Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Progress in Downtown Newark: Equitable for Whom?

By Marcy Thompson, Guest Contributor
On March 18th, about 150 energetic leaders from across the nonprofit, private and government sectors descended on the campus of Rutgers University - Newark for a day-long convening: The Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit 2016.

Hosted by The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking, the Leadership Summit promised
The plenary discussion explored creative placemaking in Newark
something for everyone. And “everyone” included leaders in federal, state, county and municipal government agencies; foundations; real estate development; cultural organizations; community and local economic development organizations; urban planning and design organizations; and universities.  Dozens of organizations were represented, and all attendees were called upon to weigh in with their expertise.

I count myself as an avid supporter of the benefits of creative placemaking. But, as the co-founder and Director of a small, New Jersey-based performing arts non-profit, and the chair of a local arts council, I often have doubts that my efforts in the creative placemaking field have much impact at all. Rather than watching riverfronts revitalize, or factory spaces transform into hives of creativity, mine is the slow and painstaking work of making sure that my community supports our greatest natural resource: artists. I feared that any “expertise” I might offer might actually come across as nail-biting frustration, or downright apathy – at best disguised as patience.

But the field of creative placemaking represents a broad representation of interests, including small fries like me as well as large, endowed institutions. And on that day, I was determined to see where my efforts fit into that continuum.

Summit-goers had plenty to talk about during the day
The theme for the Leadership Summit this year is one that has echoed across the non-profit industry in the recent past: how does equity factor into creative placemaking? Terms like equity, fairness, social justice, and equality have long bubbled up in conversations around civic engagement, urban planning, and philanthropy, and have now reached full boil. The Ford Foundation has set its entire agenda — and its annual half billion dollars in grants — around removing barriers to inequality. Other grantmakers share similar concerns, and the list is growing.

Nowhere is the question of equity more important than in Newark, New Jersey, where a tremendous amount of investment has been made in and around the downtown Military Park area. The Leadership Summit’s opening panel – including Newark leaders Nancy Cantor, Jeremy Johnson, John Schreiber and Ohmeed Sathe – explored the topic as it relates to creative placemaking. A question early on by Jeremy Johnson, the newly-named Director of the Newark Arts Council, caught my attention: “Is equity in Newark geographic? How do we connect greater Newark to the activity in downtown?”  In a city with a 30% poverty rate (the highest in New Jersey), comprised of five distinct wards, how are all citizens reaping the benefits of Newark’s “Re-lifing,” as Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark so cleverly put it.

Given the degree of Newark’s steep uphill climb, the question of equity is actually more acute than the panel’s title might let on. The conversation’s subtext was more like: who is being re-lifed, and who is doing the re-lifing?

John Schreiber, CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, sees the role of NJPAC as that of anchor. Schreiber believes his organization has a “responsibility to deliver community engagement,” and to create those connections to the downtown through educational outreach. According to Schreiber, NJPAC drives economic development in the area. Therefore, if NJPAC flourishes, so does Newark.

Like Schreiber, Nancy Cantor believes that Rutgers-Newark serves as a vital anchor in the city. She believes her role is to understand who is “at the table” with respect to decision-making, and – more importantly – “who is not.”  She went on, “We see ourselves as a partner of all of these people and many more,” adding, “creative placemaking imbues strategic planning with democratic practice.”

The case for creative placemaking as an agent of equity, then, depends on opening community dialogue. Cantor believes that when many constituencies work together, there is a “collective impact.” In theory, when many voices are heard, the needs of many are met.

Of course, none of these conversations would be possible without the availability of aggressive funding. In the case of downtown Newark’s development, a large percentage of that funding has come from Prudential – a long-time anchor of Newark itself. Ohmeed Sathe, Vice President of Impact Investments for Prudential Financial, commented that it is “Much easier to do this work today than it was years ago. Pies are growing.”

To hear it told, the story of Newark’s re-lifing is the story of cultural institutions, government organizations, funders, and individuals anticipating needs, accepting challenges, listening patiently, and acting generously. Knowing how incredibly difficult it is to move the process forward – even on a small scale – I can only imagine that the back story has been unruly, and perhaps even painful. Nonetheless, even with the apparently good-hearted nature of the panel, I wondered, is Newark a shining example of equity-in-action?

Summit-goers explored a lot of questions
Present-day Newark may be a confluence of radically positive energy (and funding) directed towards an undeniably creative goal, but is it fair to direct so many resources to anchor organizations - who do less producing of local art and more presenting of imported art? By creating an area rich in cultural offerings (as Military Park will surely be), and attracting outsiders to the downtown, there will no doubt be a spike in business activity. But Johnson’s question of geographic equity reminds me of what my own community experiences in relation to our Performing Arts Center: the majority of the programming is transient (bused in, and bused out), access to its resources is prohibitive to most (through high ticket and rental costs), and community outreach is dismal to non-existent. Yet – and my short nails are a testament to this concern – they receive funding. An incredible amount of funding in comparison to small, home-grown arts organizations (like mine), and the same story can be told in many communities throughout New Jersey. Even with half-full houses, they are featured in every magazine article about the arts in New Jersey.

Instead of developing a creative economy based on the raw talents of our citizens, New Jersey seems to set its sites on becoming a destination. A recreational area with Culture. Like the conservation movement, creative placemaking should concern itself first with investing in a sustainable creative society. And you can’t have a creative society without artists.

The unglamorous work of identifying and supporting local artists and organizations is where smaller, slower gains are made – but I believe this is where the integrity of any arts community lives. Perhaps my heart went out to Jeremy Johnson when he described this “backbone work”: taking notes, gathering data, making course corrections, all of these day-to-day tasks are necessary when working at a grassroots level (read: with no budget). What percentage of Newark artists will directly benefit from Express Newark?  Johnson’s initial question about equity as matter of geography remains undeniable; but if whole neighborhoods are potentially left out of the improvement equation, then the majority of local artists are on another map completely.
Anne L'Ecuyer, from Art Lives Here in Maryland, leads
workshop on how artists can lead creative placemaking

For example, a question from a participant seemed to catch the panel off guard: “What is Newark’s quintessential art form?” Yes: jazz. But what about a long tradition of writers and visual artists? Dancers and actors? The panel acknowledged the importance of putting future plans for Newark into historical context, but I hoped they have thought long and hard about the artists who remain in the city even as it has emptied out over the last few decades. If indeed these artistic legacies are valued, then they should have a place in the Newark to come. I suppose as long as they continued to be defined as “assets”  — in the parlance of this field — they will be treasured. But, for real estate’s sake? For tourism’s sake? Or because they are inextricably linked with Newark’s citizens?

For a great number of arts professional working directly (or indirectly) in the field of creative placemaking, the question of equity for artists is a constant undercurrent:  but how do you ensure equity in creative placemaking when the artist isn’t looked at as an asset to an area (or its anchor organization)?  Where, for example, is it written that the process of creative placemaking requires “social responsibility”? Does this type of endeavor always depend on the efforts of “folk of good will,” as Schreiber calls them? I’m not the first person to suggest that most people with money on the line are not that nice. The truth about equity is this: most often, there are a few stakeholders who seem to have a lot more at stake (political figures, real estate developers). And in my experience, those issues can make the community dialogue a wholly un-democratic process.

When Cantor proposed thinking about who isn’t “at the table?” I wondered what would happen if money weren’t sitting at the head? It would seem that the most top-heavy organizations – remnants of a time gone by – wouldn’t have the muscle, the community ties, nor the creative wherewithal to take up whole city blocks. Perhaps that’s the “democratic process” I’m interested in uncovering with regard to equity, one where money is not the object.

But, reality dictates differently. And if the current trend of funding is towards supporting projects with equity as an outcome, then large organizations with an eye toward community dialogue will continue to receive the lion’s share of resources. Smaller organizations or individuals cannot prove that they are removing barriers when they cannot even sustain the work they do on a daily basis. Artists have day jobs; children to feed, rent to pay. And so we return to what it means to be an artist – or any member of a disenfranchised community: you do not have the luxury to sit at “the table” when you can’t afford to take the day off.

Equity is a blinking word in this field. It has different meanings to different people and organizations,
Jen Hughes, from the National Endowment for the Arts, explores
keys to equitable outcomes in her workshop
and seems to shift even while all involved are saying, “Look at us, we’re doing a great thing!”  In my work, I take pride in building community by connecting artists and audiences – even on a very small scale. I continue fighting for an incredibly small piece of an apparently growing pie, because I am devoted to making room for artistry. But I still have to keep my day job.

In Newark’s case, creative placemaking has helped tell a cautious story of progress in a city that needs all the leverage it can get. Open-eyed, and open-minded leadership will hopefully clear the path towards equity. But the sunlight that reaches the tops of the treetops must also be able shine down, and help the grass below to grow.

Marcy Thompson lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, where she is the Honcho at Studio B - a multi-disciplinary, non-profit organization dedicated to producing and promoting the work of New Jersey artists.  ( http://www.studiobmaplewood.org ) She is also the co-founder of The Maplewood Arts Council, and the former Director of Cultural Affairs for the Township of Maplewood. By day, she is a freelance writer.

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