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Creative Placemaking by Pillsbury House + Theatre, Minneapolis

Crowd of people in front of a building
Community workshop at artist Peter Haakon Thompson's Mobile Sign Shop, Arts on Chicago, 2013.
This post is part of a series of four articles on Creative Placemaking publishing in conjunction with the 2014 ArtPlace America Grantee Summit. The Summit will livestream Monday, March 3 to Wednesday, March 5 on HowlRound.TV. View the schedule and archive here. In Twitter, use #ArtPlace to participate in the conversation.
We completed our ArtPlace funded Arts on Chicago initiative in June of 2013. Arts on Chicago engaged forty artists in twenty placemaking projects to turn a ten-block stretch of Chicago Avenue into an arts district. It was a massive effort that taught us a lot about what Creative Placemaking means in the context of our South Minneapolis community.

The neighborhood surrounding Pillsbury House + Theatre is often characterized as troubled—and the statistics bear this out:

  • There is a high crime rate
  • It is classified as a food desert
  • There are disproportionate levels of poverty
  • A large number of the people here are affected by profound racial disparities

It is painfully apparent in this area that we live in a society that favors some over others. And there is still a pervasive notion that for people who are just trying to land a living wage job or feed their families or maintain shelter—doing art projects or coming to theater is at best fluff, and, at worst, is actually detracting from their ability to meet their basic needs.

And this is still an issue for the arts in general—the notion that art is elitist—that artists are disconnected from “real” life and “regular” people—that art is something that can only be enjoyed by people with leisure time, disposable income, and the requisite levels of education and prior experience.

Yet what we have witnessed/experienced/felt/fostered over the past few years is exactly the opposite: the ability to engage one’s creativity is transformative for people and is especially critical for people in “troubled” communities. Which is why we have chosen to focus our efforts on a hyperlocal level.

Crowd of people holdong up a sign in a store
Selected work from artist Wing Young Huie’s We Are The Other, Arts on Chicago, 2013.

With the invaluable help of Bill Cleveland who runs the Center for the Study of Art and Community we identified two initiatives to weave art into the fabric of our neighborhood for the 16,000 people who come into contact with our regular programs every year and for the 23,000 people who live in the area.

The first initiative involved integrating art into the social service programs of the Pillsbury House Neighborhood Center so that everyone who comes in contact with the center for any reason has an arts experience—whether they hear a new play being read while waiting for their acupuncture appointment at the free integrated health clinic, or see an exhibit of African Art while waiting to have their taxes done by AARP volunteers, or take multiple arts classes each week through the afterschool youth program.

Two people holding blackboards in front of a staircase.
Selected work from artist Wing Young Huie’s We Are The Other, Arts on Chicago, 2013.

The second involved working with partners and community residents to develop a shared creative community development plan to put art out in the neighborhood such that people interact with it and access their own creativity as they go about their daily lives. This became “Arts on Chicago”—our ArtPlace funded project. A few examples of the work undertaken include:

  • Photographer Wing Young Huie created We are the Other—he introduced people in the area to one another by photographing them together in each other’s spaces and then displayed the diptych photos in windows of twenty-two businesses all up and down the street.   
  • Artist Peter Haakon Thompson engaged residents with the Mobile Sign Shop at free outdoor public workshops. Neighbors created over 150 vernacular name signs which adorned the avenue with the goal of increasing residents’ connection to each other while giving people who travel on Chicago Avenue a sense of who lives here, adding names to the place.
  • Artist Mike Hoyt built the Wish Well—an outdoor flexible stage/art making space with seating that has a receptacle and cards for people to leave their wishes for the community and then a scrolling LED screen that displays the wishes for all to see (a wish left in the Fall was simply … "Unicorns”).
Performers on an outdoor stage on the sidewalk
Musicians performing on the Wish Well, Arts on Chicago, 2013.

Through “Arts on Chicago” all kinds of art and creativity have been embedded in the area:

  • 205 artworks were produced by 40 artists. And 655 artworks were produced by community participants.
  • 3,313 community members participated in 87 unique workshops, openings, or public events.
  • Artworks are displayed in 137 unique community locations.
  • 46 local businesses hosted artists & art within ten city blocks.

And though we have been weaving art into the community on a hyperlocal level— there are a few key principles we have identified that are worth sharing:

Use creative practice as a primary engine—for everything.

We started as a professional theater—making a play for us involves creating shared vision, assigning roles, identifying given circumstances, solving problems by holding questions, trying lots of possible solutions, and using imagination to take big leaps, all the while taking lots of risks and ruthlessly eliminating options that do not work… practicing, practicing, practicing and then sharing with lots of people—so wouldn’t it be amazing, we started to think, if we approached everything we did this way and wouldn’t it be triple awesome if all of the participants and all of the neighborhood folks did this too.

Activate Artists—we looked around and realized that our neighborhoods were home to hundreds of artists who often leave the area to make and show their work—so we set about developing ways to support them in engaging their neighbors by using what they already naturally do.

Develop a vehicle for internal combustion—we created an internal Institute—which are quarterly two-day training/open space technology sessions. We have used three different iterations of this: 1.) to unite the theater staff and the social service staff, 2.) to create a shared creative community development plan with community partners, and 3.) to knit neighborhood artists together—it has been pivotal for us. It has become the engine for identifying assets, incubating new ideas, generating action, and cultivating curiosity. Through it we have created shared values, standards of practice, and a method of sharing leadership.


The ability to engage one’s creativity is transformative for people and is especially critical for people in “troubled” communities.


Build lots and lots of relationships without focusing first on strategy and immediate payoff. A lot of what we did worked because we have a built in accountability to a community: we are here every day, we have been here for a long time, and we are going to be here for a long time. Once there is organic trust based on an experience of working together, it is much easier to find that sweet spot of intersecting self-interest.  

And while the arc of community change is long there is early evidence that outcomes are being improved:

  • We have seen big shifts in the narrative of our neighborhood—including being highlighted in the May of 2013 the Minnesota Monthly magazine as an “Up and Coming Neighborhood” in their 12 Great Neighborhoods article.
  • 92 percent of people surveyed in the summer of 2013 stated they felt “somewhat more” or “more” connected to the neighborhood.
  • Ninety seven kids assessed in arts integrated youth programs improved by 25 percent in each of the 7 Cs—Compassion, Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, Contribution, and Creativity.
  • Pre and Post “Arts on Chicago” artist surveys show increases in connection to other artists in the neighborhood, capacity to earn a living as an artist and level of connection to neighbors.

Now when we think about Creative Placemaking, we see it as being about people; the people are the place. And our ArtPlace work has led to our current ambition to create an interconnected web, unleashing art and creative practice as the connective tissue among all of the people in our neighborhood—increasing access, agency, and attachment for all. This may not solve the issues that our neighborhood is struggling with by itself, but weaving art into the community so that it touches everyone can give people a sense that they have the ability to imagine and make an alternate future together. 

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Thoughts from the curator

A series on Creative Placemaking in conjunction with the 2014 ArtPlace America Grantee Summit.

ArtPlace Grantee Summit 2014


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