When I was a kid I loved getting a new box of Legos. There was a great rush of satisfaction in making all the little pieces come together to look like the thing that was on the box, to make Robin Hood’s hideout, the intergalactic spaceship, or the hidden pirate cove. Even more than that first rush, though, was the joy of taking apart all those carefully designed models and building a new world where knights charged pirates, castles and skyscrapers existed side-by-side, and the multi-colored mess of blocks became something invested with my own imagination.
I think that is why I am so excited about these toolkits and resources that we are able to offer through Creative Exchange. The toolkits all come from a place of having been created from practical experience – we know it’s possible to build the thing that’s on the box. At Springboard for the Arts we’ve created our own Artists’ Health Fairs, and are entering our fifth year of Community Supported Art. The Center for Urban & Regional Affairs’ toolkits – The Road To The Community Plan and Your Idea Here: A Toolkit for Unlocking the Community Potential of Vacant Storefronts – come out of research and community planning in neighborhoods in Saint Paul, MN. Block Party in a Box comes from a city planner in London, Ontario, working with neighbors to build something together. The Pop Up Museum has become an integral part of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History’s programming. Our newest toolkit addition, the Neighborhood Postcard Project, started in San Francisco at the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation as a project for the Bayview neighborhood, and then spread citywide.
But that’s just the starting point for these toolkits and the potential projects they represent. Each toolkit has been designed to be adapted, like the dismantling of the box-cover model into something new and from the local imagination. The Pop Up Museum website has a full page of adaptations of subject matter, from surfing to African-American history to Missed Connections, each with a different presenting partner. Each CSA replication, and there were 27 active ones in 2013, has been adapted to local markets, aesthetics and communities. The Pittsburgh Arts Council recognized a need in their community and used the Artists’ Health Fair toolkit, combined it with a housing fair, and created the Health & Housing Fair for Artists, or HE-HO. How can you not love something called HE-HO?
That adaptation points out another integral part of these toolkits, which is that none of them can be executed alone. Just like building Lego worlds was more fun with my family or friends, these toolkits can be used to support and activate artists in communities and build something together. Artists, our creativity, and the potential projects represented in these toolkits help us get to a place where we can build not just something that meets our needs, but articulates a changing vision of our world. We need to do something about these vacant storefronts and we have a vision of vibrant and engaged spaces in our community. We need to change the perception of our neighborhood and we have a vision of an interconnected city. We need to get to know our neighbors and we have a vision of joyful relationships. Artists and their work can help make those visions tangible.
It is, of course, work. No Creative Exchange toolkit is going to address all the issues in a community, and building something together, as you know if you ever had siblings who took all the best blocks, can be trying and emotional. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Trenton, NJ just launched a CSA project, and a story about the launch quotes artist Tamara Torres, saying, “Art definitely saved my life. It cleared up my head. I think it does that for a lot of kids…I didn’t feel out of place here. I feel like I’m really part of the art community.” The Artists’ Health Fairs have created a healthier artist population, who in turn create a healthier community.
So go ahead and get a toolkit. Ask a question on the Civic Commons page. Be in touch. Creative Exchange is the place where we can share, adapt, build and imagine together.
Carl Atiya Swanson is Director of Movement Building at Springboard for the Arts, an economic development organization for artists and by artists based in St. Paul, Minnesota.