic arts coordinator, who pointed out that “he has a right to his opinion (…). But he doesn’t own (the artwork) anymore.”

While this is almost as gripping as the Tilted Arc controversy, and raises many questions of context, appropriation, ownership and authorship, it also provides an opportunity to revisit the Gertrude Stein statement. Here’s a longer quote to give context to this famous ‘no there there’ (punctuation is sic):

She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.

…but not there, there is no there there. … Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. … Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use …

It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.

And that is what makes (good) (public) art important: it (can) create strong, lasting, shared memories. Created for permanence, it’s a link to a place and an anchor in time; a landmark, a there that’s always here. If temporary and diffuse, it’s an experience that becomes a reference, a living memory which meaning expands – or fades – with time. Whether or not the first life of the THERE sculpture did provide that sense of place, of ‘there’, the art hackers gesture – tangible sign of a collective spirit – has contributed to creating a futher memory-to-be.

But what if there is really no there there? In an article for Public Art Review entitled Strategies for Defining the Non-Place with Public Art and Urban Design, Ronald Lee Fleming writes:

Stein’s remark has come to be associated with suburban and fringe development since World War II, which has disfigured, with a banal sameness, the edge of almost every city and town in the country. How can public art and enlightened urban policy transform the non-places that one moves through on the way to the airport?

This claim – which takes Stein’s quote out of its eminently personal context and conveniently distorts its meaning to forsake anything outside the centre – is supported by some rather strange statements throughout the article (“Banal places are often full of very average people”, “People in modest neighborhoods are often fascinated by craft”). The underlying assumption is that the North American sprawling suburbs are nothing more that a ‘non-place’ (defined by ethnologist Marc Augé as places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”, generally the by-product of ‘supermodernity’ and acceleration, places where people don’t meet and where they can’t build collective references) – and that public art can inject meaning in these semiotic deserts – in Fleming’s words, “artists can help redefine the meaning of a site no matter how boring it may appear”.

Here again, ‘non-place’ is taken a little too literally: Augé emphasises, throughout his essay, the many ways people ‘invent’ the everyday and create trails of memories and stories in the most unlikely and clinical places, from airports to budget hotel chains and supermarkets.

Fleming continues with further invoking the need for enlightenment for average people in these boring places:

What is needed is an enlightened artist constituency who can move beyond signature works of ego to serve a restive public that wants more meaning embedded in the infrastructure of the banal sites where they live. People want to experience well-crafted elements that often require a team of artisans as well as the conceptualizing artist. This is not the coterie of city sophisticates who value abstraction and the shock of the new.

So average people deserve average public art, something simple, “well-crafted”, that helps them to feel just that little bit less bored. One wonders if they deserve art at all, given the challenge that their abject banality presents for artists:

Working with these contours of meaning can be a challenge for an artist with a big ego—and let’s face it, a big ego is often necessary just to prevail as an artist and to justify the amount of energy that it takes to do public work.

At a time when placemaking is hailed as a remedy to urban ills – be them new and shiny developments or old and crumbly neighbourhoods, places with not enough or too much ‘identity’  -, is there a consensus about the practice at large, its methods and especially its ethos? The term is now widely used by public commissioners, artists and arts organisations, community interest companies, property developers and commercial agencies alike, and as a result seem to range from condescending opinions such as Fleming’s to thinly disguised PR campaigns for property developers (via a whole host of interesting long-term, artist- and community-led projects).

Quality frameworks are currently being developed for participatory arts – such as this paper by Toby Lowe from Helix Arts – and art & health – such as this contribution by Creative Health CIC to the West Midlands commissioning practice. What would a framework for placemaking look like? Has a consensus been reached yet on the term itself? Can a variety of approaches be evaluated against the same standards? Here are three examples in three different countries that exemplify this range of methods and angles, but also a common aspiration for ethical guidelines and for sharing their process and experience.

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The public space activists: PPS (USA)

Project for Public Spaces have been developing a conceptual and practical framework for placemaking since 1975, such as the 11 Principles of Placemaking (starting with “The community is the expert”) and the Power of 10 (“the idea that any great place itself needs to offer at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons to be there”). They are firmly positioned as a civic militant organisation, quoting Jane Jacobs and William “Holly” Whyte as inspiration and mentors, and are currently sharing their approach with over 600 international practitioners through the newly-formed Placemaking Leadership Council, which, amongst other goals, aims to “clearly frame the value and “language” of Placemaking” and “develop a common set of standards and indicators”.

pps.org
@PPS_Placemaking

 

The cultural pioneers: Artscape (Canada)

Toronto-based Artscape have also developed a Creative Placemaking Toolbox, based on their experience of opening and running arts centres and artist studios. It’s a very practical resource, with video seminars (such as this conversation with PPS), tip sheets on how to conduct community consultations and work with an architect, an exhaustive series of guides – from funding sources to feasibility studies, planning charrettes and the role of the project manager – templates and examples. There’s also a glossary of urban planning, legal and property management terms, a series of case studies as well as the Artscape Archive documenting 25 years of creative placemaking.

torontoartscape.org
artscapediy.org
@Artscape

 

The community champions: Mend (UK)

Mend is a social enterprise specialising in responsible procurement, planning and placemaking. With an ethos of “Community as Client”, they are not just delivering consultation and strategic services, but also acting as a convenor of ideas by running networking events for different groups. As part of the “Lab”, they look after three networks, each with a different focus, that feed back into their own practice: Urbanistas, “a network for women who love cities, crowdsourcing support for their project or idea” – Planning in the Pub (“the agenda is simple, let’s talk about planning and cities, whilst in the pub”) – and the soon-to-be-launched Source RP, “Responsible Procurement network for the built environment, with a focus on building social value”.

Roman-Road-Mend

Roman Road Vacant Units Project

mendlondon.org.uk
@lianemendsacity
@urbanistasuk
@planninginpubs
@source_rp