by Karen Olson, editor in chief of Public Art Review
Karen Olson, Tricia Heuring, and Adaobi Okolue comprised Forecast’s media team on the ground at the summit. Okolue, artist and producer and ED + Publisher at Twin Cities Media Alliance, took over Forecast’s Twitter feed, while Heuring, Forecast consulting associate, a Thai American curator, arts organizer, and educator, took over Instagram.
The Jackson Medical Mall is a marvel of imaginative reuse. In 1995 Dr. Aaron Shirley envisioned this formerly abandoned shopping mall in Jackson, Mississippi, as a multidisciplinary medical complex. He saw the space as a “community-based venture” that would provide cost-effective healthcare, stimulate economic and community development in the area of the city with a high poverty rate, and make use of a massive, empty structure.
Today the Jackson Medical Mall is filled with doctors’ offices, medical businesses, and numerous organizations and institutions, like the Jackson State University School of Public Health and the Mississippi Dental Society. What has filled this place with even more life and strengthened its relationships with the local community, though, is its arts and cultural programming, which was supported in 2015 with a $3 million grant from ArtPlace America.
After federal arts funding was broadly cut during the recession a decade ago, ArtPlace America was formed as a 10-year collaboration of foundations, banks, and federal agencies to strengthen the fabric of communities by positioning arts and culture as central to community planning and development. Since then, it has funded 280 projects across the country aimed at making communities better places to live.
For the team from Forecast who went to Jackson for the ArtPlace Summit, an annual gathering of creative placemaking practitioners from across the U.S. and its territories, visiting the Jackson Medical Mall was a highlight. That’s because we saw the power of art+place in action. Inside the Mall’s former movie theater, and in its grand interior hallways, we were welcomed to Jackson by local storytellers, musicians, and artists, as well as the city’s innovative Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba.
In the following days at the Summit in downtown Jackson, we met and were inspired by other visionary community organizers, artists, and culture bearers from across the country, many of whom have been able to expand their work through funding from ArtPlace. We’ve featured many of their stories in Public Art Review over the last several years.
- Las Imaginistas, a trio of artists from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, led a workshop at the Summit in which participants prototyped cities founded on equity and justice.
- Carleton Turner, executive director of Atlanta-based Alternate Roots—which supports creation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition, or spirit—reminded Summit participants about the importance of being truthful in our storytelling, remembering our ancestors, and coming from a place of deep love for ourselves and each other as we all move forward in this place- and community-based work.
- Nia Umoja shared the story of how her community in New West Jackson created a new model for becoming a sustainable neighborhood. “We knew as artists that making West Jackson more beautiful would signal to developers this is the next place for investment, so we told ArtPlace America that we have to own the land to keep it in community,” she said. The community used grant money to buy 60 properties and start a community garden.
As DeepSeedz, a youth-based collective in Jackson whose goal is raising social awareness through art, said in a call-and-response at the Summit: “Ain’t no control like land control.”
“Food, land, ownership and hyper locality seemed to be recurring themes throughout the summit,” reports Forecast’s Director of Programming and New Initiatives Jen Krava. “Ownership not only of land and infrastructure but also of processes and decision-making. This seems to be where power can shift.”
Here are just some the many inspiring projects we learned about that speak to those themes:
- The Ekvn-Yefolecv Indigenous Maskoke Ecovillage centered in Weogufka, Alabama, was created when a community of Indigenous Maskoke reclaimed their ancestral homelands with support from a 2017 ArtPlace grant. There they are working to improve health outcomes by re-introducing native plants and animals, and focusing on language revitalization and women’s medicinal practices.
- In 2016, ArtPlace funded Invisible Heritage, a community revitalization project in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, launched by Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism (CHANT) to invest in workforce development and historic renovation through traditional building arts. Then the communities of Frederiksted and Free Gut were hit by hurricanes, including Hurricane Maria as a category 5 storm. As executive director Frandelle Gerard explains, “because federal response to disasters is now privatized under the auspices of FEMA, Crucians couldn’t get what they need” afterwards. So, at CHANT, the focus has shifted to rebuilding and creating new sources of income.
- At The Harrison Center in Indianapolis, which received ArtPlace grant around economic development and housing in 2013, a new program launched last year. Residents of Monon 16, an Indianapolis neighborhood, shared their hopes and dreams for a just and equitable future. Then they cordoned off three blocks, set up stages, and had actors act out their common dreams in the Pre-Enactment Theater.
The Jackson Summit was also filled with many other Minnesotans like us, as the state was lucky to receive several ArtPlace grants. Ashley Hanson, founder of PlaceBase Productions and the Department of Public Transformation, shared stories from her work in rural Minnesota. And Shanai Matteson brought a pop-up version of the Water Bar, which offers people the opportunity to taste water from multiple locations—and talk with each other about water and its connection to our lives and our cultures.
ArtPlace America will be winding down its 10-year run next year and will hold its final Summit in Minneapolis in October 2020.