Rasmuson Foundation
    National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman addresses foundation leaders at the annual Foundations on the Hill gathering in Washington, DC

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman addresses foundation leaders at the annual Foundations on the Hill gathering in Washington, DC

(On March 22, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman addressed a group of foundations about how the idea of creative placemaking evolved into ArtPlace, a new, national initiative to revitalize communities through the arts. Rasmuson Foundation was an inaugural investor. In January, ArtPlace announced that seven Alaska organizations were among the finalists for $15 million in creative placemaking grants. We share Landesman’s remarks here.)

The last chairman of the NEA was a poet, and he made great advances in the agency’s work with poetry, literature, and Shakespeare. When my appointment was announced, I think the theater community puffed up a bit and said, “Great! Now it’s our turn.”

Sadly for them, that has not turned out to be the case. I think my tenure at the NEA will be remembered for two things, our focus on creative placemaking and our partnerships with other federal agencies and all of you in the private sector.

Let me start with creative placemaking, which is simply the ways in which communities use the arts to help shape their social, physical, and economic characters. Or to put it another way, cities and towns literally change when you bring artists to the center of them. I witnessed this first hand during my time in New York City as I watched the transformations of everything from Times Square to the South Bronx. And now that I am at the NEA, I have seen this happen from Sitka, Alaska, to Opa-Locka, Florida. In each of these towns, I saw the same three critical ingredients for success:

  • A history and tradition of the arts. You can’t just parachute into the desert and make something happen…I mean, not unless you’re in Marfa, Texas, or at Burning Man.
  • A committed philanthropic sector: 87% of the support for the arts in this country comes from non-governmental funds.
  • Local political leaders that “get it.” And almost all of the mayors I have met in the past three years do.

At the NEA, we have been working with Mayors for more than a quarter of a century through the Mayors’ Institute on City Design – or MICD. Each mayor is a city’s chief urban designer, but few conceive of themselves this way. Every time a mayor makes an investment in a new building, or a new sidewalk or road, she is making a design decision. And the NEA believes as long as they are making a design decision, they might as well make a good one. So we work with the US Conference of Mayors and the American Architectural Foundation to bring mayors and urban designers together for hands-on design charettes in which mayors attack real world problems.

Back in 2010, we announced that we were going to extend this work and give money to communities who were committed to infusing the arts into the everyday life of a community. And we were going to do it in a way that ensured the three key ingredients for success would be present: the arts organizations which applied to us would be screened for artistic excellence; they had to be located in communities where the mayor had been through an MICD; and they needed to match their NEA support with private support.

The 21 grants we funded through this program were so successful, we decided to expand the program and make it ongoing, and we introduced Our Town, in the FY2011 budget. We kept the same structure – every application had to come from a partnership that includes – at least – an arts organization, local government, and private support.

In the first year, we invested $6.6 million in 51 projects that employed the arts to strengthen communities of all sizes. Over half of the Our Town grants went to communities with populations of fewer than 200,000 people, and 7 went to communities with populations of less than 25,000. All of the projects are written up on arts.gov. And we will be announcing a second round of Our Town grants, totaling $5 million, this July.

Why am I telling you this? Because our investments in creative placemaking inspired the foundation community and sparked the creation of ArtPlace, a collaboration among 11 foundations, 8 federal agencies, and 6 banks with the funds overseen by the Nonprofit Finance Fund.

And I think that is exactly the sort of public-private partnership that you have come to Washington to discuss.

The real credit for ArtPlace goes to my wife Debby, who is one of you: a “philanthropoid,” as she calls herself. At her insistence, my first NEA meeting was with Luis Ubiñas, president of The Ford Foundation. I came to talk about my concept of “creative placemaking,” and half way through my spiel, Luis stopped me to say he knew exactly what I meant and took me to see PS109 in East Harlem, a former public school that is being redeveloped as artist housing, along with performance, exhibition, and community space. Luis suggested we pull together a group of foundation presidents to talk about whether this was an emerging area of interest, and ArtPlace was off and running.

As we set about designing the partnership, there were some key considerations:

  • The foundations wanted the majority of their dollars to go toward grants, not to creating a new organization. But they wanted this collaboration to have an independent identity.
  • The foundations wanted to be able to draw on advice and experience from federal agencies, but they did not want to have to be beholden to the requirements for granting and reporting on public funds.
  • The foundations wanted to make sure that there was a “value-add” in joint investing – one plus one should be at least three.
  • Everyone was interested in being able to grow the collaboration easily.

Thanks to Darren Walker at The Ford Foundation and Joan Shigekawa with us at the NEA, we worked with a brilliant consultant – Jim Pickman – who created the design for ArtPlace.

We began by identifying the Nonprofit Finance Fund – a national, nonprofit lender and financial consulting organization that agreed to be the investment and grant manager. NFF was an entity known to and trusted by all of the foundations. They also had zero ego in the project and agreed to hire an independent consultant who would be the face and public identity for ArtPlace. We were thrilled that Carol Coletta agreed to do this. Carol had run the NEA’s Mayors’ Institute in the past and was currently leading CEOs for Cities, when she was tapped for ArtPlace.

Jim Pickman then drew up a master funding agreement that every foundation agreed to accept – this was easily the hardest work of the entire endeavor! – that allowed any entity that made a minimum contribution of $1 million to have a seat at the table provided they also agreed to the master funding agreement. New funders could be brought on easily with a one-page addendum to the agreement. Funders were encouraged to make their dollars unrestricted, but those with specific geographic focuses could specify the states or communities in which their dollars could be spent.

Our inaugural funders were Bloomberg, Ford, Irvine, Knight, Kresge, McKnight, Mellon, Rasmuson (thanks, Diane!), Robina, Rockefeller, and one anonymous donor. (See the Rasmuson announcement here.)

The federal agencies were then invited to join the collaboration as sort of permanent guests: the NEA, Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Management and Budget, Transportation, and The White House Domestic Policy Council. With the exception of some modest NEA funding for start-up administrative costs ($150,000), we intentionally do not have federal dollars in the collaboration. This means two things: one, ArtPlace grants are not bound by federal rules and regulations; and two, since technically the agencies are merely providing information and experience, there was no need for a formal, legal agreement to cement their participation.

Getting 11 foundations to agree on a master funding document is one thing. Getting 8 federal general counsels to agree on working together is something else entirely…

And that was it: ArtPlace was off and running. Carol Coletta did an extraordinary job of inviting applications from 34 locally initiated projects that ended up totaling $11.5 million in investment; and she simultaneously launched a public RFP process for a second round of grants, as well as for a $12 million loan fund capitalized by the banks. The loan fund turned out to be extremely easy to set up given the combination of Garry Hattem’s leadership at Deutsche Bank and NFF’s existing relationships (and lines of credit with the banks). As you know, Carol Coletta, working through ArtPlace, has total discretion over making these investments in order to comply 100% with the regulations regarding re-granting. But she is able to draw on the experience, guidance, and networks from 11 foundations, 8 federal agencies, and 6 banks.

We kept the infrastructure small to remain nimble and responsive, and yet we have been able to garner a lot of public attention and coverage. I truly believe we have sparked a national conversation – my staff just informed me that there are five locally organized conferences on creative placemaking taking place in the next six months in Baltimore; Colorado; Hartford; Lowell (Massachusetts), and New Jersey.

And meanwhile, here in DC, this interest and investment from the private foundation community has given the President and OMB the evidence they need of the efficacy and importance of the NEA’s own investments in creative placemaking – for FY13, the President has requested that Congress double Our Town to $10 million.

I am really excited about all of this work – and truly thrilled to be working this closely with the foundation community.

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