'Change agent' Maria Rosario Jackson shows ASU students how to strengthen communities through design, art

By

Deborah Sussman Susser

What is creative placemaking?

Celina Tchida has thought about this question more than most people. A graduate student in community development in Arizona State University's School of Community Resources and Development, she’s worked with a nonprofit in the Valley on “a few light creative placemaking projects.”

But, Tchida said, it wasn’t until this semester and her class with Maria Rosario Jackson that she realized that “creative placemaking is much more than murals and artistic bike locks — though they can count too!”

Jackson is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the phenomenon known as creative placemaking, with expertise in comprehensive community revitalization, systems change, the dynamics of race and ethnicity and the roles of arts and culture in communities. She is also the fourth and newest Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, with an appointment in The Design School. Jackson joins three other Institute Professors already teaching at ASU: dance legend Liz Lerman, composer and multi-disciplinary collaborator Daniel Bernard Roumain and theater artist and civic innovator Michael Rohd.  

Jackson's position is a cross-appointment with the ASU College of Public Service and Community Solutions, part of a larger effort to build a more integrated working relationship between Herberger Institute and the college, according to Greg Esser, creative placemaking project director in the Herberger Institute.

“We’re excited to have somebody with Maria's record as a scholar and a change agent at ASU,” said Jonathan Koppell, dean of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. “She is a perfect bridge between Herberger Institute and the College of Public Service. ASU is one of very few universities that see the strong connection between the arts and the strengthening of communities. So that partnership is vital.”

In 2016, the Herberger Institute received close to $900,000 dollars from the Kresge and Surdna foundations to design an initiative that will make ASU a center of research and activity around creative placemaking and design- and arts-led community development.

“The idea that designers and artists are critical assets for building more resilient and equitable cities and communities is the most important innovation in arts and cultural policy over the past decade, with close to $200M being committed to creative placemaking projects across America," said Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute. "Maria’s appointment will help ASU lead in this area, just like we have led in sustainability, biodesign and educational technology. Maria is widely known as a deep thinker and gifted scholar who has persistently challenged conventional ways of thinking about culture and community.”

A senior adviser to the Arts and Culture Program at The Kresge Foundation and formerly adjunct faculty at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California and also at the University of Southern California, Jackson led research on arts and culture and comprehensive community revitalization at the Urban Institute in Washington DC for close to two decades, writing field-defining reports on cultural indicators and systems of support for artists and creative workers. She was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Obama in 2013 and serves on the advisory boards of the Lambent Foundation and L.A. Commons and on boards of directors of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and The Music Center of Los Angeles County. She holds a doctorate in urban planning from UCLA and a master’s degree in public administration from University of Southern California. 

This semester, Jackson is teaching a graduate seminar titled “Arts/Culture in Communities: Revitalization.” With Phoenix as their focus, the students are researching issues such as how art, culture and creativity manifest in low-income and historically marginalized neighborhoods; how a community’s cultural assets contribute to community development, efforts to improve health, address environmental issues and catalyze and deepen civic engagement; and what systemic changes are required for the sustained integration of arts and culture in community revitalization and equitable development.

“I think that what is exciting about Herberger Institute is that it starts in a place where a lot of other folks may need to catch up: thinking in a manner that puts the design, arts and culture in a central position in how we think about the world and equity issues and places where all people can thrive,” Jackson said. “I think it has the opportunity to position activity that has too often been relegated to the margins in a way that is strategic and impactful.”

“Before I took this class,” Tchida said, “I saw creative placemaking as people claiming place by creative or cultural means. I also believed that community planning and development ‘experts’ were unwilling to explore the more difficult questions like 'who does creative placemaking?', 'for whom?', and 'at whose expense?'”

Thanks to Jackson’s insights, Tchida says she’s learned that creative placemaking “is about incorporating our diverse ways of seeing and understanding the world into the way we plan and make decisions.”

Tchida says the students in Jackson’s class range in their interests, from art entrepreneurship to theater, sustainability, design and community development — the seminar is structured that way intentionally — but that regardless of where they come from and where they hope to go, “this class is pushing us to think about how creativity and culture can impact how we deal with the world. I could talk all day about how refreshing it is to work with a professional and a scholar who maintains a critical perspective and dedication to equity, particularly as it relates to race and class.”

Jackson believes that art is “a big umbrella,” one that includes aspects of everyday lived experience that we don’t always fully value as part of our cultural life, and that good creative placemaking honors the cultural assets of a place, rather than imposing or wholly fabricating something without local resonance.

“I think placemaking at its best doesn’t start with a tabula rasa approach,” she said in an interview posted to the NEA website. “It in some ways presumes that there’s something there already and something there that is potentially valuable.”

To hear more of the interview with Jackson about creative placemaking visit https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/maria-rosario-jackson-podcast-final-012215.mp3.