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As the largest comprehensive design and arts college in the U.S., the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University plays a critical role in testing and advancing how we prepare emerging designers and artists for the challenges facing our communities so they can co-create in public systems for social good.

This means looking at several issues that push against norms in traditional arts higher education. First, how do we imagine community as a partner versus an audience or a consumer? Second, what does it mean to create across discipline and even field, to work possibly toward a career that isn’t understood or visible as career path? How do we deploy the skills artists and designers work hard to perfect in relation to larger, systemic problems that are centered in inequity? How can the lived experiences of our extremely diverse students be more centered in the learning, exchange and imagination in the arts and in communities?

Two graduate students sat down for a conversation to share their thoughts and experiences on how to ground creative placemaking, or creative placekeeping, within a design and arts curriculum.

Sofia Dotta and Dienae Hunter, both second-year graduate students in the Herberger Institute’s Creative Enterprise and Cultural Leadership program, work at the intersection of public art policy and equitable development. Dotta, who has a BFA in fine arts, is currently a public art specialist with the City of Tempe, and Hunter, who has a BFA in dance, is a movement and performance artist whose current work explores issues of non-binary space and narratives of place.

“ASU isn’t independent from the community, or it shouldn’t be at least. So how are the curriculums, especially in creative placemaking, supporting equitable spaces and practices?”

Sofia Dotta, graduate creative enterprise and cultural leadership student, Herberger Institute

Dienae: Maybe something we’re imagining is a class where people from different majors come together and it’s like Creative Placemaking 101, and they learn how to work across disciplines to creative place make?

Sofia: Maybe before having a Creative Placemaking 101 it could be more of a foundational course in interdisciplinary collaboration between artists. Learning how to work with other artists is super important too. It might help to gain an expansive vocabulary on what arts and culture can do and expand that into partners that aren’t in the arts.

D: It can be hard to collaborate with people that aren’t artists because there’s different languages and codes and standards. I think that’s also true within the arts world between disciplines, so a class on working with other artists would be a good start for learning how to bridge gaps and translate.

S: Totally, I think there are similar processes among creative disciplines that makes that translation a little easier than translating to different fields and even then it can be hard to not get lost in translation. On the other hand, artists use creative processes to translate on a regular basis — from imagination to movement, to visual language, to words — so I think fostering those tools to find what’s similar is important for future collaborations with any field or discipline. I think there needs to be a lot of real-life experiences too. Higher education is wonderful in the sense that we can imagine new realities and theorize new ideas. We need that, but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to get out of school and know how to make something new out of nothing.

D: Yeah, there’s a lot in between those steps of imagining and then producing.

S: So, how do you approach using that knowledge and translate it into action to co-create and collaborate within the framework of creative placemaking?

D: That’s somewhere where a cross-sector collaboration class could help, because after we get out of school we’re not necessarily going to be surrounded by artists all the time working on art things. We’re going to have to work with people in different fields to be able to make anything happen, especially if you’re working in creative placemaking, because it’s not just about the arts. Even though it’s heavily focused on how the arts can help create healthier communities, you also have to work with community organizers and people who have experience working in the areas you want to insert your art into.

S: You also have to work with the people that want that impact to happen with you. At the end, you’re supporting that process of something that’s already there.

D: Yeah, you have to learn how to interface with community members, so learning how to communicate the usefulness of what you have to offer is important.

S: You know, when I hear the words we are using like “taking to,” “bringing in,” “bringing out,” “taking out,” “real life” [as opposed to “not real life”) when talking about interdisciplinary practices, it seems we are still going about academia as this very walled-off and separated space, and I think we really need to move away from this. ASU isn’t independent from the community, or it shouldn’t be at least. So how are the curriculums, especially in creative placemaking, supporting equitable spaces and practices?

D: I think what’s hard about that is the fact that schools are a revolving door of people so students come in, learn the foundations of creative placemaking and have great ideas, but it’s hard to have those ideas create a sustainable community impact.

S: How do you add a bridge?

D: One way to more deeply root ASU in the community might be to create classes that are meant to be long-term partnerships where people come in and pick up from where the previous classes left off. It’s frustrating to community partners that students come in to a space to learn and then they leave so all that context and relationship has to be rebuilt every year.

S: I think you bring up something important, which is sustainability. How do we make curriculum sustainable, not only for the university, but for the communities and the impact you’re trying to make? One thing I was thinking about earlier is who’s giving the lectures? Is it only people in academia or are we also bringing people who have experience in the field? Are we learning from community stakeholders? Part of your career is your relationships and how you build them. Information is everywhere and can easily be found on the internet, so as a school, what are you offering?

D: Yeah, university should be a place where people go to connect with others and learn how to form relationships. That’s something you can’t just follow a guide on Wiki-How for. You have to learn from doing and learn from people who have experience doing.

S: That might be the future for AIs, but for now…

D: Oh, AI creative placemaking!

S: Ha, you never know. Actually, that’s a conversation that needs to happen.. How are new technologies going to affect the field of creative placemaking?

D: That’s a totally different article…

Top photo by Ellen O’Brien.
Sophia Dotta photo courtesy of Dotta.
Dance photo by Tim Trumble.
Dienae Hunter photo courtesy Hunter.