Artists an untapped resource for community development, expert says

A taste of the attractions to be found inside Lawrence's newly designated downtown cultural district. First Row: The Granada Theater, Lawrence Arts Center, Aimee's Coffee Shop, Second Row: Bowersock Mills and Power Company, SeedCo Studios in the Warehouse Arts District, Site of Langston Hughes' home, Row Three: The East Lawrence Waltz mural, Pachamama's, St. Luke's A.M.E. Church, Row Four: Turnhalle Building, Wonder Fair Art Gallery, Americana Music Academy.

Laura Zabel thinks of artists as a natural resource.

Every community has them, and they offer a unique set of skills. They’re even renewable. But sometimes their power can be difficult to harness.

Figuring out how to tap into that is what Zabel specializes in.

Zabel, a Kansas University graduate, is executive director of a Minnesota-based artist-centric economic development organization called Springboard for the Arts. She recently led a talk at the Lawrence Arts Center about creative placemaking and how communities can engage artists to increase vibrancy — the type of energy and activity that make people want to stick around.

Springboard for the Arts promotes programs that help artists make a living and help communities tap into resources that artists provide.

One example that took off in the Twin Cities and spread to about 40 other communities is Springboard’s CSA. That doesn’t stand for “community-supported agriculture;” it stands for “community-supported art.” Instead of a weekly box of fresh vegetables, subscribers to this CSA get a monthly box of original art.

“Artists have these unique skills where they often are able to see the opportunity in challenge and the beauty in chaos,” Zabel said. “We think artists are particularly well-suited to do that kind of organizing and community development work, in terms of bringing people together and helping people’s voices be heard.”

Zabel’s Arts Center talk was early on a Saturday morning. Especially in a college town, she expected the place to be deserted.

Instead, she encountered yoga-mat-toting retirees on their way to get coffee, parents bringing children to dance class and people perusing the Arts Center’s galleries — not to mention dozens of people gathered to hear what she had to say.

Lawrence is unique in its support for local artists and businesses, Zabel said, and in many ways already doing creative placemaking on its own. A boost from an ArtPlace grant would help enable the city to be a national leader, a model of how a smaller community can pull it off.

“I think it really presents some tremendous opportunities,” she said.