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ArtPlace America shows why culture matters to communities

December 7, 2021 GMT
This image provided by Daniel F. Borelli shows a street in Ashland, Mass. Visual artist Dan Borelli worked with officials in his Ashland to filter street lights in colors that corresponded to the density of toxic waste beneath streets, homes, and businesses. (Justin Knight/Daniel F. Borelli via AP)
This image provided by Daniel F. Borelli shows a street in Ashland, Mass. Visual artist Dan Borelli worked with officials in his Ashland to filter street lights in colors that corresponded to the density of toxic waste beneath streets, homes, and businesses. (Justin Knight/Daniel F. Borelli via AP)
This image provided by Daniel F. Borelli shows a street in Ashland, Mass. Visual artist Dan Borelli worked with officials in his Ashland to filter street lights in colors that corresponded to the density of toxic waste beneath streets, homes, and businesses. (Justin Knight/Daniel F. Borelli via AP)

Sometime in the next few years, crews dispatched by the Environmental Protection Agency will roll into Ashland, Massachusetts, population 19,000, and begin a $20.5 million cleanup of groundwater contaminated by waste from a chemical dye plant. That day will mark a victory for the town, where cancer deaths have been linked to toxins from the factory, which operated from 1917 to 1978. Among those buried and mourned are teens and young adults who grew up playing in puddles and ponds turned blue, purple, and other candy colors by the plant’s discharges.

Sharing in this victory will be a high-profile philanthropic arts venture inspired by a Broadway producer and funded by some of the country’s largest grant makers. For a decade ending last December, ArtPlace America sprinkled $150 million across the nation, backing a kaleidoscope of projects. The goal: prove that the arts and culture are critical to the social fabric, identity, and well-being of communities.

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Not all the work paid dividends, and the effort raised questions about whether art-based revitalization can fuel gentrification. But the ideas behind ArtPlace are so commonplace now that President Biden named one of their leading proponents, scholar Maria Rosario Jackson, to lead the National Endowment for the Arts. Jackson, who has studied how the arts contribute to community building, will be the first NEA chair with a Ph.D. in urban planning.

At the local level, places such as Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and St. Paul and Granite Falls, Minn., have embedded artists in government agencies, often searching for fresh ideas to old problems. This fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced $2 million in grant funding for arts organizations to promote Covid-19 vaccines.

In Ashland, home to the cancer cluster tied to toxic waste from the dye factory, visual artist Dan Borelli received $75,000 from ArtPlace to dig deeply into his hometown’s history of loss and grief — and illustrate through art the clear and present danger from the plant. His work helped spur residents to demand that the EPA re-evaluate groundwater contamination nearly 30 years after it first tackled pollution from the site. Among Borelli’s projects: an experiential art display with street lights filtered with colors based on the density of contaminants flowing below — red for parts of town with the highest density, then orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.

Borelli also built a healing garden and memorial pavilion and a multimedia exhibit in the town library. Previously, the only record of the plant and the lives lost were a few shelves in the library with binders of EPA reports. “That was a history of the contaminants,” Borelli says. “I wanted to do a history of the contaminated.”

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Borelli’s projects are among nearly 280 bankrolled by ArtPlace. Launched in 2011, the venture was the brainchild of Rocco Landesman, President Barack Obama’s first chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. At the time, the NEA and the arts were in a defensive crouch. Attacks in the 1990s by Newt Gingrich-led Republicans had slashed the agency’s funding and perpetuated an image of the arts as frippery best funded through black-tie galas.

Landesman, a charismatic Broadway producer who had engineered such hits as The Producers, was determined to prove that arts and culture were not an esoteric good but an essential component of every community, particularly as an economic engine — an appealing argument as the country climbed out of the Great Recession.

“Talking about how the arts affect people’s souls is all well and good,” Landesman says now. “But if you’re saying arts are a very important part of the economy and they can drive the economy in a recession, then everybody’s listening.”

The NEA created Our Town, a program to fund demonstration projects of “creative placemaking,” in which the arts would be deployed to make communities stronger and more livable. Our Town, which continues today, has awarded nearly $50 million in grants since 2011.

Landesman also persuaded leaders at the Ford, Kresge, Knight, Mellon, and other large grant makers to create a parallel, philanthropy-funded venture. The effort ultimately was backed by 14 foundations and two anonymous donors.

Early ArtPlace grants supported an array of projects, no two alike. Many went to art installations and events that aimed to bring life to underused spaces. Chattooga County in the Appalachians of Georgia turned the dilapidated home and workplace of Baptist preacher and folk-artist hero Howard Finster into a roadside showcase of his work. In Seattle, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience organized art and music events and other cultural programs.

ArtPlace had roots in the controversial ideas of urban theorist Richard Florida. In bestselling books in the 2000s, Florida had urged cities to build arts districts to attract the “creative class” — scientists, engineers, professors, architects, artists, and others. Yet his strategies were increasingly decried as a recipe for property speculation and gentrification, pushing out residents and blotting out authentic local culture.

Some in the arts world feared that ArtPlace-espoused creative placemaking would net similar results — and fears heightened when the venture proposed to measure its grant outcomes by largely economic-focused metrics that included changes in property values. Faced with this critique, ArtPlace changed course and moved to demonstrate the influence of arts and culture in all community-development areas, including housing, transportation, education, the environment, health, public safety, and more.

ArtPlace projects also began to explicitly attack social issues and inequities. In the Fairhill-Hartranft neighborhood of north Philadelphia, ArtPlace helped to fund the rehab of three vacant rowhouses into a multimedia arts studio. Teenagers and young people gather to wage a statewide campaign called Care, Not Control to abolish youth prisons in Pennsylvania and invest in communities instead. Art — including a record album and a graphics-infused social-media effort — drives their lobbying and communication strategies.

Residents also come to the studio to work on a plan to reduce violent crime in the neighborhood without police interventions — work funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. They are using art to try to conjure a different future when most everything in the neighborhood says they shouldn’t try, says Aviva Kapust, executive director of the Village of Arts and Humanities, which received the ArtPlace grant and is leading the work.

“This is the ultimate test. These are people living in a neighborhood where violent crime is 12 times higher than the national average,” she says. “Is there the space for them to imagine a world where that is not the case?”

Fears about arts-driven gentrification remain. Creative placemaking “can still be weaponized,” warns

Carlton Turner, the director and lead artist at Mississippi Center for Cultural Production and a 2017 ArtPlace grantee.

But in Ashland, Dan Borelli’s work helped strengthen a community, translating its past tragedy and present danger into very human terms.

“People had just forgotten,” says Michael Herbert, Ashland’s town manager. “The really cool thing about Dan’s work is that it prompted people to ask questions.”

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Drew Lindsay is a senior writer at the Chronicle. Email: drew.lindsay@philanthropy.com. The AP and the Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.