In February 2021, I collaborated on an international light festival in Bristol, England. Artists activated parks, bridges, and buildings with interactive, multi-sensory experiences of light and sound. Attracting over 100,000 people, the Light Festival coaxed participants to explore and engage with the city in entirely new ways.
Cities often host festivals to attract tourists and boost economic development; however, we know that we experience something much more profound when we participate in shared cultural experiences. Art and culture connect us to one another and the places where we live and love.
As an academic, I focus on the impact of these connections. Specifically, I research how art and culture revitalize communities and envision more just and sustainable futures. Much of this work has been practice-based, meaning that I collaborate with diverse partners—artists, cities, organizations—to implement cultural plans, creative placemaking projects, and creative economy initiatives.
This research is especially relevant for the Chequamegon Bay and other post-industrial regions, which must transition from extractive to sustainable economies. As students and I discussed in my Culture and Revitalization class, facing these challenges requires care and attention to community members who often grieve the loss of jobs, relationships, and places that were once central to everyday life.
Drawing from current research, case studies, and historic examples like the Wisconsin Idea Theater, we explored how art and culture address this loss, repair fractured communities and support inclusive development. In Ashland, we see such impacts through the beautiful mosaics co-created by Northland sustainable community development alumna Rose Spieler-Sandberg ’12 and community members.
These mosaics improve infrastructure by activating linkages between downtown and the lakeshore. Ashland is also home to numerous murals celebrating local history and the contributions of community members. By creating a sense of place, these projects are key to reconnecting communities and revitalizing the city.
Northland students and I are building on these cultural assets through new research and class projects. In my Organizing Communities class, students collaborated with Ashland’s Parks and Recreation department and the East End neighborhood to facilitate a community visioning project. In addition to analyzing census and survey data, students planned creative engagement activities to learn what residents value most and identify priorities for neighborhood improvement.
Students shared findings and policy recommendations with Ashland city councilors, Parks and Recreation Commission members, and local residents. In the spring, we hope to build on this work by facilitating creative projects aimed at strengthening place attachment, community identity, and social capital in the neighborhood.
We will also be collaborating with Arts Wisconsin and the Chequamegon Bay Arts Council to re-imagine what a sustainable creative economy looks like in a post-Covid, rural context. Student researchers will facilitate focus groups to learn about challenges and opportunities facing regional artists, makers, and producers. As we return to campus this fall, we will continue to face uncertainties related to the Covid-19 global pandemic. Despite these challenges, I know that culture connects us, and that we will meet the world with heart as we collectively repair and strengthen our communities.