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Our Town, and Not the Play: What Does The NEA Program Actually Do?

Astute readers of our e-mail grant newsletter may have noticed the unusual project description for the Our Town program: “Grants to engage in ‘creative placemaking,’ or improving places and installing art to make them friendlier to communities.”

But what does that mean? The RFP is even more opaque than our description:

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.

Does “shap[ing] the physical and social character” mean building stuff? Drawing stuff on walls? Tearing stuff down? Giving money to artists? The RFP specifies that it has $25,000 to $150,000 available, which probably isn’t enough to open a generic Starbucks, let alone engage in “creative placemaking,” which is a bureaucrat phrase if I’ve ever seen one. Substantial projects involving new structures or major rehabilitations of old structures could easily blow through $100,000 in engineering and design work.

Fortunately, the RFP forbids direct construction activities but doesn’t say that up front. On the other hand, “Predevelopment, design fees, community planning, and installation of public art are eligible.” Which is another way of saying, “This program is designed to fund meetings,” and “creative placemaking” means working as hard as you can to mention the word “arts” as many times as possible in your proposal and tying whatever existing projects are on your community’s dockets into this program.

This is the kind of grant that’s ideal for a city or town or redevelopment agency that’s already been reading up on Richard Florida and has some project in the works. It’s also good for organizations that want to have meetings and keep at least one or two of their planners busy. But it doesn’t have enough money associated to make a real difference to organizations trying to rehabilitate a neighborhood; it’s a cherry that goes with an existing project.

Where’d this come from?

I mentioned Richard Florida in the last paragraph because he wrote, among other things, an obnoxious but possible accurate book called The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life, which argues that the world’s latte-sippers and Mac-laptop-tinkerers and beret-wearing artists and so forth are congregating in certain places and are key to transformational changes in today’s economy. He might even be right. Florida, along with Edward Glaeser (Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier) and a bunch of urban sociologists, has been studying what makes some cities and metropolitan areas in the U.S. so vibrant and successful (think New York, Seattle, and Austin, Texas) while others wither (think Detroit, most obviously, and, until recently, Pittsburgh). His answer: smart, artsy people in non-manufacturing industries. The kinds of people who need so-called “third places” like Starbucks where they can go hang out and sketch in their Rhodia Webbies (I am sometimes one of these people, by the way, which is why I can speak of them as I do).* And if they have a sweet mural or whatever nearby to look at, they’re more likely to come up with the next iteration of Facebook and tell their friends to move nearby.

That’s the theory, anyway, and in Our Town we’re seeing the ideas of Florida, Glaeser, Howard Shultz, and others filter from the land of academia and magazines into “Here’s some money, but not enough to do much that is significant.” For nonprofit and public agencies who apply, this is, in essence, a sort of inspirational grant; good for getting things going, not quite big enough to have a real impact, but better—way better—than nothing.

Something almost always is.

* My favorite coffee shop in Tucson is Caffe Luce, which is also conveniently situated next to the university.