Below is the entirety of the text I wrote and delivered as part of Luminaria Festival's Panel on Creative Placemaking. It was organized by the Western Arts Alliance.
I approach this topic from the stance that Creative Placemaking is more about the programing that takes place in the physical space than the physical space itself. It is merely the conduit through which the content is delivered. And yes, you did just hear a site-specific installation artist just say that space isn’t as important!
It’s not that spaces aren’t important, it’s just that the identity the spaces embody, can’t exist without having ideas as an entry point for the public. In my personal artistic practice and curatorial projects, I very often explore themes community and human interaction and connection. I’m not content to merely work with works of art. I prefer to extend the conversations happening between the works being exhibited to the artists themselves.
Face it, in the art world, aside from the fun chats we get to have with each over all that wine and cheese, and the occasional keg, it can be very hard to connect with other artists outside our immediate circle. Despite working from the same wheelhouse as other creatives in our community, natural connectivity with others in our field isn’t always easy.
That is why In 2013 I curated the 18th iteration of the the YLA exhibition at Mexic-arte museum., entitled Con/Juntos, one of my goals was to foster connections and create a nexus of community amongst artists in the exhibition. For Con/ Juntos, I paired or in a few cases grouped artists from Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia to collaborate, for the most part with artists they had never even met.
My aim was to open up the lines of communication to create a broader sense of place, especially since the concept of community and space has a different The exhibition meaning in the age of the internet as it is. The exhibition consisted of collaborative works created by the groups of artists through which they had to navigate their individual aesthetics, materials and conceptual approaches, in turn gaining a better understanding of their own creative process as well as those of their counterparts.
For me, as the curator, the conceptual nature of the exhibition, wherein the conversations between the artists helped them navigate their differences was more important than the work that was eventually created to fill the space. Luckily, the work the artists created wasn’t too shabby either and for the most part, the artists were able to bond with each other and are still in frequent contact to this day.
At it’s very core, Creative Placemaking if done thoughtfully, is similar.
It’s about transforming a public space, using a creative approach to not only help improve the cultural education of community, but I would argue that it should be judged by its ability to facilitate connections in that community.
For the Young Latino Artist Exhibition, I also explored the notion of shared spaces being integral to identity: The Zócalo in Mexico City which I wrote about it in my curator’s statement for the catalog is the perfect example.
“This huge place at the heart of the city is a space where the Mexican people gather to celebrate national holidays or to voice mass objections alike. Since the age of the Aztecs, it has been everything from a space for religious practices, to the swearing in of heads of state, to government proclamations.
Framed by the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, the Palacio Nacional (the seat of the federal executive branch in Mexico) and the Templo Mayor (one of the main Aztec temples) it is one of the largest city squares in the world. It is a space for religion, politics, art, trade and social protest.” It embodies the identity of Mexico City and is a point of pride of culture.
Art institutions also function in a similar capacity, and the programing that brings people to those spaces is at the core of the identity of the space. Creative Placemaking should likewise be cognizant about the idea of identity.
When developing a location through Creative Placemaking, the identity of those the space is being developed for must be at the core of all planning with the following at the forefront:
Will people see their identity in the space?
Will they feel like they belong?
Will the plan foster communication and entry points for disparate groups of people who might not have a natural connectivity?
Touching on the latter question, for the past 13 years besides working as an exhibiting visual artist and independent curator, I have also worked in the capacity of a public school educator, teaching in a variety of grades. As a cog in the educational machine, I am privy to the fact that our students of various ethnic and economic demographics rarely interact and/or have few opportunities to understand each other. Sadly, I also see first-hand in the classroom how our current systems and measures emphasize purely analytical solutions, strategies and testing that pushes creative thinking and out of the box problem-solving off the table altogether.
Because of my experiences as an artist, curator and professional educator, I see Creative Placemaking as a powerful tool to address many of those issues. It can be used to bridge the cultural and economic divide within communities. It not only recognizes but values all our identities, and elevates creativity and creative thinking as being an essential component to solving our problems and improving our society.
Much like the exploration of solar, wind and hydropower is about activating and harnessing a potential energy that has always been there to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem, Creative Placemaking is about activating something just as powerful and transformative.