A Place for Art in Lowell

Chris and I attended an interesting meeting last week hosted by Lowell National Historical Park and the Cultural Organization of Lowell. They welcomed Javier Torres, the Director of National Grantmaking for ArtPlace, to discuss his organization, the National Creative Placemaking Fund, and what they might be able to do for Lowell.

Someone pointing at art shanty robot.

One example grantee built “Art Shantys” on a frozen lake that had been losing water to draw visitors during winter and attention to the dwindling lake.

ArtPlace is a ten-year program collaboratively funded by a number of private foundations and financial institutions and guided with assistance from a number of federal agencies. As Mr. Torres described it, their goal isn’t just to fund arts and culture projects, but rather to fundamentally shift American policymakers’ strategies to include arts and culture as a core sector of community planning. What does that mean? It means ArtPlace is trying to get local, state, and federal institutions to think of arts and culture as just as important to solving community problems as transportation, housing, public safety, and other core civic sectors.

They’re doing this in four major ways:

  • Community Development Initiative, which I’d describe as a one-time set of six pilot programs
  • Field Building, which includes building connections between planners to learn from one another
  • Research, which includes documenting strategies and creating measurable metrics of success

and what is sure to be of most interest to Lowellians:

  • Grantmaking, through what they call the “National Creative Placemaking Fund.”

The program could be a great benefit to Lowell. It provides up to $500,000 (although it looks like the most common amount granted is $250,000) with seemingly few strings attached. Even more interesting is that half a million dollars is earmarked for Massachusetts this year, giving Lowell a leg up against communities in other states. However, the grant is still very competitive. They fund about 25-30 projects a year, but receive upwards of 1,000 applications.

National Creative Placemaking Fund projects

An eligible project must fit a few criteria. It has to affect a specific geographic community, the place in placemaking. Rather than, “Helping low-income people throughout Massachusetts,” it must “Help everyone in Lowell,” or “the Acre” or “the 500 block of Merrimack Street.”

It also has to clearly define a planning and development challenge or opportunity. Several of the questions asked during the session focused on what this exactly meant. They try to break it down with a matrix, which looks kinda scary but is actually a neat idea:

Matrix with Ag/Food, Economic Development, Education/Youth, Environment/Energy, Health, Housing, Immigration, Public Safety, Transportation, Workforce

The challenge or opportunity must align with one or more of the categories along the y-axis. He gave the example of economic development – the challenge of keeping businesses open during a construction project, and transportation – the challenge of getting a group of indigenous people without cars to a nearby train station. There are more projects on their website, including economic development – challenge of isolated rural communities not mixing; environmental/education – opportunity of a nearby hummingbird center to provide eco-tourism and education; and economic development – the challenge of having community residents benefit from gentrification and demographic change.

The application is also graded on the compelling way arts and culture is deployed to address the challenge and opportunity, and a clear measure of success.

One thing Mr. Torres stressed was that they were looking for unique projects, meaning it helps if proposed projects are different from grants they’ve given in the past (including all the examples here!) In fact, he said that the priorities for this year were Environment/Energy, Health, and Public Safety.

The grants are open to any individual or group: government or private, nonprofit or commercial, single person or huge institution. However, they’re targeting civic/social/faith, commercial, and philanthropic individuals and groups in this round. If an individual is doing the project for a profit, they qualify as commercial. If they’re doing it for a church, they would be civic/social/faith. If they’re donating their time, they might qualify as nonprofit. If they’re donating their time and materials, they might qualify as philanthropic.

What’s the Process?

Most of the questions at the session involved the specific process needed to apply for a grant. It seems simple:

Before February 16: The first step is to create an account at this site. Registering doesn’t cost anything, is simple, and doesn’t obligate you to apply (you do need to provide an EIN or SS#).

Before March 2: The next step is to send in an application. Each individual or organization can only submit one application. The application asks about the amount requested, the total budget, and 900 character answers for each of the four criteria. It also asks for other information about the geographic location of the project and when you think the money will be completely spent (they give you three years).

They also ask for a three-minute video in which you tell them more about the project. Mr. Torres stressed that they don’t want anything fancy; they just want to “get to know you.”

After May 31: ArtPlace will score the applications based on the clarity and compellingness of the four answers, with tiebreaker bonus points for priority projects. At that point, they will contact top applicants for a second phase, where they begin to dig into what partners applicants will have (they have to have partners), how exactly the funds will be spent, whether the impacted community has been engaged, if the project requires more resources to sustain, and other in-depth questions.

What sort of projects does Lowell need?

I’ve heard a number of ideas already being discussed. The best thing is that Mr. Torres explained that multiple projects from Lowell don’t necessarily compete against one another. Rather, they would each compete on their own merits. Although I doubt they would choose more than one project from Lowell in a year, I do imagine that it only helps Lowell’s chances to submit several different creative projects.

Lit up graveyard

Providence recently secured a grant to help them light up and make programming changes to a community center and cemetery suffering from disinvestment.

The audience included a wide range of folks, from youth service providers such as Girls, Inc and Boys and Girls Club; artists and gallery owners from Arts League of Lowell, Brush Gallery, UnChARTed, Western Avenue Studios, and more; community agencies such as Community Teamwork, Inc. and Coalition for a Better Acre; activists from Lowell Bike Coalition; downtown business owners; cultural organizations such as Angkor Dance Troupe, COOL, and Lowell Heritage Partnership; and uncountable others—probably over 100 in the audience.

I’m really interested to hear what folks come up with, almost outside of what actually ends up applying or winning. A prompt like this can encourage folks to think creatively and reach out for collaboration in new and surprising directions.  My understanding is that the key will be to really clearly articulate a non-arts-related challenge and an arts-related response. I’ve already heard suggestions of challenges to tackle including homelessness and panhandling, empty buildings, and low amounts of transit use; and opportunities including the canals and unutilized hydropower stations. And I think both Chris and I have employers considering  applying as well. But I hope we hear lots of different ideas, from lots of different folks. Because they’re looking for submissions outside governments and nonprofits, it would be great to get the business community, churches, and fraternal organizations more involved.

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