Reimagine Projects Around Ireland

Reimagine Projects Around Ireland

Pocket Guide 5

The Artists Role Within Placemaking

Verity-Jane Keefe

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Urban, rural, suburban, towns, villages, high streets, fields, a brownfield former factory site, a trading estate, an empty shop, streets, alleyways, corners, grass verges – all places. Some are places within other places, some overlap, rub together, co-exist whilst others feel confident with their own identity.

    When we talk about placemaking we must acknowledge that places are already made, they exist and have existed. They evolve, shrink, contract, get demolished, built upon, grow over. But they exist, have existed and will exist. Our role as citizens, residents and artists, as well as the huge supporting cast of professionals that might find themselves working on a placemaking project, or writing a brief, or allocating funds for, should remember this. Not to reinvent, dismiss or pretend, but to embrace the complexity, the unknown and difficult, with those that are already living in or near said place, and keep the ambition high, from thought right through to delivery and post-occupancy.

    All places are different. All artists are different.

    There is no recipe for how to work in and with places, nor is there a rulebook as to what artists should and could do. Develop your own recipe for every project, set the scene with agreed priorities, vision and approach. This is not formulaic and takes time. Not every placemaking project has to have an artist in the mix, but might we be able to help or offer something that is missing from the team?

    Take a seat at the table and offer one to those that aren’t. Artists can appear to be the odd one out at a client team meeting, so can residents. Embrace the mystery of our profession and practice. We can ask questions free from professional restraints, and no one really knows what we do day to day.

    Lean into the mystery

    We can and should do more than decorate

    There is so much possibility. If the artist is going to be involved with community engagement, either developing engagement strategies and approaches as part of their practice AND as a part of the wider placemaking project, the artist could be engaged at the point of brief developing, if possible, or brought in as soon as possible after so that any engagement work can be developed meaningfully with all stakeholders and the community. And most importantly, in response to the specific contexts of the place and the brief.

    This can then lead to embedded creative outcomes across the project and scope of works, not just a predetermined wall on an architectural plan. The artist can learn from the architect who can learn from the artist. Both can learn from the place and community. The dream scenario is having the artist present from start to finish, although this might not always be possible. The key is to be transparent with the artist and the community about the scope of involvement and outcome.

    We can help to establish a shared vision of what placemaking is within the specific context. What IS IT? Some people think it’s jargon, a buzzword, to others it will be meaningless. It might be brimming with potential to some, whilst others are indifferent. Part of the job is to make it relevant, with a definition and meaning that works for all involved, doesn’t exclude and is fully transparent and accessible whilst maintaining creativity, ambition and possibility.

    Make Placemaking Relevant


    Be a conduit between those that have power and those that don’t. 

    Time should be taken to get to know a place – listen and learn from those that live or work there, go to school there, have memories of it or have ambitions and ideas for what could happen there. Listen to everything, not just what we want to hear. Disagreement, moaning, ambivalence, consensus. It all counts and is all important. Listening and looking closely are vital tools in the bag. When used properly they can help us ensure that we don’t fall into a trap of over promising and then under delivering. This only leads to disappointment and an erosion of trust that has been built along the process.

    All communities are different. All residents are different. Just as there is no such thing as a typical artist, there is no such thing as a typical resident or community. When working with Place, we as artists can wear many hats. We can be the resident, the researcher, the observer, the documenter, the maker, the listener. All of these roles help shape a clearer picture of the specific communities, and then in turn needs of the specific communities from this process. This research period of getting to know a place is vital as a way to dispel assumptions, challenge stereotypes and enrich placemaking proposals.

    Don’t assume


    Finally, and perhaps the most alien approach to a traditional placemaking or architectural project, is the idea of slowing things down. When working with people things don’t always go to plan. They go wrong, people don’t turn up, they can’t be bothered, they’re busy. Real life can get in the way. Artists who work within engagement, and work as a way to produce artworks or permanent contributions to schemes, can work all the way through the process. Not just at a specific point to collect information, either as part of a statutory consultation period, or as a box ticking exercise, but to make work and develop proposals in a slower way that respond to the place and the reality of those that live there, might end up living there or are adjacent to the place. Obviously people need to get paid and things need to get finished, but if relationships with place and people are being developed and nurtured as part of the placemaking process, this can be both fast and slow, and can work within the realities of the budget.

    As a final thought, and something I get asked a lot, and also ask to built environment, local authority and “placemaking” professionals that I work with: Why should artists be in the mix? What can we do? What should we or could we do? The power of the multi-faceted potential of the inter and trans-disciplinary team is endless, but most artists fundamentally don’t mind rolling their sleeves up, getting their hands dirty and jump in straight away, leaning into risk and the unknown on the ground, with a genuine curiosity, respect and pleasure, a vital tool to help navigate the relationships between top down and bottom up.

    Why Work With Artists?

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