By: Whitney Suzanne Klotz
“It’s About Using the Arts to Make a Place Better”: Creative Placemaking in Southern Arizona
The above was spoken by National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman during a panel discussion on the topic of creative placemaking. The discussion was held in February of this year in my city of residence, Tucson, Arizona. Joining Landesman were three local arts professionals.
I became so interested in the topic of creative placemaking that following my attendance of the panel discussion, I conducted individual interviews with each of the local panelists with the intent of sharing my conversations through this blog. What follows is the most stimulating and museum-relevant content of my interviews.
On February 28, 2012, my afternoon was hijacked by the Arizona State Museum’s Director of Education, Lisa Falk. With Lisa behind the wheel, we hurriedly made our way into downtown Tucson, all the while munching on Trader Joe’s chocolate mints, a “survival treat” I grabbed in preparation for an afternoon of the unknown.
As it turned out, we ended up in an air-conditioned auditorium for a casual yet intellectual panel discussion on the concept of creative placemaking. The panelists included a guest of honor, the National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman and three local arts professionals, namely Maribel Alvarez, University of Arizona (UA) Southwest Studies Center Social Scientist and Program Director of Tucson Meet Yourself, Gail Browne, Executive Director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and Bill Mackey, Instructor in the University of Arizona School of Architecture and the creative mind behind Worker, Inc., “a company that specializes in promoting change in the built environment” (Worker, Inc. Web site).
So, what exactly is creative placemaking? Well, as I learned, creative placemaking has a variety of meanings and applications depending upon who is engaging in it. Landesman’s definition of creative placemaking gives us a foundation on which to build our understanding: “Creative placemaking is about how the arts can change and transform places, where the arts can intersect with the real world…It’s about using the arts to make [a] place better” (as shared during February 28 panel discussion).
Mackey, an architect, applies his building and design background in artistic ways that serve to intellectually mobilize the Tucson community. His unique configuration of interests and skills springs from his passion for understanding how people use space.
Currently, his work involves teaching an Honors undergraduate course in exhibition development. One such run of the course culminated in You Are Here: UA and Downtown!, exhibited in the fall of 2011. First, students explored the City of Tucson through various class readings and then they experienced the practicum portion of the class. Mackey posed the following question: “What have you figured out about the city?” Myriad responses ensued, resulting in an agreed upon unifying exhibition theme: an exploration of how the University of Arizona community views downtown Tucson. Through the use of videos, urban checklists, interactive overlay maps, postcards, graphics, and survey results, You are Here: UA and Downtown! invited visitors to think about the UA and its complex relationship with downtown Tucson.
Mackey is also currently pursuing an independent project (with the help of a few others) entitled Worker Transit Authority. The project revolves around a mock transit authority, the Worker Transit Authority, and uses it as a point of reference to critically explore how land is used in relation to transportation. According to Mackey, “Everything you see in a city is based on transportation. The whole built environment is based on how we move ourselves and goods around.” Like the Honors undergraduate course, Worker Transit Authority will culminate in an exhibition (on display through the early part of this month) or rather as Mackey describes it, a “planning event.” The planning event will encourage its attendees to think critically about how they navigate their city – Tucson. Attendees will be able to sign on to fake city planning committees, meet fake city planning officials, and map out how they, over the course of a week, inhabit Tucson.
Mackey reminds us to do work – create exhibitions, produce programming – that resonates with visitors and how they understand themselves vis-à-vis the here and the now. We can certainly still develop exhibitions that explore people and places long passed, but we must incorporate into those exhibitions components that place the exhibition content in a contemporary context. We must create opportunities for visitors to meaningfully connect their being, their sense of self, to the content.
I must admit that I’m not much of a reader, especially of poetry, but after my conversation with Browne, the Executive Director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and a tour of the Poetry Center’s facilities, I’m intrigued. You just might find me musing over a poem in the meditation garden of the Poetry Center or listening, via voca, the Poetry Center’s Audio Video Library, to Lucille Clifton read her “Homage to My Hips” (a poem shared with me by Tony Luebbermann, a most friendly and inspiring individual who serves on the Poetry Center’s Development Committee, as well as acts as a Poetry Center docent).
In 2007, after many years of periodic relocation, the Poetry Center was able to move into its current home, one intended just for it and one that was built with the purpose of facilitating an impressive public outreach calendar. As Browne states, “The idea of community is so central to where the Poetry Center is now.” Such an evaluation is certainly true, as the Poetry Center provides year-round public programming that meets the needs of a broad audience. It is through its programming that the Poetry Center seeks to create what Browne calls a “community of readers.” These readers engage in Family Days, poetry readings, art exhibitions, lectures, classes, creative writing workshops and Shop Talks – a relaxed program of lecture and peer conversation that allows interested individuals to become familiar with and gain a better understanding of the writings of a poet who will read at the Poetry Center.
The Poetry Center also supports Poetry Out Loud, a national contest for high school students for which contestants memorize and publicly recite poetry. Additionally, the Poetry Center supports a contest of its own making, namely the annual Corrido Contest. For this uniquely Southwestern (more specifically borderlands) contest, participants must author a corrido (a Mexican musical ballad form) of his/her own and he/she may do so in either English or Spanish. Much to Browne’s joy, the popularity of the Corrido Contest has greatly increased over the years, with submissions coming not only from the contest’s city of origin, but from outlying communities like Rio Rico and Nogales. Browne views the upward swing as evidence of people and their communities taking pride of ownership in the contest.
Browne reminds us to intentionally foster the personal growth (intellectual and otherwise) of our visitors. What skills and what knowledge do we want our visitors to develop or gain as a result of their engagement with our institutions? For the Poetry Center, they seek to create a community of readers – individuals interested in and capable of immersing themselves in poetry who gain something from their investment, whether it simply be a moment of relaxation or a more sophisticated understanding of the world in which they live.
Alvarez has a rather unusual and enviable employment arrangement at the University of Arizona, one that allows her to engage in the academic world as a social scientist and university instructor, but also one that allows her to interact with the wider Tucson community as a key staff member of a local community organization. Alvarez serves as the Program Director for Tucson Meet Yourself, a folklife festival held every year in the Old Pueblo (Tucson). Tucson Meet Yourself was created using the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival as its blueprint. For one long weekend, 65 different ethnic communities, along with folk communities, who call Tucson and the greater Arizona-Sonora region home, share their histories and cultures with the public in an apolitical and celebratory atmosphere. The festival attendees are, as Alvarez puts it, “willing to contaminate themselves in public spaces and hear different languages, eat different foods, dance to different tunes.” After nearly 40 years, Tucson Meet Yourself is looking to deepen and widen its cultural preservation impact, with Alvarez taking lead on the responsibility to transition Tucson Meet Yourself from a one-event effort to a year-round series of public programs.
What is particularly intriguing is Alvarez’s approach to this challenge. For her, understanding and applying the backstory of a place, of a community, to its current existence or formation is fundamental to effectively working within in it and for it. Such an approach assists her in comprehending varying points-of-view and getting a hold on the overall social makeup of a community.
As she lives and works in Tucson, Alvarez has devoted much time to delving into the desert city’s local and regional histories. She uses mythologies of the historical West to better understand those histories, defining the mythologies as “elaborate works of the imagination that attach [us] to the land” and that serve as a way to conceptualize a cultural/historical landscape. Within mythologies, of course, there are people or characters. Alvarez described several of the characters who reside in the historical West: the bohemian or the creative spirit who loses (figuratively) him/herself in the open, vast expanse of undefiled nature; the individual who engineers new ways to use the land and its resources (i.e. miners, railroad magnates and workers); and the individual who seeks to regulate society through law and order. For Alvarez, these various historical characters are still alive today, though they are 21st-century embodiments: Mackey is the individual intrigued by the interaction between land, space and people, eager to investigate the built world and perhaps as eager to deconstruct it and build anew; Browne is the bohemian, compelled to express herself through poetry even in an environment as intense and unforgiving as the Sonoran Desert; and Alvarez is the folklorist/anthropologist who takes it all in, critically analyzing the various events, processes, and people.
Alvarez reminds us to understand the place and the function of our institutions within their respective communities and within their greater geographic and cultural regions, and to do so by taking a good, long look at our institutions’ local and regional histories. We must seek to understand the myriad social, political, economic, and environmental factors that were in play and recognize that such factors are still in motion today, though in different forms.
So, to return to creative placemaking and museums: after much musing over the concept of creative placemaking – what it is and what it means – I believe that museums are actively engaging in it in one form or another on a worldwide basis. And, I think that the individuals profiled above engage in creative placemaking in ways that remind us of its critical components. I think their work provides models for us all.
Many thanks to Lisa Falk, hijacker of afternoons, for making me really think about place, culture, people and museums (creative placemaking) and for introducing me to three individuals who all possess an uncommon combination of great intelligence, insight, and energy, and who are applying their nexuses of qualities in ways that are creating a better Tucson.
Whitney Suzanne Klotz has worked in the Education office at the Arizona State Museum (ASM) in Tucson, Arizona. ASM promotes the understanding of the Native peoples of the Southwest and northern Mexico. She holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Arizona and a master’s degree in museum studies from The George Washington University.