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  • Meera Chakravarthy

CULTURAL PLACEMAKING

Why don’t we put arts and culture in the center of international development?


For millennia, culture has been the driver in how and why humans congregate, communicate, and relate. Across time and space, we have used culture as the vehicle to sustain and create lives and identities for future generations to learn and thrive in their communities. America itself has attempted to keep arts and culture in the center of its domestic development efforts (case in point NYC), but has been diverted from using it as a primary driver in development as other industries, with more immediately measurable outcomes, took precedence. In recent decades, there has been increased concern and fear that competitive globalization, a strong desire for economic growth and resulting gentrification may eradicate cultural nuance, ultimately causing more harm and dispute within and amongst countries, and may even result in renewed efforts to colonize rather than develop the least-developed nations. Yet, as “developed” countries reach out to support “developing” nations through diplomacy, technical, financial, and military assistance, what if the development community also were to focus its strategy on developing clusters of artistic communities that had potential to create a longstanding economic and social impact? Whether that were through enhancing the tourism industry or the global exchange of music, what if we helped developing nations diplomatically exchange elements of their cultures beyond just learning about them on a micro scale, but helping set the structure for and develop artistic communities in places all across the world, ultimately benefiting not only the developing nations, but also teaching the developed nations about a country’s culture?


International development is a general term for a wide variety of actions designed to improve the quality of life and the effectiveness of governance amongst less-developed countries, ultimately helping to economically and socially grow a mature nation. International development can also be seen as a measure of how advanced a client society is, usually in economic terms. Its practices and studies lay the foundation for connecting and helping improve the sustainability of the world’s countries and cultures. In 2015, member states of the United Nations created a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, and shared a set of 17 sustainable development goals to end poverty and other deprivations. These goals centered on health and education, reducing inequality, and economic growth. To achieve these goals, international development experts often borrow from models of successful business, trade, or industry to spur similar economic or cultural gains in areas all over the world. These models vary from refining policy to developing anchor institutions that will serve as information hubs in developing regions. These models are often adequate in achieving short term economic change, but assume a standard of success based on economic growth, such as how can businesses be built up to increase job growth and international trade opportunities. They tend to forget the unique factors that signify and spark growth in our society are sports, music, dance, arts. It is culture.


In the past decade, the term “cultural diplomacy” came into our lexicon, describing actions focused on exchanging ideas, values, and traditions rooted in culture or identity that strengthen relationships, cooperation, and a provoke interest in the unique cultures across the world. Cultural diplomacy programs have existed in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, mostly rooted in cultural exchange programs for artists and scholars. This includes scholarship programs like the Fulbright, and state department artist exchange programs such as American Music Abroad. These types of exchanges bring about mutual learning opportunities where artists are collaborating and learning about cultures just as much as they are showing others the importance of their own culture. However, taking an American dance troupe to Nepal to collaborate, perform, and integrate with the community for a week is not going to instigate long standing economic or social change. How do we create sustainable cultural diplomacy across our nations?


Here’s an idea. Why can we not merge international development and cultural diplomacy; why can we not use arts and culture as an economic and social development strategy that will help us “developed” nations learn just as much as we help our fellow “developing” nations?


In 2018, Patrick Kabanda from the World Bank published a book on this very topic titled “The Creative Wealth of Nations”. In it, Kabanda argues for the value of the performing arts as a central driver for development, and presents cases and areas of exploration to realize this development, ranging from education and innovation to data, arts policy, and trade. Kabanda provides case study examples of how employing a performing arts institution or a music school as a development strategy will ultimately ignite economic growth by creating jobs and wealth opportunities by way of already existing habits amongst citizens. What Kabanda seemed to have left out of this impressively observant and articulate publication, was the connection between international development and placemaking.


Placemaking is a concept centered on the planning, design and management of places, particularly public spaces. In 2010, the National Endowment for the Arts, alongside Ann Markusen, coined a term, creative placemaking, which is the concept of putting arts and culture in the center of community development. Creative placemaking advocated for getting artists a seat at the table in community development projects, and focused on using arts to help redevelop places whether they be artist studios or spaces for public art. Creative placemaking was founded on the principal of using arts and culture to help develop communities to ensure their deeply rooted community talents and skills are preserved and brought to light, demonstrating and strengthening their value as long-term economic drivers. It also helped redefine the role of industries such as the tourism and the hospitality, as well as parks and public space management.


What if we lifted creative placemaking to a global scale, and introduced it, deliberately and systematically, into the international development conversation? If we want to focus on cultural diplomacy and international development, we are, at the end of the day, focusing on developing communities and creating spaces for economic growth. What if American diplomacy could encourage governments to demand that any effort at economic development, whether American, or Chinese, or Russian or any of the other givers of “aid,” included support for the preservation and development of those things that give a nation its identity, or, rather, identities, in the first place? This could look like redeveloping an abandoned warehouse into an arts space or a school, or along with building a technology-industry park, placing a music school in a community that will provide opportunities for artists to learn how to reproduce and market their work across the globe. What if we helped developing nations focus on creating spaces where they put their own cultural interests, specifically the arts, at the center of developing places?


There is no argument that this is a hefty ask. Most assuredly, it will require a multidimensional approach, ensuring that a basic set of development needs are met, in addition to helping economically grow a place based on the work of its artisans and cultural figures. This includes helping promote the development and maintenance of sustainable agriculture and water purification systems so that there is adequate access to food and water at all times. It also includes ensuring the development of universal broadband access to ignite cross cultural collaborations and guarantee easy access to free information exchange. Finally, this also includes providing opportunities to create and sustain healthy communities and healthy living.


This multidimensional approach can borrow its techniques from creative placemaking. ArtPlace America, a ten year collaborative created in 2010 to help explore how artists can create cross-sector improvement/development in communities, focuses exactly on how arts and culture can play a role in economic development, promoting healthy growth in other sectors such as transportation, health, public safety, and water access/agriculture. “By holistically considering the economic, environmental, and social needs of a community, artists can help projects achieve multiple benefits and minimize negative impacts. Artists can play a valuable role in watershed-scale thinking and action by serving as liaisons between different stakeholder groups or helping people see familiar things from new perspectives. They can bridge diverse interests and needs to cultivate cross-sector partnerships that work toward common goals. Artistic processes and methods that prioritize inclusion and engagement of all community members can help build community connections, trust, and resilience. All of these skills are assets in tackling the complicated, interconnected … challenges of today […]” (US Water Alliance, 2018) Ultimately, by using arts and culture as a catalyst for international development, arts and culture can be strategically leveraged to help develop multiple other aspects of society, such as agriculture, technology and healthcare.


The arts build trust. Once trust is built in a community, it is much easier to develop and gain support for needs such as universal access to internet or healthcare. But, in order to first develop in nations, there need to exist a natural order of trust, and this can be done through the vehicle of arts development projects.


Successfully developing an international arts community requires deep study and learning from existing models of creative placemaking, whether it is called that or not, where communities have successfully and have NOT successfully put arts and culture in the center of planning conversations. As we turn to help other nations develop, we want to help them not make the common mistakes that have led our own nation towards gentrification and a loss of culture amongst community. We want to help other nations capitalize, in the most positive sense of that word, on the very culture that makes them unique. By including artists and arts development projects at the forefront of development, developing nations are more likely to experience a multiplier effect of economic growth by way of tourism or international and web-based trade. For example, if we help develop interesting spaces like an arts market in Kita, Mali where women can obtain micro-finance loans to sell their work and express themselves, tourists will want to come, learn, and spend money that is good for the economy. Crafts might be put online to be sold and shipped across the world.


While all this work requires much deeper research, the guiding principles must be the following:

  • We must ensure that economic growth goes into the developing nations’ economy and that money goes into the pockets of the artists

  • We must ensure that using arts as a catalyst for development does not further gentrify the communities we develop or turn into a tourist destination that forgets to prioritize the nation’s citizens

  • We must put the safety and sustainability of the developing nation’s citizens at the forefront of any and every project, ensuring their basic life and living needs are met and supported

  • We must have a genuine understanding from all parties involved that these projects focus on mutual development, i.e. that developed countries learn just as much from developing nations when trying to build cultural industries


If we want to build cross-cultural community and exchange, activate global leaders across industries, and help eradicate poverty, we can benefit greatly from leveraging one of the most resourceful community building tools, the arts. When we use arts and culture as the conduit to drive economic growth in developing nations, we show nations our ability to be collaborators. We ignite a shared understanding that we value what another community values, we want to provide them the resources to help achieve their own versions of success, and most importantly, we treasure their arts and culture and want to create environments where we mutually learn and grow.

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