Many individuals and organizations are working tirelessly in neglected neighborhoods and underserved rural towns expanding economic, social, physical, aesthetic and emotional well-being. These challenges are multidimensional—from minimal municipal budgets to aging populations, abandoned downtowns to anemic deficiencies in civic pride. We thrive on success stories that answer how to “activate downtown” or “attract younger residents.” But replicability is a slippery slope; we should never directly copy a specific revitalization component hoping it will bolster our efforts. Deepening and extending civic heartbeat requires recognition that every community has a distinct history and culture. If every small town or neighborhood employed identical socioeconomic development strategies, pride and connection to home and self disappears. To articulate unique value propositions, one must think like an artist!
Creatives are entrepreneurs and, like cities and towns, must be profitable to survive. They are highly trained thinkers, visionaries and problem-solvers. They understand research and development by pushing limits of materials. They pay taxes, vote, volunteer and employ workers. Frequently, they are small-business owners developing and managing buildings as studios. Their practice requires collaboration and self-reliance, optimism and discipline, inventing processes and product until they get it right. They focus on operational flow to advance from A to B without losing sight of Goal Z. Like artists, dynamic community development needs to trust nonlinear thinking and tolerate risk for an invigorated future.
Art-Force designs effective investment equations for civic resilience and economic platforms for growth, with creatives at the core of the enterprise. Like jumper cables, we stimulate and diversify socioeconomic connections to place that renorm relationships among artist-designer and municipal, nonprofit and business-sector leadership. We do this through Strategic Design Alliances and The Community Institute. America’s economic history is grounded in how product defines place, and Art-Force considers this a 21st-century link and response to regeneration.
What is now considered high craft or fine art was historically a skill for self-sufficiency in rural areas—clay jugs for storage, hand-blown glass for windows, turned wood bowls for flour, weaving cloth and reeds for fans and screens. Success in rural manufacturing used to be defined and advanced by apprenticeships, a mentoring model and educational paradigm replaced today by online classes and certifications.
Honoring roots of place, from 2012 to 2013, Art-Force aligned three creative teams with three small rural manufacturers to develop new products and processes without additional investment in property, plant or equipment. During early partner identification, we met with local leaders and analyzed city-county employment data, demographics, proximity of raw materials and past inventive development efforts to select the communities. We then interviewed manufacturers in these towns, intuitively listening for how “creative-ready” they were. Within six weeks, we contracted with a tile floor producer who wanted to transform two-dimensional aggregate molds into three-dimensional illuminated forms; a specialty metals manufacturer eager to create a product line through which to establish brand identity; and a textile operation desiring diversification into the contemporary home goods market.
The program was designed to accelerate research and design processes where none existed and without obvious staff capacity because this is what artists do best. We carefully curated creatives into short-term residencies based on their familiarity with the manufacturer’s core materials, and Art-Force refined business models for organizational growth based on approved creative directions. These Strategic Design Alliances were more organic than linear and forced appreciation of conflicting professional agendas and alternative perspectives, necessary in every effective partnership whether a multi-billion-dollar real estate transaction or resiting sculpture.
The metals manufacturing team produced a line of collapsible, lightweight tables suitable for indoor-outdoor use. According to the company president, “We got away from industrial thinking and moved to out-of-the-box thinking to better the community and change the way we do things. We challenged ourselves; this was a tremendous educational opportunity.” The textile firm is selling nesting baskets made with antimicrobial material to hold food, and the flooring company made both standing lamps and bas-relief wall screens. (See Figure 1.)
One of the artists stated, “If you can’t make it, it’s just an idea; we make mistakes to make art.” Although no town exclusively operates with this predisposition, it is important to see how risk exponentially results in reward exceeding imagination. After 15 months, the Design Alliance outcomes could never have been anticipated and echoed beyond new workforce skills and factory doors. One manufacturer opened his shop to any artist who wanted to prototype work using his materials and equipment; another hired a full-time design director; the third retained a consultant to restructure their business model. Municipal planning, economic development and cultural staff also internalized the project, and one municipality adopted a new zoning ordinance diversifying building use while another passed a $14.5-million bond for downtown streetscapes, parks and greenways.
America’s small cities and towns desperately need creativity to retool essential manufacturing and keep communities alive; people live where there are jobs and feel a sense of belonging. This civic pride generates geographic loyalty and activism—voting, attending public meetings, volunteering in schools and caring deeply about one’s hometown.
As civic curators, we realign existing elements in ways no one else imagines and splice this DNA for resurgence. As project originators and managers, Art-Force interprets and propels the partnerships guarding artistic thinking and experimentation while training business owners how to listen and think differently. Relationships, like roads, are an infrastructure that determines how we connect people and place. The job is to engage creatives in the process of designing metaphorical highways and intersections. We have learned that the success of any partnership is to recognize intrinsic assets, individual motivations and self-interests, and assess how to care and protect them while developing mutual goals. Both artist and manufacturer need opportunities to contribute and shift perspectives—artists from their studios and shop floors, and business owners to think in nuanced and novel ways about product, process and operations because design arts language may seem strange. This requires syncing and education via emails with pictures and drawings along with virtual and in-person group design reviews. This work is not for the faint of heart! It demands experimentation because creativity does not have a blueprint; it is a synapse among community spirit, assets, history and desire.
Three variables drive success in rural projects: physical investments block by block to shatter stagnant socioeconomic conditions; creative activity programmed among tangible (material and architectural) and intangible (social and intellectual) assets; and economic opportunity that recirculates capital and grows new leadership. Strategist Jeremy Nowak adds, “Artists are steeped in creative dialogue between past and future.” Every civic discussion deserves artistic voice, however unfamiliar the exchange may be, because creative thinkers expand visual and narrative lexicons that counter the status quo.
If you are dissatisfied with traditional approaches to economic revitalization (e.g., luring a large corporation only to have those jobs vaporize because another community offers better terms) and you seek alternatives, be curious about the collateral investment of a creative thinker.
Janet Kagan, MBA, MA, is the board president of Art-Force and the portfolio director of We Are Creative Ready.