Creative Time Summit hits home in Grand Rapids- a local take on that darn buzzword, “Placemaking”

OPCby Steve Davison

“A true sense of place is a virtual immersion rooted in lived experience, political commitment and a topographical familiarity that is really kind of rare these days” – Lucy Lippard, Keynote Address, 2013 Creative Time Summit

Last weekend, the Office for Public Culture of Grand Valley State University hosted a public screening of the NYC 2013 Creative Time Summit at Grand Rapids Art Museum . Paul Wittenbraker, founder of the Office of Public Culture decided to screen the summit in Grand Rapids  “to make a local connection with the global dialogue, and organize relevant programming that highlights local conditions related to the focus of the event: Art, Place and Dislocation in the 21st Century City.”

So how exactly do the themes presented in the Creative Time Summit relate to Grand Rapids?  What exactly are these “local conditions related to the focus of the event?”

According to the description of the screening available on the event’s Facebook page,

“The last few years in Grand Rapids have been particularly dramatic in terms of cultural, political, economic, and spatial change. As we form our city, how is culture being activated in these interrelated areas and what are the implications for social justice and progress toward an equitable and healthy environment?”

Wittenbraker added succinctly that “Culture is central to the development of a city.”

With buzzwords like “placemaking” and “creative class” now increasingly used to describe how culture and urban development are linked, Nato Thompson, the Chief Curator of Creative Time, explains why it is important for cities to incorporate new strategies for future development and to implement culture into the decision making process: “With this kind of attention, the role of culture in the city demands the careful consideration of the arts communities that are invested in the connection between social justice and art.”

The summit spotlights the reality that not every citizen of a metropolis or urban center benefits from these sometimes overly optimistic phrases.

“The shift toward the information economy in cities has been accompanied by the heavily debated and very familiar phenomenon described as “gentrification.” With its overtones of displacement, racial exclusion, and class inequity, the term signals a glaring downside to the influence of culture on urban neighborhoods,” Thompson adds.

Gentrification was a central theme of both Keynote Speakers.  In addition to Lippard, writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit, was another keynote speaker.  In an interview with Nato Thompson, Solnit states, “Culture is not only beneficial to cities; in a deeper sense, it’s what cities are for.  A city without poets, painters and photographers is sterile.”

Solnit worries that the bottom line of profit margin will continue to drive low-income residents out of newly ‘revitalized’ neighborhoods.   “Just like biodiversity in the natural world, it is important to have social diversity in our communities,” she adds.

Lucy Lippard, is a little more direct and scathing in her assessment of gentrification in her keynote speech: “Placemaking can be a rather arrogant presumption on the part of designers and planners…sometimes idealistic and well-intended, sometimes predatory.”

Both Lippard and Solnit agree that the dislocation that results from gentrication has unilaterally devastating effects on individuals as well as the health of the community at large.

The scope of the summit extends far beyond the subject of gentrification.  When it comes to social issues, the whole far exceeds the sum of its parts because the connections among those parts need to be included in the equation. The Creative Time website offers a global cross section of artists and activists presenting their perspectives of how culture, art and social conscience can shape place.

Chido Govera, with a completely disarming, self-deprecating sense of humor, explains at the beginning of her presentation how her passion for growing mushrooms led her to teach in struggling communities in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, India, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, “to grow mushrooms as a sustainable means of providing food and income”.

Govera was particularly fascinated that mushrooms come from waste and that she could potentially create something out of the discarded and unwanted especially appealed to her taking into account her she was orphaned at a very young age. Govera’s bio on the Creative Time elaborates that “Her method of growing mushroom both provides sustenance and reduces waste, growing mushrooms using leftover coffee grinds from cafes around the world.”

Laurie Jo Reynolds, the recipient of the The Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, incredibly inspiring presentation details how she and a group of poets and artists from Chicago began sending poems to prisoners in solitary confinement in the Illinois Tamms Supermax prison.  Horrified by the inhumane conditions and treatment of the prisoners, the group’s effort eventually led to the shutdown of Tamms and is truly an example of a creative endeavor that began with a passion and a concern for others and succeeded against seemingly insurmountable odds.

In an effort to localize the summit, Wittenbracker recognized citizens of Grand Rapids who are engaged in similar kinds of work.  These “Citizen Agents”, such as Camilla Volker and Jeff Smith, whose work in establishing a community garden and teaching food justice courses for Well House, are vital examples of the kind of work and “innovative” ideas that can come about when culture can “contribute to the city beyond the economic realm”.

These are crucial questions for the citizens for Grand Rapids as the city finds itself at a crossroads regarding the direction which this “placemaking” can take.

I might add to these critical questions, Does our planning and vision for the future of Grand Rapids address issues of social justice, equality and climate change?  We can throw around buzzwords  like “innovation” and “place-making,” but are they simply hollow platitudes if they are not inclusive of the entire community.  What do these phrases mean if we are not asking ourselves ‘who benefits from this?’

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