Art, Creativity, and Community Development


In the past decade, there has been a lot of conversation regarding the role of the arts and creativity in community development practices. Given the heavy focus of this cultural plan on the other aspects of culture aside from art and creativity, it would be irresponsible to not discuss two of the largest topics of national discussion at this point of intersection, those being, creative placemaking and art-influenced gentrification. Some see these two topics as one and the same, or at the very least intertwined. Whatever viewpoint one may have, it is undeniable that art and creativity can bring enormous benefits to community development efforts - if done in the right way.

Creative Placemaking

Creative Placemaking is a movement that seeks to place arts and culture at the table in conversations regarding comprehensive community development. The concept emerged from work done by the National Endowment for the Arts that sought to leverage other federal government agencies to provide additional support for the arts and the roles that artists play in communities. The idea was that art and artists are uniquely suited to have a significant impact on a community’s sense of place and identity, and that their involvement can bring enormous benefit to community development efforts. 

The concept was more clearly articulated through a white paper commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts. In it, the authors Anne Marusken and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus gave a specific definition to the concept: 

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, 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.

Following the release of this white paper, the National Endowment for the Arts created a program to support creative placemaking projects on a national scale. This support was housed in their Our Town program. The Our Town program, as well as countless philanthropic initiatives, have catapulted creative placemaking into the consciousness of national practitioners. It has shifted the conversation around city design and community development towards one that many agree has a greater potential than traditional community development practices to be adaptive, creative, and dynamic. 

Examples of creative placemaking can be found throughout the country, and can be interpreted in many different ways. Whether it be working with cultural organizers to build relationships across rural and urban divides, using action figures to help community members describe power dynamics in their neighborhood, or working with artists to change perceptions about mass transit, art, creativity, and culture can bring new perspectives to community development.

In the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2016 book How to do Creative Placemaking, countless practitioners from different regions of the US weigh in on their view of creative placemaking. In it, Carlton Turner, from the organization Alternate ROOTS, describes creative placemaking's role:

we must shift the community development process from only engaging an advisory board or team of artists during the implementation phase to working with the creative community from the very beginning…. One example of this, within Alternate ROOTS, is the work of Clear Creek Collective. As cultural organizers in the mountains of central Kentucky, they use indigenous art, folk songs, and storytelling that is very much connected to the identity of their local culture. Through this approach, they offer an entry point for the community to voice their ideas and thoughts on how development happens.


Another conversation regarding the intersection of community development and art is that of art and artists being used as a tactic for economic and real estate development. Largely buoyed by renewed interest in urban living among young professionals, one can see correlations between cities known for their arts as well as rapidly increasing property values - like San Francisco’s Mission District or Brooklyn.

The foundations of this area of tension can be traced to multiple places, but an obvious one is Richard Florida's book The Rise of the Creative Class. In it, Florida articulates that cities should be designed around a new type of consumer - young “creatives” that desire experiences, and want to live in more urban contexts.

While not the sole cause, this has led reorientation of many cities’ development strategies to incentivize infill and redevelopment in their urban cores (trends towards environmental sustainability have also heavily contributed, as have other population trends). The relatively low property values of neighborhoods in these urban cores (largely left behind by the mostly white, affluent outmigration of the 20th century) provide opportunities for artists of this younger generation to find cheap space for both living and working. The common belief is that once artists have made the initial investments, real estate developers can swoop in and make investments in property that eventually drive up housing costs

The well-established belief that artists are the “pioneers” of development by being the first people on the ground in neighborhoods that are ripe for economic transformation has been touched on frequently. In a 2013 article, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, one of the co-authors of the original Creative Placemaking white paper, attempts to untangle the culpability of artists in wholesale neighborhood change. In it, she says: “The role of artists as gentrifiers is, unfortunately, deeply entrenched in our collective popular imagination. People intuitively feel artists are attracted to down and out neighborhoods and can invest sweat equity, money, and artist juju into properties.” Nicodemus goes on to articulate that neighborhoods gentrified through the efforts of artists are often highly visible - while neighborhoods gentrified without the involvement of artists do not necessarily get the same amount of attention or scrutiny. 

This conflict has muddied the waters around the intentions behind creative placemaking efforts. Some take a look at the role that artists have played in gentrification and interpret the spread of creative placemaking as a more intentional and focused version of this type of arts-based gentrification. In How to do Creative Placemaking, Maria Lopez de Leon  (Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures) discusses this tension:

Fortunately, there exist today many examples of successful creative placemaking models that work with diverse communities…

For example, in Puerto Rican neighborhoods within New York, Philadelphia, and many other locales, there exists the tradition of the Casitas. These are creative, social hubs for the performance of music, dance, and other expressions that transmit cultural knowledge to the broader city and engage participants not merely as audiences or consumers, but as interpreters of a shared experience. Creative placemaking practitioners are well-placed to strategically focus on the thousands of grassroots arts and cultural organizations like these in neighborhoods across the country, and invest in the growth and stabilization of “already made” creative sites and contribute to their growth and stabilization.

Unfortunately, unhealthy models of creative placemaking also exist in neighborhoods across our country, models that result in gentrification and the eventual displacement of the people who call that place home. This work often results in the disarticulation of a community’s cultural practices and its replacement with a culture driven simply by financial imperatives. An example that comes to mind is the ongoing gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District, where a predominantly Latino working class is being displaced by skyrocketing rents and increased costs of housing. Many Latino artists and cultural practitioners and organizations, such as Galeria de la Raza and the Mission Cultural Center—who have lived and worked in the Mission District for decades—have been priced out of their homes and work spaces.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus also talks about this in a post on create.equity, where she explains that given creative placemaking’s focus on cross-sector relationships, power dynamics that are already at play in the greater scheme of things (that mayors and developers have more political and social capital than artists do) could continue to play out, changing the intent behind creative placemaking projects. Specifically, she says that “though creative placemaking initiatives can and often do empower artists, they also run the risk of paying lip service to artist involvement or worse, even using them for nefarious purposes like the exaggerated ‘shock troops’ of gentrification claim that has caught hold of our collective imagination.”

A white paper funded by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town program studying the role of arts and neighborhood change showed that the impact that the arts have on neighborhood change depended on the types of arts activities that were present. Specifically: “We find that different arts activities are associated with different types and levels of neighborhood change. Commercial arts industries show the strongest association with gentrification in rapidly changing areas while the fine arts are associated with stable, slow growth neighborhoods.” It should not be a surprise that communities which contain profit-driven arts sectors are more likely to produce economic conditions for gentrification and its correlated outcomes.

When trying to identify the impact of this creative placemaking/community development/gentrification/art intersection in any given community, it must be approached from a nuanced and context-dependent viewpoint. There are risks of over-simplification in attempting to create a framework to determine in what cases these intersections are “positive” or “negative” for a community. However, there is a thread that can be pulled through many of the examples and discussions brought up in this section which can serve as an overarching tendency. Art and creativity, when focused on processes and non-commercial products, tends to play a positive role in community development efforts, as distinguished from a product-based or commercial role.

El Sistema & Art as a Community Development Process

One clear example of art applied as a process for community development is the El Sistema music education pedagogy.

El Sistema was founded by Dr. Antonio Jose Abreau, an economist in the Venezuelan government. It has become an internationally recognized practice of community, social, and cognitive development through the intensive application of group musical instruction. Since its beginnings in the 1970s, it has received acclaim from across the world, including being awarded the UNESCO International Music Prize, the United Nations International Arts Prize, and has gained recognition as a UNICEF National Ambassador program. Abreau himself was named UNESCO Peace Ambassador. 

El Sistema, at its core, is a youth development program that focuses on a mission of social change that is executed through group musical learning. Its unofficial mantra “Tocar y Luchar” roughly translates to “To Play and To Fight.” It uses music to enable all individuals who participate to feel as though they are an asset within their community, and differs from traditional music education in significant ways. Artistically, El Sistema generally is based in orchestral music, but can also include choral and popular music. 

El Sistema programs generally are place-based, focusing on a centralized location called a “nucelo,” and it generally focuses on a specific geographic area such as a neighborhood. The location is consistent, close to where participants live, and generally functions as a safe space for learning and camaraderie amongst participants where they are encouraged to explore their potential. Participants usually start at a young age (7 or 8), but can include all ages up through adults.

El Sistema differs from traditional western music education in many ways, including a focus on intensity and group learning.  

Participants spend a significant amount of time rehearsing at their nucleo, many hours per day, and almost all days of the week, often up to four hours per day, six days per week. These consistent rehearsals demand a commitment and personal responsibility from participants, and teach a strong work ethic. Through frequent rehearsals and performances, students have many opportunities to excel and to share their accomplishments with their peers, family and community. 

In traditional music education, you learn on your own for the privilege of playing with others; in El Sistema, the focus is on learning with others first. This change in approach gives all participants an ownership of the creation process, and gives them responsibility for their own development, as well as the development of the collective.  This collective orchestra acts as a model society in which an atmosphere of competition between individuals is replaced by shared struggle and achievement.

From a youth development perspective, El Sistema focuses on access and excellence. There are no restrictions for entry into the programs, which usually cost nothing to the participants. It includes as many children as it can, bringing young people into its community whenever possible, as young as possible, for as long as possible, whatever their background or abilities.

As El Sistema strives single-mindedly toward musical excellence for all students, it also provides intensive training at “Academies” for the most committed and gifted, preparing them for the highest-level national orchestras and cultivating them as leaders in their own communities. In this way and others, the ideals of access and excellence are maintained in a productive balance that maximizes both the fullest success for all and highest accomplishment for some.

Family participation is an essential goal of El Sistema. Siblings often go to the same nucleo, parents attend classes with the youngest students, and families form the bulk of the audience at orchestra concerts. Many nucleos also include musical ensembles that involve parents of the participants, and all actively work to involve the community at large it through frequent performances.

Additionally, each nucleo is tied to the many other nucleos that form the El Sistema network. These interdependent relationships are manifested through events such as “seminarios,” which are intensive, project-based musical retreats where orchestras share repertoire, streamline technique, and build personal and institutional relationships. By uniting students and teachers from disparate parts of the country, the nucleo network embodies the El Sistema ideals of sharing and learning.

El Sistema asserts that all human beings have the right to a life of dignity and contribution, and that every child can learn to experience and express music and art deeply, and receive its many benefits.

The North End of Lexington has its own El Sistema program - North Limestone MusicWorks - which operates out of the Loudoun House in Castlewood Park.

MusicWorks draws over 40 students daily from Arlington Elementary and surrounding school districts for 2.5 hours of group musical development. Founded in 2013 by Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras, in a partnership with the North Limestone CDC, MusicWorks has grown from a small group of participants to two performing ensembles that rehearse five days per week from 3:00pm - 5:30pm. The entire program - which is staffed by a program director and two teaching-artists- runs on an annual budget of $75,000, amounting to an annual investment of roughly $1,875 per child, since MusicWorks is completely free to participants.

Anna Hess, the program director of MusicWorks, describes that the program has “an ability to create empathy among students,” and gives participants as young as 6 or 7 the ability to be “bold and brave in a safe space, allowing all of the participants to lead.” She also noted that in discussion with the elementary teachers of MusicWorks participants, many teachers noticed significant improvements in the confidence and self-esteem of those that had participated in the program.

In many respects, El Sistema is a perfect model for the use of artistic practice and process to achieve community development aims. Its approach to education, youth empowerment, and group health is not motivated by profit, but by community betterment. It strives to achieve the same aims as many social service organizations, but it does so through creativity, self-expression, and group development.

There are also many things that community development practitioners can learn from El Sistema. El Sistema teaches that one never arrives, but is always in a state of becoming—striving to include more, achieve greater excellence, and grow as an ensemble. Flexibility, experimentation, risk-taking, and collective struggle and growth are inherent and desirable aspects of every El Sistema program. All of these principles are principles that should be shared by community development practitioners.

MusicWorks Performance. Courtesy: MusicWorks