Starting with its founding as a Free State bastion, Lawrence often has attracted unconventional and controversial thinking. Perhaps at least in part because of that tradition, Lawrence also seems to attract more than its share of people involved in the creative arts.
Now leaders in the Lawrence arts community are working to blend those two community assets in a project they call “creative placemaking.” The idea, they say, is to take the city’s existing artistic and cultural attributes and build on them to make our community even more vibrant.
Organizations like the Lawrence Arts Center, the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Lawrence-based Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area are working together to get this ball rolling. Their first step was to gain city designation of a “cultural district,” which covers portions of downtown and the area to the east. Included in the district are sites of both historical and artistic significance to the community.
Another major effort in the process is seeking grant funding from ArtPlace, a foundation that supports creative placemaking efforts. Lawrence is one of 105 finalists competing for one of about 40 grants to be approved by ArtPlace this year. The Lawrence proposal calls for using the grant money to bring in resident artists with experience in exploring local cultures and creating public art projects that reflect those cultures.
In preparation for seeking the grant, Arts Center Director Susan Tate has spent about a year working to build community support for the project and finding the focal point for the local creative placemaking effort. To find that theme, the organizers went back to the community’s tradition of radicalism, often thought to be fostered by the survivors of Quantrill’s Raid. That radicalism has cropped up over the years in civil rights issues and war protests. The community also has been home to radical authors like Langston Hughes and William S. Burroughs and fostered a bevy of artistic efforts based on political issues and social justice.
Conflict and controversy create a fertile atmosphere for creative expression. Whether it’s through visual arts, literature, theater or other efforts, art becomes a vehicle for expressing deeper truths or simply trying to make sense of the surrounding world.
Some East Lawrence residents are concerned that bolstering art and cultural efforts will detract from the current character of their neighborhood, but, overall, reactions to the creative placemaking plans have been positive. The plans seem like a great way to support the community’s current artists and feed local interest in the arts while also attracting more visitors and encouraging efforts to use the arts as an economic development tool.
Much of the art created in Lawrence doesn’t seem all that “radical,” but, for whatever reason, our community certainly is filled with talented and creative people. Promoting these artists and tying them to the community and its heritage is an interesting and worthwhile effort.