Placemaking through the Arts

A couple of weeks ago, Sara reflected on the importance of culture-making to our experience of place. She said, “I want to suggest that it is our making of culture within a place that preserves our ‘place’ within it.” While Sara, citing Andy Crouch, didn’t mention the arts specifically in this process of placemaking, it seems to me that they play a central role in the way that we go about making and identifying with “places.” In this post, I wanted to reflect a bit further on the specifically artistic component of placemaking by introducing you to some trends in community arts development, and further suggest that placemaking through the arts is an important, though neglected, point of theological reflection. Who we are as God’s creatures is tied up in the fact that we are makers in all sorts of ways, and this relates directly with our being and belonging “in place.”

I recently came across an article on art-based placemaking in communities which really drove home the practical implications of my own research here at ITIA. The article cited major organizations whose focus is not only in the arts, but in the way the arts contribute to the sense of place in community. Furthermore, it focused on the fact that if community redevelopment plans are ever going to work, we must focus on cultivating an atmosphere of “making;” that is, the community itself must be involved in the making of place over a period of time. “There’s a real understanding among the more sophisticated and progressive end that, if you want cultural vitality, you invest in makers—period,” Jan Brooks says.[1] While this may not seem like a novel idea, it is actually a fairly recent practice in community arts development to focus on “grassroots” movements and an atmosphere of “making” grounded in the inhabitants’ relationships to the place.

The 1960s and 70s saw the rise of site-specific and environmental art, a type of artistry that has obvious implications for the art-place dialogue. But this time period also relates a history of government arts organizations that failed to involve the community’s inhabitants adequately. Especially in major cities, artists were often brought in from the outside to produce a site-specific piece of art, supposedly with the intention to create a “sense of place” or connection to the environment. However, these projects often failed miserably due to a lack of interest and participation from the community that actually lived there. When the artist left and the government had received their media attention, the art was often left to a state of disorder. The local community, because it had no involvement in the planning or production of the art, had no interest in preserving it. Furthermore, it contributed in no way to the community’s own local sense of place.[2]

More recent arts organizations in America have learned from these failures and initiated plans that focus on working from within the community. ArtPlaceAmerica is one example of this trend, and the National Endowment for the Arts’ project OurTown gives grants to communities seeking “creative placemaking” initiatives. While these projects don’t downplay the benefit of seeking outside artistic influence and contributions, their main focus is on cultivating an atmosphere of making from within.

While there is much praise to be given to these organizations, that is not the main point of this post. None of these examples relate any kind of religious significance of arts-based placemaking, and that, of course, is not what they have set out to do. But I want to suggest that the types of activities that these organizations are doing have a profoundly theological significance. Many times on this blog, we have suggested that art need not be explicitly “Christian” to be religiously meaningful, and I think the point applies here with as much force as ever.

So why do I think arts-based placemaking invites theological reflection?

  • Because place is central to who we are as humans. As God’s creatures, we are invited to participate in and make places in the world around us. Adam was invited to “till and keep” the garden. The Israelites were commanded to build houses and make gardens in the land. While scripture often takes for granted the primary experience of place and its effect on human identity (this is a matter of rather recent philosophical reflection), it communicates the fact that places form a meeting point between humans with God, each other, and the rest of the non-human creation. The way that people engage with and “make” the places they live in reflects their attitudes about each of these.
  • Making, moreover, artistic making, is a matter of scriptural concern. God often commanded his people to make things in response to and participation with his purposes. Bezalel’s artistry for the tabernacle and Noah’s building of the ark reflect this concern.
  • While the stated goals of most community arts organizations are not religious in concern, the fact that they engage in the transformation of society puts them within the realm of religious action. A significant branch of theology of the arts suggests that the arts have a transformative role that is spiritually significant. Both John de Gruchy and Jeremy Begbie attest to this idea, and their theologies of art remind me of the importance of dealing with arts-based placemaking movements like the ones cited above.  While we need not place all art within a theology of the New Creation, we can certainly understand that our concerns for placemaking and societal transformation reflect a concern for a renewed Creation. As we engage in placemaking, we might find that the arts, as a primary locus of transformation in society, will help us reflect our concerns for place, communicate the history and tradition communities in a given place, and transform our understanding of the world so that we can more actively make and respectfully reflect our relationship to places within the world around us.
Do you think the arts have contributed to the sense of place in your own community? What other types of “making” do you see as being important to the cultivation of community and place?


[1] http://www.sfreporter.com/santafe/article-6355-new-formula.html

[2] Miwon Kwon, in her book, One Place After Another, relates this history of community arts development and site-specific plans.

6 Comments

  • ryan stander says:

    Nice post Jenn. I have been recently working on a syllabus on for a course art and place and your comments on environmental art are appreciated. Your first bullet point is well said…thanks.

    You quote Sara’s piece from a bit back, “I want to suggest that it is our making of culture within a place that preserves our ‘place’ within it.” To me, as I read this it feels a little “squishy.” I wonder, is culture cultivated from place or space? Yi-Fu Tuan would argue that space is open arena of action while place is to be equated with intentionality, experience, involvement, etc. Place is conducive of meaning and community. To me, as I read the statement (and perhaps I should go back to post this under her posting) I wonder if it should be said “I want to suggest that it is our making of culture within a [space or location] that preserves our ‘place’ within it.” It does seem a strong correlation between place making and culture making, especially considering some of Edward Casey’s terminology of topocosm (well-ordered place), cosmogenesis (ordered making or creation of both the world and worldview), topogenesis (place making but associated with memory, ritual, virtues).

  • Jenn Craft says:

    Ryan,
    Thanks for your comments! Your class sounds great! I guess the issue with Sara’s comment is really a matter of terminology, and I’d imagine that your revised version is along the lines of what she meant. For most part, it seems like people stick to the terms as Tuan uses them, but you get the occasional person who interchanges space and place or uses the terms in slightly different ways (the French philosophers are notorious for this). I guess because place is so multivalent in its meaning, you have to make sure you are starting on the same page as someone else!

    I definitely think culture-making and place-making have a strong correlation. If you consider place to include things beyond just the physical location, so the memories, events, traditions, stories and people that are associated with the place (essentially, the “culture” of the place) then its the next logical step. I’d emphasize art further as one of the main ways that we make, express, and transform culture. In many studies of place, especially from a theological perspective, you’ll find some “practical applications” of a concept of placemaking as an appendix or conclusion. What is interesting about this is that while gardening, city-planning, and church architecture are often on those lists, there is very rarely a discussion of art! But this seems to be one of the main and most practical ways that we engage in placemaking! Needless to say, I’m excited by all the work going on in the art world regarding place, and hope that theologians will begin to bring the arts more into their discussions of place in the future!

  • Steve Scott says:

    I recommend

    `Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art ‘
    Grant H. Kester.

  • ryan stander says:

    Hi Sara. I agree…it is exciting to see place emerging within the arts and theological discussions. It is the focus of much of my work and PhD application proposals for next year. Have you read Craig Bartholomew’s recent volume on place? A friend just pointed it out to me but I haven’t been able to dig into it yet. My work is on the liturgical formation of a spatial imagination…really just the Catholic/sacramental imagination that is attuned towards issues and practices of place. Hopefully I can find somewhere to pursue this line of studies. Thanks again for your thoughts.

    • Jenn Craft says:

      Ryan,

      I’ve read Bartholmew’s work and I’ll be posting a review of it shortly on Transpositions. It’s a really great and much needed study! He only very briefly mentions the arts though. 🙂 Your work sounds interesting. Have you read Philip Sheldrake’s Spaces for the Sacred? He deals with those sorts of issues you mentioned.

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