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Essay

The Right to the Creative City– Notes from the Field

by Gülgün Kayim

 

I offer these reflections from two perspectives: first, from my lived experience as a socially-engaged artist working in traumatized communities of Cyprus, my homeland, and second, from the perspective of an arts administrator working within Minneapolis local government.

My creative work is informed by my lived experiences and history on the island of Cyprus, which has been in a constant state of violent intercommunal conflict since 1963. The conflict culminated in 1974 with the invasion by Turkey and the island’s subsequent geographic partition. A demilitarized buffer zone now separates the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities. I am an artist whose work navigates the geopolitical conflict and violence of my homeland through site-based performance. My work and creative process offers strategies for surviving the trauma of living in and leaving a homeland torn apart by division and violence. 

As a Turkish-Cypriot born into the midst of intercommunal conflict, I became part of the Cypriot diaspora when my family migrated to North London[1] (Cyprus was a British colony until 1960). I grew up among Cypriot refugees and migrants from the former British Colony (and other immigrants), and as an adult I relocated to the United States. These traumatized and displaced people, unmoored from their homeland and cultures, often brought with them and held onto their memories of violence and animosity, and through their stories, reinscribed the physical boundaries of the buffer zone across generations. I was no exception, and like many others in my family I have been affected by traumas that flow from the tactile memories of the violence and fear I had experienced on Cyprus as well as from the postmemories[2] of my family members. My performance work seeks to create new narrative pathways through generational trauma that offer healing as well as alternatives to the divisions created by the conflict. 

Over the last 10 years, my identity as an artist and experience as an administrator have contributed to a program that combines socially-engaged creative practices with city government policy and systems change efforts. The program is Creative CityMaking, and its goal is to partner community artists with city staff to address racial inequities in city processes, policies and practices so that government can be more responsive to the needs of marginalized communities. Often, these same communities are also experiencing generational trauma. 

I share these notes to capture the conflicting realities I am witnessing in the arts field and to recognize the importance of supporting the basic needs of individual artists, whether in the ethnically-divided city of Nicosia, or the racially-divided city where George Floyd lived and died. While formal systems and structures that traditionally support arts and culture are in crisis, under- or unemployed community-based artists are stepping up to play a powerful, historic and transformational role in healing and supporting communities most impacted by COVID and traumatized by systemic violence. These apparent contradictions demonstrate that the energy, power and resiliency of the creative city rest not in those institutions that are part of the physical city infrastructure and establishment, but in the individuals that are part of informal social networks and economies. I propose that we need to lean in, listen and support the creative city as seen through the eyes of these individuals.

1. Systemic Challenges to the ‘Creative City’

I joined the city of Minneapolis in 2011 in the role of Director of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. This was a newly created position with the intention of providing the city with leadership, visibility and strategic guidance on the role that arts and culture could play in community development. At the time, significant investments were being made nationally on a number of pilot creative placemaking projects by private foundations such as Artplace America[3] and the Kresge Foundation, in coordination with public sector investors such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The Twin Cities was one of those pilot sites for a project managed by Springboard for the Arts[4] in collaboration with the city of St. Paul, and Minneapolis had just begun a project in collaboration with the Hennepin Theatre Trust. Minneapolis city leadership was eager to explore ways that government could further leverage ideas and investments to support community development and participate in the emerging national movement coalescing around concepts for creative placemaking. 

My position provides the opportunity to research, pilot and test new approaches to integrating arts and cultural practices into city systems, and also apply the knowledge I have gained from my creative practice and years as an arts administrator in the field of public art. It is from this position that I have been able to research and understand the processes and systems behind policy making that drives the work of government, as well as better see and understand the systems and structures of private and public investment and institutional support that scaffolds creative activity in our community. It is also from this position that I question practices that emphasize institutional collaboration. I suggest instead that we need to prioritize resourcing those individuals who are the heart of the creative city.

It will not surprise anyone when I note that 2020 was a transformative year. The COVID-19 pandemic, a once-in-a-century shock to our public health system, has revealed the weaknesses and imbalances not just in health care but at all levels of life. In the arts and cultural sector specifically, the fissures exposed by the economic crisis are the conditions that were already problematic. These conditions exist in the form of the economic and racial inequities that were built into existing arts and culture infrastructures and are reflected, for example, in the unequal access to resources among nonprofit arts organizations, the lack of safety nets for freelance artists and creative workers, and the high cost of further education combined with the lack of job opportunities for new graduates in the arts. 

As an acute emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic reveals existing underlying conditions and increases institutional and systemic inequities. These structural shocks challenge the relevancy of the establishment arts and culture infrastructure in this country. It is no longer feasible to think about or discuss cultural planning concepts such as the ‘creative city’ when the assumptions behind these concepts are no longer relevant. For example, precarities in employment for freelance creatives (Americans for the Arts) have been exacerbated by the pandemic, effectively destroying the livelihoods of many individual workers in the arts industry. Long-standing frustrations with national institutions such as Americans for the Arts (AFTA), the national nonprofit arts service organization, have spilled over into public demands from its membership for transparency and accountability. These demands are in response to both devastating economic losses and to statements made by AFTA in response to the killing of George Floyd (Floyd). In this moment, a movement is building through informal networks and coalitions that is focused on creative workers and alternative advocacy strategies and, in particular, on racial inequities in arts and culture funding and employment (Kayzar and Kayim 32).[5] The Put Creative Workers to Work coalition (Americans for the Arts) has proposed 16 policy areas for restructuring federal policy to support racial equity in the employment of individual artists. The Cultural New Deal for Cultural and Racial Justice (Race Forward) is a national call for strategies that direct investment in arts to prioritize Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. Closer to home, the Minnesota Artist Coalition is an informal coalition of artists seeking to provide advocacy for freelance creatives, center the needs of BIPOC public artists and shift local systems of funding (MN Artists Coalition). These efforts all address the existing and historic racial inequities in resource allocation for the arts and, in so doing, point to the inadequacies of those ‘creative city’ concepts and values that are so popular with planners and that place urban economic growth over community wellbeing, access and inclusion (Smith and Warfield 3).[6] 

2. The ‘Creative City’: a Community Resource 

The importance of grassroots artists and informal arts organizations at times of great stress and trauma became especially clear during the racial justice protests following the killing of George Floyd. The informal nature of arts activation was crucial as artists took on for themselves roles supporting local, national and international protest movements. Often unpaid, these artist activists have created artwork and actions in the streets, on buildings and street corners and through mobile projects and virtual events to support the communities most impacted by the stresses and trauma caused by COVID-19 and triggered by the continued police killings of unarmed Black men and women. 

The summer of 2020 was a catalyst for those of us who witnessed via social media the atrocious public killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Over the next weeks, a rage swept through Minneapolis and the nation that could not be contained. A once-in-a-generation fury brought forth fire, anger and pent up frustration that crashed through bricks and mortar businesses and obliterated the 3rd police precinct. The uprisings on Lake Street, on Broadway Avenue, on Cedar Riverside and on Franklin Avenue crashed in waves over the course of three days and spilled over into St. Paul, the nation and the world, turning into a global protest movement against police brutality and racial inequities. 

The uprisings in Minneapolis took on the pattern of peaceful daytime protests followed by nighttime violence, and these actions emanated from the place where Floyd died, at the intersection of 38th and Chicago Avenue. Like the eye of a hurricane, the intersection itself remained a relatively peaceful focal point for gathering and for people wishing to pay their respects, protest and mourn even as the uprisings raged in surrounding communities. After the deployment of the Minnesota National Guard, however, the nighttime violence subsided, and mostly peaceful protests resumed and are still ongoing as of September 2021.

Image 1: The memorial grew from the location where George Floyd was murdered outside of Cup Foods at the intersection of Chicago Ave and 38th Street. (Photo credit: Yeshim Kayim-Yanko) For fuller images, see slider at the bottom of the page.

The intersection of 38th and Chicago continues to be an informal, major gathering place for demonstrators, artists and activists. Now designated officially by the city as ‘George Perry Floyd Jr. Place,’ the intersection is an important symbol for those seeking racial justice and reconciliation against police violence. It is also a busy intersection and commercial node that has been closed to traffic since May 2020 when protestors took

control of a four-block area by barricading and naming it an autonomous zone in order to facilitate space for a makeshift memorial. Since then the memorial has grown organically, and so far, city officials have facilitated the community’s desires to protect the space by adding concrete barricades to more effectively block the area from traffic.

Image 2: Close up portrait of George Floyd, “Icon of a Revolution,” painted by artist Peyton Scott Russell (Photo credit: Yeshim Kayim-Yanko)

Community artists reacted quickly to Floyd’s death. They not only took to the streets to create hundreds of pieces of protest art, but they have engaged in the aftermath by creating supportive events, cleanup activities, efforts to promote dialogue and help community members process the moment.

Image 3: Boarded up store fronts along the Hennepin Ave commercial corridor (Photo credit: Brenda Kayzar)

Image 4: Murals by Creatives After Curfew, a collective of mural artists formed during the Minneapolis uprisings (Photo credit: Creatives After Curfew)

 

Community artists and public art have played an important role all over the city, but especially in George Floyd Square. A large bronze fist sculpture to honor Black power was conceived, created and erected entirely by community activist artists at the center of the intersection, effectively transforming the intersection into a plaza.

 Murals have sprung up on plywood boards that were put up by surrounding business owners to protect their windows, and these boards became canvases for expression. A rope sections off the precise place where Floyd was killed, and the area is covered with smaller artwork, flowers and notes left as offerings. This location is also a destination for performances, ceremonies, actions and activities by artists, formal and informal arts groups. Collectively, this area is a community driven artwork and serves as an expression of outrage and solidarity in the face of continued police violence.

Image 5: Community offerings left at the site of George Floyd’s murder (Photo credit: Yeshim Kayim-Yanko) 

Image 6: Hand statue outside Cup Foods (Photo credit: Yeshim Kayim-Yanko)

Local community-based arts and culture institutions responded to the moment in a variety of ways, commissioning large-scale street murals,[7] providing storage space for the plywood painted boards and helping to educate community members on how to preserve and maintain the artwork. In June, my office responded by repurposing $110,000 in grant funding from the Kresge Foundation to support 10 teams of community artists as they worked to respond to urgent community needs. The aim of this fund was to mobilize the unique and specialized skills of community

 artists to engage with and expand the impact of healing and community support. We selected 10 projects that responded to the historic moment in Minneapolis and awarded them $10,000 each. These grant dollars also recognized the unpaid labor of artists as they respond to multiple health and racism emergencies to support community needs. The first funding priority was given to Black artists working with communities who have historically experienced the stress and trauma of racial discrimination. The funded projects ranged in nature from pop-up healing and beauty stations, filmed performances projected onto damaged and destroyed spaces, painted murals that share native medicinal knowledge, community healing through artmaking, and engagement events involving storytelling and deep dialogue.

Image 7: Modified bus stop re-reroute sign located at George Floyd Square (Photo credit: Yeshim Kayim-Yanko)

The project ‘Haircuts for Change,’ created by artist, designer and architect Sam Ero-Phillips, is a good illustration of the type of work supported by the fund. Sam created an open-air barber shop and hybrid altar that also functioned as a performance stage. The barber shop, historically a space for neighbors to connect, was situated within a landscape of rubble on Lake Street, just eight blocks from George Floyd Square. This project remained in the area for three weeks and offered locals the opportunity for respite in the aftermath of the destruction. By inviting community members to pause for selfcare, beauty and haircuts in this particular pop-up location, the project gestured to the need for processing grief and supported locals in addressing their own healing on their own terms. To activate the space, Sam collaborated with artist Marie Christie Owens, George Macintyre (Mack the Barber) and local street performance troupe Barebones Puppets. At the conclusion of the project, Barebones presented PASSAGES: Mourning The Fires of Lake Street, a performance parade starting at the installation and concluding at George Floyd Square. 

Images 8 and 9: Mack the Barber working on clients at Haircuts for Change (Photo credit: Pierre Ware)

Stress and tension release through selfcare and community connection were common themes across the 10 projects. In Harvest Feast, artists Keegan Xavi and Sayge Carroll engaged residents by hosting specially-prepared harvest meals in areas of the city experiencing food insecurity. This project also included community art-making sessions in collaboration with community elder Amoke Kabut, founder of Yo Mama’s House, and an action painting session designed specifically for participants to release stress and tension. Creatives After Curfew, an informal group of mural artists formed during the Minneapolis uprisings and responsible for many of the murals on boarded up store fronts, created and installed a set of murals in neighborhood spaces collectively titled Art for the Nervous System. These pieces communicate simple herbal, energetic medicine and healing knowledge. These projects were intimate, beautiful, responsive and deeply caring, and demonstrated how artists use their skills to weave community relationships, build social cohesion and help communities heal on their own terms. 

Image 10: Release It community event by artists Kegan Xavi and Sayge Carroll (Photo credit: Keegan Xavi)

Funded artists were interviewed by Stuart Deets, a University of Minnesota Create Scholar[8] who worked under the direction of Brenda Kayzar Ph.D.[9] on behalf of my office, to help facilitate a limited evaluative study focused on demonstrating how artists are networked within place-based and identity-based communities. Study findings revealed that artists are uniquely positioned to understand and respond to the needs of communities who are most affected by police violence and susceptible to government-inflicted harm.[10] These artists “honor a community’s self-determination and offer the community a sense of self-control” (Kayzar and Deets 1) and thus provide valuable pathways for community empowerment and activism. Moreover, community-based artists are important to the long-term sustainability of marginalized communities because they understand, negotiate and translate over time the complex contexts and relationships between communities and institutions. Kayzar and Deets point out that “through this community empowerment, the artists hope to shape the politics and policies that will impact the community in the future” (Kayzar and Deets 1).

While the future of 38th and Chicago remains uncertain, the community has been organized and purposeful in its efforts to maintain and care for the area, paying equal attention to the condition of the artwork as it does to providing for the health and safety of visitors through sanitation and medical stations. Activists issued 24 demands to city officials through a Racial Justice Resolution[11], which outlines the steps that need to be taken to address historic racial injustices in the city. This resolution outlines community demands to hold the police officers, city and county officials accountable for the killing of Floyd and of other unarmed Black men over the last six years. It also exemplifies the divisions between the city and community on how public resources have been prioritized and allocated away from the city’s most disadvantaged communities.

Image 11: A neighbor showing the results of her Tiny Art project at a Harvest Feast community event by artists Kegan Xavi and Sayge Carroll (Photo credit: Pierre Ware)

It is important to recognize the symbolic importance of George Floyd Square to the local community and the nation, and it is through the art located there that we see expressions of the moods and feelings of the community. It is the art that gives the area visibility, importance and a sense of collective selfhood.[12] I have learned through my work in Cyprus and now Minneapolis that community-based artists are able, through their informal networks, to offer ways for communities to make tangible their personal and collective feelings. They also offer alternative, discrete pathways for community self-determination and empowerment. The ‘creative city’ that I see therefore is composed of these individuals working supportively alongside marginalized communities and grass-roots movements to amplify, sustain and support them into the future. So it is with hope that I see socially engaged artists participating in the protest movement at George Floyd Square, and facilitating community dialogues and healing. 

Image 12: Healing mural installed on a neighbor’s fence by Creatives After Curfew (Photo credit: Creatives After Curfew)

 

 

Gülgün Kayim is the Director of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy for the city of Minneapolis. As a practicing artist she has worked across sectors for many years in the fields of public art and location-based performance. Her research investigates the role of narrative in the built environment with a focus on socially engaged creative practices, contested landscapes, urban planning and economic development.


Notes

[1] From 1878 to 1914 Cyprus was a British protectorate, a unilaterally annexed military occupation from 1914 to 1925 and from 1925 to 1960 it was a British Crown colony.
[2] Marianne Hirsch argues that traumatic memories can be inherited from close relatives. Traumatic events live on and can mark the lives of those who were not there to experience them. Children of survivors and their contemporaries inherit catastrophic histories not through direct recollection but through postmemories mediated through images, objects, stories, behaviors, and affects passed down within the family and also within a culture. Hirsch, Marianne ‘The Generation of Postmemory’ Poetics Today 29, no 1 (2008) 103-12.
[3] ArtPlace America was a 10-year collaboration started in 2010 among a number of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions that works to position arts and culture as a core sector of comprehensive community planning and development in order to help strengthen the social, physical, and economic fabric of communities.
[4] ‘Irrigate’ was a 3-year community development strategy created by Springboard for the Arts in collaboration with the City of St. Paul and Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation in response to the disruptive construction of a light rail line through the city’s urban core. The program was a creative placemaking demonstration project supported by Artplace America, among other funders. 
[5] The Minneapolis Creative Index Report identified racial disparities in employment and pay for creatives of color in the Minneapolis metro area. The report shows that of the region’s 81,038 creative jobs, only 13% (10,644) are people of color in comparison to the national average of 30% people of color in creative jobs.
[6] Authors Smith and Warfield mapped the value orientations and the means to achieve the creative city in Canada by identifying creative city orientations as either culture-centric or econo-centric. 
[7] The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery Commissioned a large-scale street Black Lives Matter mural directly on the street working with 16 Black artists. 
[8] UMN’s Create Initiative “addresses real world problems that materially impact equitable access to environmental amenities while fostering environmental, economic, and racial justice”. https://create.umn.edu/.
[9] Stuart Deets, Ph.D candidate at the University of Minnesota worked under the direction of Brenda Kayzar, Ph.D. founder of Urbane DrK Consulting and long-time research partner of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. This team conducted qualitative evaluation with Creative Response Fund artists to explore their connection to their communities and their approach to healing.
[10] These findings were consolidated into a 2021 evaluation for the Kresge Foundation 
[11] The George Floyd Square Resolution was posted online on August 7, 2020 and also sent directly to city of Minneapolis elected officials. 
[12] Yi Fu Tuan, in his chapter on Visibility: the Creation of Place points to art and architecture as importance ways that cultures make visible the emotions, feelings and rhythms of functional life.


Works Cited

ACCE (2021). Creative CityMaking and Creative Response Fund Evaluation. Minneapolis, MN: City of Minneapolis, Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.

Americans for the Arts (2020). The Economic Impact of Coronavirus on the Arts and Culture Sector. https://www.americansforthearts.org/by-topic/disaster-preparedness/the-economic-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-arts-and-culture-sector

Floyd, Quanice (2020, November 11). The Failure of Arts Organizations to Move Toward Racial Equity. Hyperallergic.com. https://hyperallergic.com/600640/the-failure-of-arts-organizations-to-move-toward-racial-equity/

Hirsch, Marianne (2008). The Generation of Postmemory. Poetics Today 29, no 1, 103-12.

Kayim, Gülgün (2017). Creative CityMaking: 2016 MATC Keynote Address, Minneapolis, MN. Theatre/Practice: The Online Journal of the Practice/Production Symposium of the Mid America Theatre Conference, 6.

Kayzar, B. and Kayim, G. (2019). The Minneapolis Creative Index 2018. Minneapolis, MN: Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy at the City of Minneapolis.

Kayzar, Brenda, and Deets, Stuart. (2021). Creative Response Fund Evaluation: Artist Networks and Community Connectivity. Minneapolis, MN: Urbane DrK Consulting. 

MN Artist Coalition. (2021). mnartistcoalition.com/overview/. Accessed January 30, 2021.

Race Forward. (2020). A Call for a Cultural New Deal for Cultural and Racial Justice. Cultrualnewdeal.com.

Smith, Richard and Warfield, Katie. (2007). The Creative City: A Matter of Values. In Philip Cooke & Luciana Lazzeretti (eds.), Creative Cities, Cultural Clusters and Local Economic Development, chapter 12. Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar Publishing. 

Tuan, Yi-fu. (1977).  Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

The George Floyd Square Resolution. (2020). https://healingmnstories.files.wordpress.com/2020/08/floyd-square-resolution.pdf.

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