Feb. 18, 2016 2:10 pm

This is how libraries and museums can revitalize neighborhoods

The humanities can make a difference, says a recent report from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This is how it's worked in Philadelphia.

Logan Square, Philly's institutional hub for humanities.

(Photo by Flickr user Henk Sijgers, used under a Creative Commons license)

Making an impact in low-income neighborhoods is no easy task for urban anchor institutions, often perched in city centers or isolated in arts districts.

That goes double for most arts and culture institutions like libraries and museums, two types of humanities organizations that largely depend on in-house programming — where their resources are — to educate the public. Not exactly accessible for folks in impoverished communities on the outskirts of town.

You can’t lug a Picasso exhibit to neighborhoods like Olney.

Instead, libraries and organizations are experimenting with creative placemaking strategies that allow them to leverage their resources toward driving community revitalization.

A report published by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) last November examines how 50 arts and culture institutions across the country are using the humanities to create impact in troubled neighborhoods.

Both LISC and IMLS have been touring U.S. cities, engaging local organizations and sharing their findings. Philadelphia was the last stop on that five-city tour, and according to LISC’s Creative Placemaking Program Director Lynne McCormack, it’s home to the most impressive collaborations between arts and culture institutions and community-based organizations.

The caliber of those local efforts were put on display during a panel at the Free Library this week featuring Philadelphia LISC Executive Director Andrew Frishkoff, Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) Executive Director Laurie Zierer and Philadelphia Association of CDCs Programs Director Pam Bridgeforth.

Frishkoff shared the philosophy behind fostering collaboration between larger anchor institutions and community organizations, citing the stone soup fable: Philanthropists should not simply come bearing gifts, he said, but seek to exchange gifts with those they’re meeting with. Every member of the community should bring something to put in the communal soup cauldron.

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Bring your anchor institutions and community organizations together to create a focused mission, Zierer said. Just don’t forget to engage the community.

PHC, Zierer said, uses the humanities to “bring people together who don’t normally sit at the same table to think through issues that matter so they have guiding principles.” One example of that work is Chester Made, PHC’s storytelling and data analysis initiative that resulted in a cultural assets map.

The most essential place this kind of work can be done, Bridgeforth said, is not where people live and work, but where life happens outside of those two arenas. She pointed to work done in Kensington’s McPherson Square Park — “Needle Park,” colloquially — by the local Free Library branch and grassroots organizations, which Bridgeforth said worked to attract funding and resources needed to allow the community to take their park back.

“It is a living, breathing example of what caring professionals and volunteers can do to transform a neighborhood,” she said. “In essence, that’s what community development is.”

Successful community development, she said, is a four-step recipe: Build trust, start small, stay focused and seek diverse partners. For the humanities, it all starts with an artist or a set of artists who are able to engage communities in a way that neither CDCs nor anchor institutions can — and maybe shouldn’t.

“All of this is predicated on relationships and whether or not people feel they’re being engaged, listened to and heard. If you don’t have trust and relationship building, you’re going to be very challenged,” Bridgeforth said. “Second, the artist will hear truth that you wouldn’t necessarily hear in other areas. Because of that level of trust and openness, people will tell them things a community organizer might not get.”

Those are the things that matter most to communities — the kinds of things that should also matter most to organizations working in those communities. Understanding those things will take a concerted effort on behalf of anchor institutions working on localized initiatives. According to LISC Director of Research and Assessment Chris Walker, there are four steps:

  • Engagement at heart. It’s not a cute add-on to your work. Rather, Walker said, community engagement needs to be integral to what your’re doing. Everything else belongs in orbit.
  • Leave your ego at the door. Inside your every day arts initiative, decision-making power is typically held by a single anchor institution. In community efforts, decisions should be collective and consensual.
  • Maintain diversity. Involve multiple parties in the process. There should be an embeddedness of multi-sectoral efforts rather than just two actors making simple deals with one another.
  • No one-hit wonders. These initiatives should not be a one-off effort. This is work that should strive to build frameworks for effective creative placemaking.

“Our hope is that as we go forward, our commitment to arts and culture as a vehicle for community revitalization will help us realize our goal of authentic engagement in communities,” Walker said.


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