Massive undertaking aims to transform Lawrence from artsy to ArtPlace

Arts Center leads charge for 'creative placemaking' projects

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.

Susan Tate, executive director of the Lawrence Arts Center, talks with community members gathered at Ecumenical Campus Ministries on Wednesday, April 3, 2013. Tate and others from the Arts Center are spearheading an effort to win an ArtPlace grant that would bring in resident artists to pursue a creative placemaking project in Lawrence.

Being an artsy town is one thing.

Sculpting that into a concrete concept that will win grant money — over hundreds of other artsy towns vying for the same prize — is another.

You brainstorm. You try to reach every stakeholder. You form a plan, one that can be explained on paper, and build support for it. You ease suspicions of dissenters within the ranks and prepare answers to all the questions people you’ll never meet need to be convinced your plan is worthy. And you bring in the big guns.

And after a year of that, the Lawrence Arts Center has a toehold. But only that. So far.

Lawrence is among a sliver of national finalists for a coveted arts grant that could change the landscape of downtown and propel the city to model-status in the world of creative placemaking.

Creative what?

Even proponents acknowledge the term “creative placemaking” isn’t very concrete in itself.

“While it has generated great interest,” reads a report from ArtPlace, the organization doling out the grants, “defining creative placemaking and its results is still a work in progress.”

But basically, the concept is like arts- and culture-based community development.

The process is supposed to work from the inside out. The idea is to take a community’s existing artistic and cultural attributes and bolster them to increase local vibrancy.

At least that’s the gist of how Lawrence is interpreting it.

Winning an ArtPlace grant would enable the Lawrence Arts Center to hire an internationally acclaimed pair of artists to create a public art project aimed at highlighting Lawrence’s radical roots.

But that’s only the first inning of a much larger, long-term vision, Arts Center director Susan Tate said. If Lawrence doesn’t make the final cut, she said, the time and money that’s been spent chasing the grant won’t be for naught.

If nothing else, a designated downtown cultural district created in the process is here to stay.

Making the cut

ArtPlace, a collaboration between national and regional foundations and six of the country’s largest banks, announced in January that Lawrence is one of 105 finalists for one of the organization’s creative placemaking grants. Generally, about 40 grants are awarded each year.

The Arts Center’s proposal calls for using grant money, if obtained, to bring in resident artists that specialize in creative placemaking activities. The plan envisions a project by public art duo Sans façon — French architect Charles Blanc and British artist Tristan Surtees — who have embedded themselves in communities worldwide, exploring each place’s unique culture and creating public art projects that bring it to light. Their latest project, “Watershed+,” involves exposing underground pipes and pumping stations in Calgary to highlight the city’s important relationship with water.

To get the placemaking ball rolling in Lawrence, in addition to the ArtPlace grant application, the Arts Center spearheaded an effort to designate Lawrence’s art- and amenity-rich downtown area a “cultural district.” In February, the City Commission approved the designation, which covers a three-quarter-square-mile area roughly bounded by the Kansas River, 15th Street, Vermont Street and the north end of the Burroughs Creek Trail.

Tate has been chasing this vision for roughly a year, working the crowd of local interests, from businesspeople to government officials to neighborhood residents, to promote the possibility of a cultural district. Some stakeholders required more persuading than others, such as East Lawrence residents who fear the project will lead to gentrification that would push out low-income inhabitants of their neighborhood.

It’s part of the effort to fulfill two key ArtPlace requirements: that the community is on board and that now is the right time for a placemaking project.

‘Free the Radicals’

Tate said the goal is creating a downtown atmosphere for Lawrence “that isn’t just like every other place in the world.” To do that, the obvious choice is building on a theme your community has that others don’t.

For Lawrence, the Arts Center has decided, that’s radicals.

William Clarke Quantrill, the pro-slavery leader who sacked Lawrence in 1863, remains the most popular inquiry from drop-ins at the Lawrence Visitors Center, said Fred Conboy, who leads the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.

The pro-freedom survivors of Quantrill’s Raid rallied, rebuilt and seemed to spur a spirit of radicalism in the town that would last for generations. Inspired by this track record, the Arts Center’s ArtPlace project proposal is titled “Free the Radicals.”

“It’s a city that encourages controversy in the quest for truth,” Conboy said.

A century or so later, around 1970, the issue was civil rights, and protests, many of them centered on the Kansas University campus, were violent.

“Once again, Lawrence, Kansas, and KU in particular became kind of a flashpoint for the enduring struggles for freedom,” Conboy said.

And of course, there are the radical artists in the city’s cultural history. Among Lawrence’s most famous past residents are poet and social activist Langston Hughes and counterculturist author William S. Burroughs.

New artwork in Lawrence continues to tell those radical stories in fresh ways, Conboy said. The Arts Center’s annual “Kansas Nutcracker” ballet replaces the traditional characters with historical figures from Bleeding Kansas. Quilter Marla Jackson‘s masterpieces include textiles inspired by African-Americans’ quest for equality.

Conboy likes the idea of using creative placemaking to tie these stories together.

“Art is a way to experience what is kind of under our nose but in a way to keep it vital and fresh for the new visitor, as well as for the next generation,” he said.

Second try

Lawrence has been here before. In 2010, the Lawrence Arts Center and the city made an unsuccessful bid for a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant to fund a creative placemaking project.

Even though that application failed, Tate said, the process got conversations rolling and revealed something else important: Lawrence couldn’t answer the question, “How does this project fit into your community’s larger portfolio of strategies for cultural and economic development?”

There was no “larger portfolio.”

As much as the community supports its cultural assets, the city didn’t have an official cultural plan.

The ArtPlace grant application has a similar requirement, and this time the Arts Center was prepared.

Tate took the lead in getting the cultural district idea drawn up and, ultimately, approved. While the city has yet to OK any projects in the district, having it on paper indicates formal municipal support. And that’s what keepers of the grants want to see.

In addition to the proposed ArtPlace grant, the Arts Center has applied for a $75,000 Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission grant for creative or cultural district planning. Tate said that money, if secured, would fund the development of a formal county- or citywide cultural plan.

All aboard

When it comes to community support for a cultural plan, Rocco Landesman said he hasn’t seen it at Lawrence’s level in any other place. And Broadway and arts impresario Landesman is a guy who would know.

The recently retired National Endowment for the Arts chairman and ArtPlace chairman emeritus visited Lawrence last year and found himself seated at a table with everyone from the mayor to artists ready to discuss Lawrence’s placemaking goals.

“It was amazing,” Landesman said. “You had everybody in that community sitting around, which told me that there was tremendous buy-in by all elements … I was struck right then that everybody seems to be on the same page.”

That’s important, Landesman said, because organizations like ArtPlace want to invest in places that have a good chance of success.

Landesman is no longer involved in choosing who gets ArtPlace grants, but he said Lawrence has the three critical components: A tradition of artistic production, significant arts support from the private sector and a political structure that understands the value of arts in the community.

“You can’t just create an arts district in the middle of the Sahara Desert,” he said.

‘The energy level is just right there’

The scene Landesman experienced during his visit repeated itself in February, when an ArtPlace representative came to the city for an in-person site visit. The mayor, Arts Center patrons, business leaders and local artists filled a room at the Arts Center. Even Sans façon’s two artists were there, flying in despite an impending snowstorm.

Mayor Bob Schumm cited the popularity of Final Fridays and the Warehouse Arts District, plus the community’s support of the new school bond that will save neighborhood schools.

“You can see how these piecemeal things have all indicated we’re ready for the next big step,” Schumm said. “The energy level is just right there at this moment.”

Warehouse Arts District developer Tony Krsnich told the group that even before the Poehler Loft Apartments opened at 619 E. Eighth St., the units were all spoken for. Plans are already in motion to build more.

Even East Lawrence community leaders are on board, though they say they’ll keep close watch over conversations to ensure plans are a good fit for their neighborhood.

“It’s a cautious optimism. It sounds like a lot of good things can come of it, but we have to be wary of our own long-term residents,” Josh Davis, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association, said of the cultural district plan.

Moment of truth

Lawrence finds out next month if it’s been chosen for one of this year’s ArtPlace grants. In its first two years of awarding grants, ArtPlace gave a total of $26.9 million to 76 organizations in 46 communities. Past grants have ranged from about $150,000 to half a million dollars.

Whether she’s managed to convince the ArtPlace selection committee or not, Tate said she knows Lawrence is ready for a creative placemaking project that will bridge the gap between being “artsy” and truly investing in art as a social and economic catalyst.

“Lawrence is ready for a big leap,” she said. “We’re ready to be a model.”

If Lawrence isn’t chosen for ArtPlace grant, she said, the Arts Center will apply again. And grant or no grant, the effort they’ve put in trying is good for the city’s future.

“Much of the work in considering what adds vibrancy and diversity to a place is done in the application process, and so it has absolutely not been a waste of time,” she said.

Tate said she’s confident creative placemaking can move forward in Lawrence in a way that benefits everyone.

“Neighborhoods don’t stand still,” Tate said. “Neighborhoods are always in the process of changing — all neighborhoods. And any time we have the opportunity to bring people together to discuss how investments are made and why, it’s an improvement over randomness and chance.”