Creative Placemaking at UW Madison | Madison, WI (2017)

Creative Placemaking, Member News

September 27, 2018


– By Sherry Wagner-Henry, Director, Bolz Center for Arts Administration, Wisconsin School of Business


A few weeks ago, I attended the first event in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for the Humanities’ Fall series: an incredibly moving talk given by artist, urban planner and University of Chicago professor, Theaster Gates. It had been five years ago in 2012, almost to the day, that I was honored and inspired to host him at the Bolz Center for Arts Administration’s bi-annual Collegium. I had just started as the new director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration and was still trying to figure out where the bathrooms were—and where we kept the extra copier paper. But that day is etched in my brain as perhaps the first time I actually understood what creative placemaking could be—when employed in an equitable way and led by the people it could and should impact the most.

I had just moved from Minneapolis/St. Paul, where the foremothers of Creative Placemaking—Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa (Nicodemus)—had been commissioned by the NEA to pen the first white paper on Creative Placemaking. Minnesota is also the home of Springboard for the Arts, one of the first organizations in the country selected by ArtPlace America, to receive funding for a placemaking project they had already begun, called Irrigate. As a result, Creative Placemaking was not a new concept to me and neither were the stories of the kinds of change that the arts and culture could inspire in individuals and communities. But those stories had often been told by the researchers, facilitators, trainers and stewards of this work. When I heard Theaster speak five years ago, it was the first time I heard an artist explain what the work was, what it could mean, and why he felt compelled to do it.

Placemaking is a term that has been used in planning and development circles for decades and it indicates the “recipe” that establishes (or protects) the elements of a community that make it special. Jamie Bennett of ArtPlace America, in a TED Talk he delivered in 2014, reminds us that all communities have one very special asset in common: all towns have artists. While placemaking is defined as the act of finding or making something special in a specific place, creative placemaking specifically highlights the role of artists, cultural practitioners and makers within a community.

Upon my move to Madison, I came to discover that placemaking and creative placemaking had deep roots in Wisconsin history. The arts and placemaking in Wisconsin can be traced back through the articulation of the “Wisconsin Idea,” which has been a guiding principle of the University since the turn of the century. It states that education should have an impact beyond the classroom and influence the lives of people beyond the university itself. From seminal WHA public radio programming such as “Let’s Draw” through to Robert Gard’s historic tenure and publication of “The Arts in Small Communities,” it was the UW-Extension Service that discovered and activated a rich network of artists working in and with communities across the state. Gard developed the Wisconsin Idea Theatre in the 1940s as part of Extension’s commitment and practice of engaging thousands of Wisconsinites in telling the stories of their place.

The Bolz Center’s study and practice of creative placemaking therefore follows a strong tradition at UW-Madison, directly tied to the Wisconsin Idea. As a part of the Wisconsin School of Business’s MBA program, Bolz Center students explore the intersections between the arts, business and community development. Part of the Bolz Center mission is to train and educate future community leaders who will consider the arts, culture, and creativity central to their work. It is our mission at the Bolz Center, with partners like UW-Extension, to evolve the quintessential Wisconsin practice of placemaking into even more robust, vibrant and productive practice through arts-based strategies for social change and equitable community impact.

Among our key initiatives to further the field of study, staff and community partners collaborate to convene local and national conversations like our bi-annual Arts Business Research Symposium (ABRS), in service to the question: “What is the University’s role in creative placemaking practice, teaching and scholarship?” Meanwhile, student-led strategic consulting projects put ideas into practice: students work with organizations and municipalities, in an effort to serve communities who see the value of their places and wish to embrace a more strategic and dynamic future for their societies.

The Bolz Center believes that universities can play a multifaceted role in creative placemaking: as the home to research and academic inquiry, as educators of the next generation of community leaders and as partners in the work actively taking place in our community. This view and the results of The Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities’ 2016 “Snapshot of Creative Placemaking in Higher Education” was what inspired the creation of The Hub to explore how universities are engaging with this work across the country.

The Hub for Creative Placemaking in Higher Education—a project in collaboration with The Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) and Blackbaud™—is meant to be a resource for all, but especially for those faculty, staff and students working in universities that want to know more about creative placemaking practice, funding and scholarship. Universities, with their collective resources, should be more informed and more aware of how they can partner with and participate in the communities they serve.

The Hub Team has begun by aggregating the contributions of our practitioner colleagues across the country—from white papers, to strategy toolkits, case studies and funding resources—to lift and promote the laudable work being done in our nation’s communities. We hope to fuel the conversation, share more stories and tell some of our own in the months and years ahead, in our own contribution to the development of this emerging field of study and practice.

We hope you will join us on The Hub by telling your story, sharing it and its many resources with others and ensuring that the practice and study of creative placemaking is around to benefit our artists, our communities and our world for generations to come.