Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Milwaukee discusses creative placemaking

This afternoon Turner Hall ballroom was packed with a diverse crowd. Business executives, philanthropists, architects, environmentalists, educators, politicians and—yes—artists of all stripes gathered for a forum and discussion of placemaking.

Placemaking can be defined in a variety of ways, according to Alice Carle of the Kresge Foundation. “But art needs to be at the table,” she added, with emphasis. Lyz Crane, Deputy Director of ArtPlace America went further. Creative placemaking is “anything where you are doing art to create a sense of place” or to “shape the future” of a place.

They should know. The Kresge Foundation and ArtPlace America are major funders of placemaking projects. In 2013 Milwaukee was the recipient of a substantial grant from ArtPlace America for Creational Trails: A Placemaking Experience.

Crane was quick to add that “everyone in the room,” not just the artists, had a stake in the process. She also made a point of distinguishing between using “creative” as an adjective and an adverb; a place can be made creative but placemaking is done creatively.

The diversity of the crowd was no accident. “Cross-disciplinary” and  “connectivity” were themes repeated by many of the panelists, who themselves represented many of the various disciplines required to engage in successful placemaking. The format had a pair from each discipline onstage at a time, one from Milwaukee and the other from out of town. In addition to the philanthropic community, there were elected officials, developers, community organizers, city planners, and leaders in higher education.

Between the pairs of panelists we were informed about a series of six local case studies that exemplify placemaking: America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Creational Trails, The Harmony Initiative, In:Site: Art on Fon du Lac Ave., Islands of Milwaukee, and Three Bridges Park/Menomonee Valley.

The panelists were well prepared and insightful, I thought. And from where I sat the audience seemed both attentive and engaged. The room was abuzz for quite a while afterwards. It will be interested to see what becomes of the energy generated.

Here are a few other snippets about placemaking that caught my attention.

Placemaking must be unique to the place and build on existing community assets. It must engage with the community authentically. The sectors of a community must “get out of their silos” and work together. Efforts by one sector can act as a catalyst for change in others.

The arts are essential because they help us to see things in new ways. Arts and culture also can bring together disparate segments of a community.

Neil Hoffman, president of MIAD, reminded the audience of what a risk it was to move the school to the Third Ward. At that time, he said, far from having its current trendy reputation, it was a “war zone” where students needed an escort to cross the street. He suggested that groups and institutions should change their perspective. The nearly reflexive question, “What do we need?” should be turned around: “What do we have to offer?”

When asked to provide an example of a successful project, alderman Michael Murphy cited the Menomonee Valley and said, “We’ve been doing creative placemaking for twenty years; we just didn’t know it was called that.”

The two developers on the panel, Milwaukee's Barry Mandel and Omar Blaik, from Philadelphia, PA, each described how the inclusion of arts added value to their developments. Arts and culture "bring vibrancy to cities,"said Mandel. Responding to the question, "What do people want from community?" Blaik replied, "People want human interaction." He added that the trend in the U.S. towards single use development is backwards; it leads to segregation. Mixed use developments that include the arts energize places and stimulate interaction.

I don’t remember who said it but pride was mentioned more than once. The arts do more than “activate” places; they give a city something to root for. Alderman Murphy asserted that even controversial art was good for the community. Some people love it, some may hate it, but art, he said, generates “passion."

Amen to that.

The forum was jointly sponsored by The Greater Milwaukee Committee, Mandel Group, Inc. and The Creative Alliance.