Archive for April, 2011

Art and Community; Creating Cultures of Place

Michael Jones


Several years ago I was a keynote speaker at a Celebrating Communities Conference in Atlantic Canada.  During the keynote I asked the group to share a story of a place where they experienced the greatest sense aliveness, vitality and connection. How did this connection to place shape how they thought about their leadership and their community now?

They reflected on finding common ground in their deep ties to land and sea and how these close ties to the wildness of nature instilled a resilience of spirit in their leadership and in their communities.

Since that conference I have been convening  further place – based conversations with leaders in communities and organizations. I have discovered that an intimate relationship with place helps us see  – and clear sight helps us create a new story of possibility rooted  in where we come from and who we want to be.

Thanks for visiting and I hope you enjoy reading this essay on place.


Creating Cultures of Place

We cannot talk about community without first talking about place – Peter Block

Place matters. While it is commonly believed that life’s greatest challenge is meaninglessness and the search for truth, perhaps it is uprootedness and the search for home.

Many have deep memories of how stories told by a crackling fire late at night came alive when cloaked in the richly nuanced specifics of the places in which the narrative unfolds.

Questions of identity, home, beauty and quality of place need to be in the forefront of our thinking now. Not only are they questions that inspire creative endeavors, these questions also revitalize economies and inspire leaders and the communities they lead.

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class said in a recent symposium; if the social and organizing unit of the industrial economy is the company, the organizing unit of the creative economy is place.

It is in the context of creating this new narrative that we are convening a community dialogue later this spring through the Muskoka Chautauqua Cultural Tourism Round Table on Creating Cultures of Place.  Drawing from the beauty of music and art and the generative power of stories and conversations, we expect to bring community, municipal and government  partners together to explore the richness of their heritage and how these gifts from the past can contribute to re imaging a new story for the future. This process of arts based creative place – making will include gathering together locally distinct stories of place from communities and schools – narratives that can be both displayed through art and spoken into the space in which our dialogue will occur.

We Are Between Stories Now

We are between stories now. The old story, the story that was given to us as part of the industrial economy is no longer effective. And the new story, which is ours to create, is not yet here.

Central to the new story is deepening our understanding and appreciation for the intimate affection we hold for a place and how this can serve as the foundation for animating a creative economy. And an engaged community is the most knowledgeable resource we have for creating stories for the future regarding the kind of place in which we want to live.

This community vision of place is made more vibrant when it is rooted in the identity and unique heritage and local wisdom of a particular region and locality. And engaged communities also understand the value that place- based conversations bring when considered in the broad context of the natural, built, creative and social environments that define its local and regional distinctiveness and future potential.

This leads us to ask; what makes a place, a place? However we define it, there is something in the presence of a place that leads us to feel more at home and more like ourselves.  Communities that can tap into this inspirational power of place are much better at re- imagining their possible future than those who see their priorities primarily in economic, financial or business terms.

Engaging in creative place – making gives us hope.  It leads us to feeling more alive, present, rooted and native born … more like ourselves.  It is as if something irreplaceable and distinct from the day-to-day reaches out and speaks to us about that which is most natural and deeply felt within ourselves.

A sense of place also speaks about those illusive qualities of authenticity, creativity and spontaneity, qualities that we most value in ourselves, but which are sometimes difficult to achieve.

Finally place matters because it helps us see. In a world were we are often taught what we should see, place helps us discover what we do see. As one senior leader said;” to clearly see our best possible future we also need to see our past – our forefathers created something that has endured through the passage of time- how can we learn from these roots?”

Creating A New Story of Place

In this respect, leaders who are place- based will be among those authoring the new story. They recognize that our communities are not at a loss for innovative ideas, what they do lack however is fertile ground for these seeds of possibility to take root and grow. They also appreciate that we need to know where we come from in order to see where we are going. In a turbulent world where there are no rules, no consensus and no clear way forward, if we have no place to stand we will lack the grounding to navigate wisely in a world with so many unknowns.

Place – making also preceeds place – naming. Conversations of place help us identity those ‘creative crucibles’ where different sectors, ideas and cultures meet at the intersections and where opportunities for heightened creative insight, partnerships and innovative activities can occur. Crucibles also give definition to a communities’ distinctive creative identity; Asheville North Carolina is the city of craft, Stratford Ontario and Ashland Oregon are the cities of Theatre and Festival, Branson Missouri is the community of ‘bottom up’ music venues.  In addition, place-based communities serve as incubators for growing future generations of great leaders- creative thinkers whose place has made them as much as they made the place they come from. In this context, we may think of Robert Frost and the apple orchards of New Hampshire, Henry David Thoreau and the rolling fields around Concord, Mass. and American poet and medical doctor William Carlos Williams and his home in the modest industrial lands around Rutherford, New Jersey.

By looking at place not only as something to return to, but also something to grow out from –orienting us to the future and not only the past; and by realizing that a place is not just an object or a thing, but a power and a presence, we can partner with place in a way that is itself deeply transformative, opening our hearts to the experience of beauty, aliveness and possibility.


The Creating Cultures of Place Forum continues the evolution of place-based work that I been engaged with  organizations and communities in recent years. This has included serving as a Steward with the Fetzer supported Power of Place Initiative and  co – convening The Powers of Place Forum hosted with  The Banff Centre Leadership Development last spring.

To learn more please see

The Soul of Place; Reflections on Place- Based Leadership– Michael Jones

Published in Tamarack Institute Community Newsletter Engage


The Muskoka Chautauqua Reading Circle which will follow The Creating Cultures of Place Forum


Creative Placemaking – Markusen and Gadwa supported by the National Endowment for the Arts


The Power of Place Initiative


The opening quote from Peter Block is from a personal conversation – Peter is author of many wonderful books including Community, The Structure of Belonging.


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