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