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Jaron Bernstein

Creative Placemaking In Practicum: Cultivating Affordable Creative Spaces with Artspace

by Jaron Bernstein Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Creative Placemaking is such a topic du jour in the arts world that it’s a term bordering on the point of jargon, though truly it was only coined a few years ago – perhaps most definitively in a whitepaper written by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa for The Mayors’ Institute on City Design (a joint initiative of the NEA, United States Conference of Mayors and American Architectural Foundation). Community-centered art projects and organizations have existed across the country for much longer, but with funders and other civic stakeholders rapidly catching on to the value of the art and its power to build, shape and even revitalize communities – culturally, socially, economically – Creative Placemaking has occupied much of the conversation around the proverbial arts dinner table of late. The Bolz Center has been a leader in these conversations (one of the reasons I decided to come back to school here), and not surprisingly much of our class time in Year 1 was devoted to the discussion of Creative Placemaking: distinguishing it from public art in general, analyzing its benefits and shortcomings, reflecting on its potential for and exploring possibilities to avoid gentrification. But for all our thought-provoking discussions, our exploration was theoretical in nature. And as someone who hopes to forge a career in this amorphous and rapidly changing field, I hoped to use the opportunity of my summer internship to learn more about the practical application of Creative Placemaking theory. Who are the individuals/organizations actually doing Creative Placemaking work, and would they even define it that way? What does that work look like?

In this sense, I hit the jackpot with Artspace Projects. I first learned of Artspace through the Bolz Center’s previously forged connections, including Bolz alumna Jessie Wright (’17), who interned with Artspace last summer. When Wendy Holmes, SVP of Consulting and Strategic Partnerships at Artspace, came to Madison to give a presentation about Artspace’s work to Bolz students and our classmates from the James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate, it was clear not only that Artspace is a Creative Placemaking leader (its slogan is “Building better communities through the arts”), but also that, having been around since 1979 (well before the term was first used), the organization’s expertise transcended any particular definition and was an example of the actual, on-the-ground efforts to infuse the arts into community planning and development that inspired the coining of the phrase “Creative Placemaking” in the first place.

Based in Minneapolis, Artspace is a national non-profit real estate developer whose mission is to “create, foster, and preserve affordable space for artists and arts organizations.” Initially formed as an advocacy group when Minneapolis’ formerly derelict, artist-friendly North Loop neighborhood started to become unaffordable for the artists who the City had encouraged to move there in the first place, Artspace soon realized that the best way to ensure the existence of affordable space for artists was to develop it themselves. After quickly cultivating an expertise in real estate – particularly public funding mechanisms such as Low-Income Housing and Historic Preservation Tax Credits – Artspace grew beyond the Twin Cities into a national leader in arts-focused real estate. Today, Artspace has 50 projects in operation or active development in more than 20 states across the country. Most of its properties are mixed-use developments – integrating creative commercial and/or working studio space with affordable live/work units featuring artist-specific amenities, such as open floor plans, large windows, durable surfaces, wider doors and hallways, and approximately 150 square feet more space (for in-unit artistic workspace) than the typical affordable unit. Unlike many affordable housing real estate developers, Artspace continues to own and operate its properties well after the federally required compliance periods to ensure the space remains affordable and geared towards artists.

This summer, I have been fortunate to join Artspace as a member of the Consulting and Strategic Partnerships team, which often acts as the first touchpoint between Artspace and new communities. When an interested party – a civic government agency, community development corporation, nonprofit organization, or sometimes an individual artist – contacts Artspace about a need for affordable creative space in their community, the CSP team works with them initially to determine a path forward. Some communities have a specific vision and/or property in mind when they reach out, others are looking for guidance about the possibilities and necessary steps towards a creative space development. Either way, Artspace Consulting approaches the community with the eye of a consultant to help determine what their needs are and how best to move forward for that community. In this way, Artspace is a community development consultant at heart; sometimes the consultation results in the recommendation for an Artspace development, sometimes it doesn’t. Though this process serves as the main way Artspace identifies opportunities for new properties, the CSP team first and foremost helps a community develop a plan to build and support its creative sector through affordable space, whether or not Artspace remains involved in the long-term.

Seeing first-hand how Artspace approaches its work, and the prominent role the CSP team plays in that approach, has been truly inspiring to me. Not only has the experience helped answer some of my questions about the real-world manifestations of Creative Placemaking, it has also dovetailed nicely with my MBA experience. My market research and data analysis skills have come in handy when compiling updates on the Arts Market surveys that Artspace conducts to determine demand in a community. Additionally, I’ve drawn on experiences from our Marketing, Strategy, and Arts Seminar courses when researching and helping to write Preliminary Feasibility reports or thinking about how best to synthesize community data into clear presentations of findings. It’s also my first experience working in a consulting role, interacting with clients and providing them value while managing expectations, which I’m sure will prepare me for our Consulting Capstone course this coming year.

It has been incredibly gratifying to participate as a member of the CSP team this summer, helping to share Artspace’s expertise with communities across the country – from towns as small as 900 like Ridgway, CO; to burgeoning suburbs like Bloomington, MN, and Bellevue, WA; to bustling urban centers like Kansas City, MO, and San Francisco. Each of these communities faces unique challenges they hope to address through the creation and preservation of affordable space for artists, and with Artspace’s help, they all can find a path to achieving their civic and cultural goals. I’m lucky to have been a part of that literal, tangible Creative Placemaking – work that I hope to continue in some form post-graduation.