by Doug Roysdon
Over the past few years, we have come to a new and better understanding of how this place we call our town represents a unique social and cultural opportunity. It is our place to celebrate, invest in and promote—our place to make. And, in this brave new world, a popular term full of promise and possibility—creative place-making—has come to resonate broadly as a positive new approach to civic life.
But in our enthusiasm to lay out the blueprints, map out the details of creative place, we have missed a full split in the road; an entire battery of signals, sign posts and red flags. The term creative place-making is not at all the linguistic gift it seems to be. In fact, the term describes a firmly divided enterprise; a parallel venture comprised of two entirely separate social forces. Polar opposites, these forces are cultural place-making and commercial place-making.
There is no ambiguity here. Commercial place-making is an activity that is conceived and shaped solely for financial profit. It is a proposition wholly at the beck and call of the marketplace. And despite some instances of a higher purpose, commercial place-making takes no responsibility for historical interpretation, diverse artistic media, new works, social issues or an eccentric artist community. These things do not sell. They are not what commercial enterprises do or, for that matter, should be expected to do.
Likewise, there is no mystery about the role of cultural place-making. Dependent on legally defined, mission-driven organizations, cultural place-making is charged with doing the work of civilization. It is engaged in the maintenance of civic values, the promotion of citizen participation and the development of art, history, and educational activities. Cultural place-making promotes a world of things that, in general, do not sell; things that are valuable for their contribution to a sane and energetic society.
What happens when we allow these two often complementary but totally disparate forces to merge under a single term, a term that allows them to be regarded as interchangeable entities? Ambiguity reigns. Cultural stewardship becomes impossible. And, the worst happens. The market-place commercializes the cultural; non-profit status is misused to gain unfair commercial advantage among competing enterprises. How important it is to understand that language matters—particularly in regard to such fragile social interests as the sustainable arts?
by Doug Roysdon
Doug Roysdon, of The Mock Turtle Marionette Theater, holds a BFA in Art History and a Certification in Art Education. Roysdon is active in the arts community through his work at the Ice House in Bethlehem.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)
More Voices of the Valley from Sustainable Lehigh Valley.