Exploring the Boundary-Crossing Nature of ‘Creative Placemaking’: The Stove as ‘Adaptor/Converter’

Exploring the Boundary-Crossing Nature of ‘Creative Placemaking’: The Stove as ‘Adaptor/Converter’

Anthony Schrag and Caitlin McKinnon

1. Names, Places, Peoples


The Stove is a cultural organization based in Dumfries and Galloway, in the South of Scotland, that works alongside their local community within their particular context, with a vision to “use arts and creativity to encourage, to gather, learn and bring life back to our town centre and wider region.”[1] Such place-based, community-oriented, creative activity, however, is not a new phenomenon and there are significant historical examples that exemplify this practice: From 1968 to 1978, the artist David Harding became Town Artist during the construction of Glenrothes New Town (Scotland) in which he was committed to “involve the people of the town in making their own contribution to their own physical and cultural environment.”[2] The Black-e (Originally the Blackie) in Liverpool similarly began operating in 1968 as the “the UK’s first community arts project”[3] where artistic practices were central to address the concerns of local communities, and has been operating for over half a century now. The Craigmillar Festival Society[4] began in 1962, operating with a cultural methodology to speak to the site-specific concerns of the local population including industry, employment, identity, among other subjects and, despite a pause from 2015 – 2021, has recently been reinvigorated by citizens of Craigmillar looking to artistic activities as a way to speak to their specific contexts. More recently, other similar projects such as Rig Arts (Inverclyde) or WHALE Arts (Mid Lothian) operate in their localized area, using a creative methodology to explore the intersection of people and place, including interventions into education, social life, civic governance, and food production.[5] Alongside these artistically driven projects, there are a multitude of place-oriented policies and funds within the UK that have guided a host of short- and long-term projects, including the Creative People and Places fund (Arts Council England), Place Partnerships (Creative Scotland), Place, Space & People, and Spatial Policy (Arts Council Ireland), and Ideas, People, Places (Arts Council Wales), to name a few.

The Stove’s Community River Festival ‘Nithraid’ (2018) (Photo Kirstin McEwan).

As such, there are significant legacy, lineage and learnings that can be gleaned from practices that creatively work with people. What this practice is called, however, has shifted and morphed over time – Community Arts, Socially Engaged Practices, Situated Public Art, Relational Aesthetics, Dialogic Practices, even Activist Art have at times all been utilized to describe this work. Problematically these sorts of practices have subtly different intentions and expectations that make them distinct, but also complicate how to define the ‘successes’ of such work. For example, Community Arts seeks “to empower though participatory creative practice”[6] and a community’s authorship within artistic projects is considered fundamental. Whereas, within Relational Aesthetics such participatory artworks occur within cultural space (e.g., a situated gallery), and while the goal of the work is to develop new social relations, the authorship is sits squarely with the artist.[7] As such, these two approaches – whilst both creatively working with people in specific sites – are actually antithetical in their intentions. As a result, there are different intentions within this work and this problematizes who has a claim to the ’proper’ or ‘correct’ methodology for place-based creative works and highlights that the concept of a localized, creative practice is not a homogenous field, nor does it have a singular approach. Instead, it is one that shifts with the tides of power, finance, and policy trends.

The issue of what this practice is called is presented here to highlight a ‘new’ term that is being used within the cultural sector: Creative Placemaking. Indeed, this term itself is not new and has been utilized within the domain of geography for at least 20 years to describe the intersection of ‘place’ and ‘creativity’. This text will not spend significant time on this geographic term, but instead aims to explore how this ‘new’ concept of place-based creative works is being implemented within the (UK/Scottish) cultural sector, with particular attention placed on The Stove, in Dumfries. As explored below, The Stove makes clear that this term cannot only incorporate artists and argues that Creative Placemaking is not just another term for socially engaged creative work. However, rather than ‘reinventing the wheel’, this paper will reflect on historical lineages and contemporary manifestations of cultural organizations that have an intention to make a positive impact on their local context, and who do so by operating as a ‘boundary crosser’ between the domains of creativity, civic and professional structures, and the public.

The Boundary Crosser: A Useful Metaphor

This act of crossing boundaries – from creative to economic; from the cultural sector to the civic; from individual to public etc – is in line with Lewis Hyde’s thesis in Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture (1998). Here, Hyde’s suggests that every human culture contains a ‘The Trickster’ who “is a boundary crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and the trickster is always there . . . [the] Trickster will cross the line and confuse the distance.”[8] In this way, the boundary crosser is not only essential to human society’s functioning, but vital regarding how cultures change, develop, and grow. This paper will return to this concept later, but it is useful to introduce here in that the concept of borders/boundaries (and therefore the crossing of them) are automatically implied by the concept of ‘placemaking’. This is true of physical and conceptual borders alike, and once the concept of ‘a place’ is introduced, it will automatically imply ‘not-a-place’ and invoke a boundary between the two. Therefore, the notions of Creative Placemaking and boundary-crossing are inherently linked concepts, as explored below.

After this introduction, Section 2 will present and critique the current formulation of the term ‘Creative Placemaking’, including notions of ‘instrumentalization’ as well as a brief historical framing that helps situate the multiple lineages of this work. It will end with an exploration of some recent manifestations of Creative Placemaking. In Section 3, the text will focus on The Stove and their practices and draw out some key insights, focusing on the metaphor of the ‘boundary-crosser’ and ‘adaptor/converter’. The text concludes with some insight into the ‘pattern’ of creative placemaking occurring in Scotland and draws out a way forward to support this work more effectively.

2. Literatures, Terminologies and Histories

Creative Placemaking: From Geography to Culture

The literature for Creative Placemaking has historically sat within social geography, under a broader umbrella term of placemaking. Cohen et al. suggests that placemaking is “somewhat-nebulous term, [that] affords different meanings to different practitioners, professionals and academics”[9] and a common sentiment in most literature is that it is an elusive term to define at the best of times.[10] Indeed, like the concept of creatively working with people, different stakeholders interpret the varying definitions of placemaking to best suits their specific circumstances.[11] The common thread amongst various definitions, however, is that it is a process that helps to generate places where people want to be. In 1995, scholar-practitioners Lynda Schneekloth and Robert Shibley highlighted placemaking “is not just about the relationship of people to the places; it also creates relationships among people in places.”[12]

The addition of ‘creative’ to this concept adds arts and culture into placemaking practices [13] and describes the ways in which cultural activities are employed to cultivate the human, physical and cultural assets of a place, building on the distinctive local character. [14] The 2010 white paper entitled Creative Placemaking by Markusen & Gadwa Nicodemus provides the following widely cited definition:

Creative Placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local businesses viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.[15]

Within this geographic tradition, Creative Placemaking is therefore seen as the effort to use the arts for means and outcomes that exceeds their intrinsic value, often specially focused on addressing social and economic issues within communities. Borrup suggests “a key thread through the Creative Placemaking process is building on the identity and historical trajectory of the place – with all the gifts and baggage that history carries.”[16] Creative Placemaking can then be said to focus on cultivating the local human, physical and cultural assets that already exist in that space, building on the distinctive local character and story. The literature within this specific domain – i.e., geography – has characterized Creative Placemaking has having three distinct features:

  • A place-based orientation.
  • A focus on collaboration and co-creation
  • A core of arts and cultural activities.

While useful as a descriptor within geography, the literature and case studies are particularly North American in focus, so lack insight on how this may occur in British, European, or even non-Western contexts. This is significant because ‘culture’ is not uniform and so a definition framed from only one perspective is limiting. Additionally, how one defines ‘arts and cultural activities’ is similarly problematic because this could equally relate to the act of creatively decorating a cake as much as it could to developing a post-modern opera or hip-hop dance classes for the elderly. In other words, ‘decorating a cake’ is also a cultural activity, and so should those who wish to support ‘creative placemaking’ also therefore fund any and all local bakeries? Or, in another example: if the social geography distinction of Creative Placemaking includes a place-based orientation; a focus on collaboration and co-creation; and a core of arts and cultural activities, then one could also define a game of Shinty in the Scottish Highlands as Creative Placemaking because it is most certainly place-based; it is similarly collaborative; and it also contains a core of cultural activities distinct to the area… despite the fact that such a game being more commonly referred to as a ‘sporting’ activity, not a ‘cultural’ activity. This provocation is made not to suggest cake-making and sporting activities should not be considered cultural acts as part of Creative Placemaking, only that different domains, organizations and sectors will understand the delimitations of ‘culture’ differently, and so such ‘cultural’ activities cannot be considered as uniform or cohesive, as the social geography definition suggests.

Placing Creative Placemaking Within the Cultural Sector

As such, the geography definition of Creative Placemaking – while useful in describing the processes within social geography – requires further interrogation in a way that not only grounds such knowledge in the cultural domain, but also focuses on the insights from those engaged in this work. For example, many socially engaged artists might already work with the likes of bakeries or sports teams, and while these not be considered ‘cultural’ in some contexts, the domain of Socially Engaged Practices allows for such fluidity. The notion that art/culture can be ‘autonomous’[17] and so clearly delineated in ‘what is art’ and ‘what is not art’ is a therefore perhaps a flawed one. Instead, considering the ways in which Creative Placemaking is being situated within the cultural sector, there is a need to consider the ways in which it is manifesting. Again, the aim is not to provide a ‘correct’ version of this practice, but rather to provide a more nuanced understanding of its implementation.

In order to do this, the authors will now explore some of the philosophical and historical lineages of this type of work within the cultural sector, mainly though Socially Engaged Practices (SEP). This will be done by exploring only a few key insights that will help contextualize The Stove in Section 3 below. We will not provide a comprehensive history of SEP–indeed there are many histories–but instead recognize that other resources that can provide more significant and profound overview than is possible here: for example, Creative Time’s Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (2012) or Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells (2012) or Greg Sholette’s seminar, History and Theory of Socially Engaged Art (2022).[18]

Historical Precursors to Creative Placemaking

Historically, Community Art is often seen as the precursor of Creative Placemaking, as it was/is always sited within local communities and in the service to the community’s needs. This sub-genre of SEP is often critiqued by those within the sector as the quality of creative outputs are considered secondary to its impacts on communities. An example like Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles provides insight into how a commission that began “as part of a beautification project”[19] then become “one of the country’s most respected and largest monuments to inter-racial harmony.”[20] The project sought to empower local multi-racial, disenfranchised youth by retelling stories through the painting of murals that reasserted non-white/non-European histories. Indeed, as Baca suggests, the project was a success not because it beautified the flood barrier on which it was painted, but because the participants “learn[ed] of the courage of individuals in history who endured, spoke out, and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles.”[21] It is important to note that even in 1974, this project was framed through the interagency support of “many government agencies, community organizations, businesses, corporations, foundations, and individuals.”[22] While there are most certainly projects operating today that would define themselves as Community Arts, the canon of art history would suggest its heyday was between the late 1960s and early 1980s. In 1984, Owen Kelly’s Community, Art, and the State: Storming the Citadels[23] suggested that this way of working had failed because it had started to receive state funding – alluding to the instrumentalization discussion below – and such funding depoliticized what he felt was the purpose of this way of working, which was the democratization of culture and valuing the role of artists as transformative agents.

The notion of artists as an agent of change was a vital consideration to the Artist Placement Group (APG) which operated from the 1960s-1980s. They are significant to the topic of Creative Placemaking due to their desire to “rethink the role of the artist’s place in society.”[24] They rejected the idea of ‘outreach’ projects which aimed to use art and culture to pull audience into museums/galleries, and instead APG and “operated on the inverse principle of pushing the artist out into society.”[25] The impetus for this was premised on the idea that “art has a useful contribution to make to the world.”[26] To this end they organized placements/residencies in a range of private corporations and public bodies in order to engage with corporate and civic structures and provide critical and reflective insight to the organizations with whom they worked. Here, locating a practice within a specific organization or place, these artists operated between domains (the civic; the corporate; the cultural) to find new insights about how each of these domains functioned together. Their long running practice provided many examples of success: For example, 1970 Stuart Brisley worked at the Hille Furniture Factory where he:

painted the polishing machinery in the colors of the workers’ football teams and introduced mobile noticeboards by means of which colleagues could communicate openly with one another… at Hille, he believed, he confused his identity as an artist, shifting him away from art to ‘more into a kind of potentially collective situation’.[27]

As such, his situated creative practice changed the dynamic of how workers understood and organized themselves and how they could advocate for (political/employment) change within their own unique context. This work provides an early example of Creative Placemaking in that the artist was able to intervene into a localized place, speaking to localized needs by communicating across multiple different domains (political, economic, and cultural) that ultimately contributed social change. In other words, using creative activities, Brisley was able to generate a place where people would want to be.

Power, Place and Policy

Problematically, that idea that cultural activities could be employed for social change becomes complicated when considering concepts of power and control. Indeed, both New Labour in the late 1990s and the Conservatives in the 2000s (with their Big Society plan) proposed new cultural policies that focused on art’s functional role within a public sphere. In 1998, the Department of Culture Media and Sports’ (DCMS) declared that “Culture can also play a key role as a part of the wider ‘economic drawing power’, which is central to the economic transformation of an area.”[28] and that “Arts and sport, cultural and recreational activity, can contribute to neighborhood renewal and make a real difference to health, crime, employment and education in deprived communities.”[29] However, what this ‘real difference’ actually meant and who might benefit from such ‘economic drawing power’ has always been a more complicated beast to slay, and there have been questions whether such governmental instrumentalization is a form of cultural colonization.[30] Indeed, the critiques of instrumentalization are many and complicate the functioning of Creative Placemaking. Put simply: if such work aims to make change for the better, who gets to decide what that ‘better’ means? Any population will be constructed of multiple different passions and intentions, and to speak of them as a singular entity who all ‘want the same thing’ would be disingenuous at best, and dictatorial at worst. Put another way: “Places are experienced differently by different groups of people”[31] and as such a ‘bottom-up’ approach cannot be assumed to speak for an entire community, but only those who are engaged in that particular project. This engagement will be limited by a variety of factors including age, class, race, gender, resources, time, etc. This distinction highlights that socially engaged art practices can be instrumentalized from either ends of the power/agency spectrum – from the top-down, or bottom-up.  Activities such as Creative Placemaking that aim to act between governments, communities, and creatives therefore need to be sensitively negotiated to ensure power is kept in balance.

Katharine Wheeler of The Stove suggests for them:

Creative Placemaking for us is this bigger field of collaborative work that includes Socially Engaged Practices (or indeed other artistic disciplines) but also includes community anchor organizations and local, regional, and strategic partners for co-developed community-led exploration and creative innovation on say space use, housing, transport, local policy, cultural activity etc., that is respondent to the needs of a given community/place.[32]

The notion of instrumentalization is therefore less a concern for organizations such as The Stove as they recognize that there needs to be “an overt and transparent covenant between the Creative Placemaking sector and the delivery requirements of other agendas” [33] such as those from local authorities, health boards, or local regeneration processes, enterprise schemes, or community development trusts, etc.

Indeed this ability to work between multiple agendas and agencies is indicative of another approach often synonymous to Creative Placemaking, but utilized more in Sociological and International Development contexts: that of Community Cultural Development as presented by Adams and Goldbard in 2001 in Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development.[34] Here, they explain the theories and principles of this work, which aims to enhance individual/community capacity by building a sense of belonging; increasing community capacity towards more sustainable community-based tourism; developing stronger participation in (and ownership of) tourism; and boosting cross-sectoral partnerships to pursue shared goals. This work is grounded supporting indigenous cultures and in resisting globalization, as is a pressing project because “as globalization accelerates, community cultural development practice is more and more widely recognized as a powerful means of awakening and mobilizing alternatives to imposed cultural values.” [35] It is important to note that ‘imposed cultural values’ do not need to be macro, international level aggressions: seats of power in London or Edinburgh have the resources to implement policies or impose values that do not match other rural cultural contexts elsewhere in Scotland, for example. As such, the methods of this work can be useful to communities in Djibouti or Dumfries, and the strategies to enhance the specific context of individual/community capacity is important to consider when undertaking Creative Placemaking work.

Historically, therefore, it is clear that there are multiple different types of histories and approaches that have been linked to creatively working within localized environments to enhance a place. Below, some current iterations of Creative Placemaking are presented that align to the ideas presented above.

Some Current Creative Placemaking Activities

From a policy perspective, utilizing creativity to enhance places and communities makes rational sense as it can contribute to key outcomes set by governments. Examples of such policy work would be Creative Scotland’s Place Partnerships, which is a framework to identify shared priorities and encourage investment in culture as well as devolved funding schemes for locally specific cultural activities. The project’s website reads: “Creative Scotland’s Place Programme operates at a strategic level with Local Authorities and other partners. Through place working we engage more deeply with local partners over time to build and maintain a good working knowledge of local authority areas and their creative communities.”[36] While this is regionally focused, at a national level, the Scottish Government has presented the Place Principle as an argument for cross-sectoral working that ties into national outcomes, but also local needs. It aims to

. . . help overcome organizational and sectoral boundaries, to encourage better collaboration and community involvement, and improve the impact of combined energy, resources, and investment. The principle was developed by partners in the public and private sectors, the third sector and communities, to help them develop a clear vision for their place. It promotes a shared understanding of place, and the need to take a more collaborative approach to a place’s services and assets to achieve better outcomes for people and communities.[37]

At an international level, the Creative Lives is another approach that aims to work “with communities, organizations, policy-makers, funders and creative individuals as a voice for positive change, to improve and expand the landscape in which creative participation can take place.”[38] An arts organization in Aberdeenshire (Scotland)—Deveron Projects—provides some good examples of effective partnership funding with their local authority and their Development Trust working towards issues of food security, energy-sustainability and local governance.[39] This cross-sectoral work is underpinned by recent research that suggests the sort of work which is “premised on site-specificity is promising, in that it can foster new forms of civic dialogue.”[40]

Elsewhere, the Creative Places project that defines itself as a “program for places around Ireland that have not had opportunities to benefit from sustained investment in the arts and creativity.”[41] In referencing those who have ‘not had opportunities’ however, these approaches have been critiqued as having a ‘deficit approach’ which attempts to use art and culture to address inequalities. (See, for example Leila Jancovich and David Stevenson’s work on the assumptions of cultural “non-participation.[42]) This is tricky territory, and less generous critics have accused such approaches as “art-washing” or being disingenuous sticking-plasters to larger issues.[43] However, such critiques could be contextual, and one also could consider it right and proper for national or local governments to distribute its public funds in such a way that might benefit their publics so as to archive set development goals.

Creative Placemaking appears to have a strong presence in the Irish context and a recent conference—Places Matter—aimed to highlight “the variety of local, national and international approaches and perspectives that inform how and why we invest in people and places and the role the arts have in inspiring new ways of working together.” [44] At this conference, the Irish Arts Council launched their new Spatial Policy which gave a “vision for a country where everyone has the opportunity to create, engage with, participate in and enjoy the arts and culture, regardless of who they are or where they live.”[45]

What this conference and their Spatial Policy show is that these new manifestations of Creative Placemaking are not limited to specific types of art or artistic activities. Instead, there is an awareness of the interconnection between multiple sectors and political considerations and ‘the arts’ is a part of this interconnection. For example, a printmaking project that celebrates typography showed that “collaboration between the local authority, community and cultural stakeholders has led to new opportunities, investment, reimagined spaces and a shared strategy to revitalize the town.”[46] Back in Scotland, Edinburgh’s LeithLate festival is such an example that focuses on the regeneration of the area of Leith where creativity is combined with urban planning, community consultation, and creative thinking. A review of the project underlines its success: “It’s one of the transforming powers of art that it can help change the way we see familiar things, not least the places where we live.”[47] In Tottenham, London, Unit 28 are an “architectural design collective who specialize in delivering high impact social projects and community wealth building strategies through a co-design and co-research approach.”[48] This design collective has been working between community members, unions, local authorities and other interest groups to provide a “new, democratic model of urban development that benefits the people who live in an area, rather than distant corporate interests.”[49] Importantly, the Unit 28 work is not antithetical to notions of regeneration – rather, it seeks to enhance an area on the local community’s terms as opposed to those decided by market or neoliberal forces.

However, as a place will be made of multiple different types of people, politics, and beliefs, it would be wrong to reject outright those market forces, creative industries or other projects premised via economic regeneration, as these can also play their part in Creative Placemaking. The Dublin Landings in that city’s docklands was premised through the lens of economics and recently won a placemaking award. Pat Phelan is Managing Director for the multinational development company Ballymore and suggests this project was “real placemaking in action. It is somewhere in which we have transformed a disused, rundown area of the city – creating a new, well-designed district which has appealed to big name organizations like the Central Bank of Ireland, NTMA and We Work.”[50] This project suggests that to deny the economic part of the puzzle would ignore a key part of the complex landscape of Creative Placemaking. Indeed, a recent seminar showed that creative industries can provide successful interventions to develop and promote areas, support wider communities, and attract and retain a creative and cultural workforce.[51] Creative Placemaking can therefore be said to function not only in the not-for-profit cultural sector (i.e., grants dependent), but able to thrive and help grow economically-driven approaches (e.g., the creative industries, market-driven regeneration, or enterprise and innovation projects).

Regeneration and Creative Placemaking

Regeneration of a place is often the key theme that links these multiple domains, and while there is critique about the “limited and problematic evidence base”[52] of Creative Placemaking’s role within regeneration, there is still significant attention to finding ways of making this work despite its problematics. Kim Wide of the Take A Part (TAP) project in Cornwall (England) explains some of these problematics, but also potential solutions:

Often, we are approached by housing associations and large developers who want to ‘artwash’ their projects, seeing this as an appendage to their main work. The assumption is that involving artists in regeneration schemes as an add-on is a satisfactory way to be socially responsible. It is a thorny issue in any regeneration or neighborhood planning scheme, as you need to collaborate to unlock funds and opportunities.[53]

To challenge this, TAP considers the desires of the local community for partnership, ensuring they have space to negotiate for their own needs. They explain that their role is to be “a broker. We are there to listen, to reach out to support networks…, to support funding opportunities and to co-produce the work with the community. It is a long-term partnership way of working that is successful in that it works on trust-building and collaboration at all points.”[54] This long-term partnership based on trust and collaboration is the vital element of Creative Placemaking, and it is an approach highlighted by the Embers report by The Stove published in 2020 which sets out their specific vision for Creative Placemaking in the South of Scotland. This report “examines the role of creativity in effective placemaking work to inspire change and grow local activity and projects responsive to local need. It highlights the prominence of the Cultural and Creative Industries in this work and the networked approach that has grown up in the last decade.” [55] This paper will not re-present the excellent work within this report but is important to mention in that it sets out the policy framework and background context on which this work occurs.

Considering the above, it is clear that rather than a checkbox or simplistic model, Creative Placemaking is a far more complicated and nuanced process that is perhaps more appropriately considered a constellation of interconnected approaches, histories and engagements based on partnership-working and context-specific responses which can – together – begin help generate places where people want to be. The next section considers the ways in which The Stove approach Creative Placemaking and highlights their unique methodology as ‘adaptor/converter’ when operating as a boundary-crosser between domains.

3. Case Study: The Stove

The Stove as ‘Adaptor/Converter’

While concepts presented above may have provided some clarity on Creative Placemaking, how it actually manifests reality will inevitably be more complicated. Indeed, particular locations and communities will have different resources, cultures, and histories that might suggest each approach to Creative Placemaking will inherently be different as it responds to its own locational particularities. When discussing this with Matt Baker (The Stove’s “Orchestrator”) and Katharine Wheeler (Lead on Partnerships and Project Development) they suggested their particular approach is one of an ‘adaptor’ or ‘convertor’ that operates between domains. To convert something is to “change or make something change from one form, purpose, system, etc. to another”[56] and an adaptor is “a device for connecting pieces of equipment that were not designed to fit together.”[57] Both of these suggest subtle different understandings of the same process: translating. In this way the adaptor/convertor metaphor becomes useful in describing the ways that The Stove aim to bridge different people, partners, organizations or remits to enhance their place of Dumfries and Galloway.

The Stove has been operating for 11 years, set up by a group of local creative practitioners who had an idea that creativity could play a part the future of Dumfries town centre, and over this time, they have developed a cornucopia of projects that translate between a multitude of sectors, communities, and contexts. This text cannot appropriately convey the nuance and insights these projects have provided over the years. As such, we will focus on a single project, The Midsteeple Quarter, but do so with caveat that project has – at the time of writing – been going on for seven years, and so will similarly be incomplete in its presentation. What follows below is therefore a very brief description of the process to provide an insight into its operation.

Example: Midsteeple Quarter

Dumfries – like many agricultural, rural market towns in Scotland – contains many underused buildings. These empty buildings have negative social and economic impact [58] and significant research attention on this ‘blight’ has taken place.[59] The Stove – as citizens of Dumfries themselves – was certain that something needed to be done about the empty buildings, and in 2015 began to explore an area in the centre called Midsteeple Quarter. The Stove was also aware that other sectors were concerned about these vacant sites. For example, Health Scotland has highlighted that “physical and social environment in which we live, and work has an important influence on our health and wellbeing.”[60] Similarly, governmental agencies such as the Land Commission reported there is “evidence that neglected sites can deter investment or mitigate the introduction of new income streams such as tourism and local communities can feel forgotten.”[61] Therefore, considering that there were multiple stakeholders all interested in a shared issue, they instigated a process whereby they operated as an ‘adaptor’ between sectors to collectively explore this area’s economic and physical health. It is important to note that for The Stove the emphasis of this work was not on ‘correcting’ this specific issue, rather it sought to initiate and sustain a wide-ranging and creative conversation with people in the town about their feelings for the place and visions for its future.

They began by securing funds aimed towards social regeneration in order to present cultural activities – arts workshops, discussions, and other creative projects – to not only engage locals in a broader discussion about regeneration between many different stakeholders and agencies, but also as a way of reimagining what the town centre could be. This imaginative approach is important, as Wheeler describes: “Ours is the visioning work: the work that support people in active imagination and that leads to creative civic participation.” Throughout the Midsteeple Quarter project, the creative practice work was both a mechanism for imagination, but also engagement, employing the arts to canvas involved participants in innovative, creative, and exciting consultancy, rather than traditional, bureaucratic form-ticking data gathering. For example – and typical of their approach in incubating projects – they initiated an event called #SquareGo which saw the locals marking their ideas about the town in chalk directly onto the paving of Fountain Square. These ideas were then creatively displayed in The Stove’s cafe for 2 months for further discussion and additions, with a clear theme emerging from the public that pertained to a desire to ‘repopulate’ the town centre.

Artists were then invited to develop impressions of a mixed live/work building development, as well as to make films exploring these ideas further. These, along with a wide range of other diverse creative activities[62] led to a meeting of stakeholders to see if a practical action plan about repopulating the town could be taken forward, and what that would entail. The Stove therefore gathered and led a network of community partners, each of whom represented the diverse stakeholders such as the Community Council, University of West of Scotland, Chamber of Commerce, NHS, MSPs, as well as prominent local individuals and professionals. With these members, they regularly arranged creative ‘visioning sessions’ to elicit imaginative solutions and insights that eventually to the launch of a national architectural competition to visualize this repopulated town centre, followed by a “Midsteeple Quarter ‘Blueprint’.”  This consisted of an asset transfer of the buildings at 135-139 High Street, along with an initial £3M for its redevelopment and a project team to continue the delivery of Midsteeple Quarter as a repopulated, creative site within the town.

Signing the lease on an empty shop with Local Authority, 2018. (Photo Andy Jardine)

Throughout these processes, The Stove ensured that creativity played a central role, driving the process forward. For example, when a Community Benefit Society was founded in 2018 to run the Midsteeple Quarter project, artist Kevin Reid developed creative protest signs, a public soapbox for speeches and street entertainers to launch the Benefit Society, and engage in further imaginative, visioning work and creative stakeholder engagement. Again, the arts were not an ‘add-on’ to a civic development process, but a central facilitation mechanism for community participation, civic action, community ownership and community-led social change.

Indeed, the role of ‘art’ as a catalyst is essential. Deveron Projects Director Natalia Palombo suggests “artists and their ideas are the catalyst that brings the community together. Artists activate or reactivate conversations in the town, sometimes creating longstanding collaborations,” she says. “They create a context to bring people together who might not otherwise have come together.’”[63] The creative arts then, are not just a novel and fun mechanism of engagement in-and-of-themselves: instead, they are central in connecting different domains together. The arts do not just lead to more arts, but rather, is a mechanism to connect different stakeholders. In other words, because ‘crossing boundaries’ is central to culture, cultural activity can easily translate between these different domains effectively. Thus, the work of The Stove is to use the arts in a way that – for example – converts the shared goals of the local authority and a Health organization into a shared language; or translates the KPIs of the Chamber of Commerce into the National Outcomes for local government ministers; or adapts the research of the University to be useful to the local citizenry.

Wheeler suggests that for The Stove, their approach to Creative Placemaking involves two distinct but related activities, namely:

  • Creative arts practice as a facilitation mechanism for community participation, civic action, and community-led social change (the convertor)
  • Creative and cultural activity as a driver for regeneration and economic development of a place (the adaptor)

In reflecting on the Midsteeple Quarter, the ‘facilitation mechanism’ of creative arts practice allowed the multiple partners to engage together and imagine how Dumfries can be a better place; and alongside, they utilized creative acts to work between different stakeholders as a ‘driver for regeneration and economic development.’

At the time of writing, the Midsteeple Quarter project has spun-out of The Stove and is now fully functioning as an entirely separate entity that will allow it to develop at its own pace. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament’s Economy and Fair Work committee recently visited Dumfries to study the Midsteeple Quarter scheme to explore if this model of working could be replicated around Scotland.[64] As a Creative Placemaking activity it is therefore an undeniable success: without the creative initiative of The Stove acting as an imaginative instigator and adaptor between stakeholders the current community ownership would not exist. This ability to act as an adaptor is also illustrated in the attached diagrams that describe how such mechanisms work both in general, but also follow the specific steps of the Midsteeple Quarter Project.

Launch of new Charter for Dumfries, 2014. (Photo Colin Tennant).

4. Learning and Conclusion

Of course, none of this work is perfect, nor easy. In a recent blog, Wheeler explored some concerns they face, and highlighted some key learnings from the past few years.

As might be expected, she suggests that working together is difficult: trust, transparency, joint effort, and commitment to engage in long-term processes are luxuries at the best of times, let alone when working over long periods of time on sensitive local issues.  She also recognizes that community groups and charity/third-sector organizations are often limited by agreed outcomes and timelines in order to justify their funding, and so it is difficult to insert process-driven mechanisms that may stretch over fiscal deadlines, across strategic years, or even beyond funded-project boundaries. She explains: “A big take-away so far is recognizing the extent that we have been asking people to work differently from the ways they are used to; for the artists, for the community organizations and for other partners involved… it challenged people tremendously.”[65] Finding working infrastructures that are co-developed and constantly revisited are therefore central: this in itself takes a significant amount of resource, which is often not recognized (or budgeted). These co-developed and adaptive methodologies are sometimes most challenging for the creative process, as it often means the artist/art is not a central player but a small part of a larger web. This ‘de-centering’ of the artist is difficult because a history of instrumentalization, community art or activism have positioned the artist as an autonomous agent, rather than an equal partner alongside non-art institutions. Making the art a facilitating service to a broader set of values and ensuring a commitment to the values of Creative Placemaking – and not necessarily just creative output – can often make the creativity appear less valued. This in itself complicates notions of artistic quality: how is the work still ‘art’ if it is merely a facilitation mechanism? This is also a concern for funders and policy makers: how Arts Councils justify funding work that is not strictly ‘art’? As above, this is not to suggest it cannot work ‘as art’ but that such intentions and delineations do exist, and so negotiating with different sectors and players is important. Lastly, Wheeler suggests shared and co-developed values are perhaps the most important element of Creative Placemaking: “For the artists this means developing an understanding of the role of the community organization in their place, their relationships, the political landscapes they navigate; for the community organization this means putting their trust in someone new, being generous with their connections and relationships and courageous in how that might influence and reposition their work. For both this means working through the challenges that throws up together, and giving their time, sometimes what felt like an unreasonable amount of time, to those processes.”

Obviously, there are more nuanced learnings and insights, but in general, for The Stove, Creative Placemaking involves boundary-crossing work where the art is used as both the imaginative visioning of a new world, but also a methodology through which to explore how to make this new world possible. As most people working within social practices know, this takes time, effort, and resources, and ensuring shared values and clear processes helps. Negotiating the role of creativity (and position of the creatives!) within this work becomes key to effective Creative Placemaking.

Creative Placemaking, as the histories and theories above attest, is therefore a complex constellation of interconnected approaches, histories and engagements based on partnership-working and context-specific responses which can – altogether – begin to help generate places where people want to be. Certainly, within Scotland, and in the wider European context, this way of working is gaining more traction, and along with the necessity to seek solutions to pressures of a post-Covid world, with its growing national and international tensions, this work is becoming not only more popular but also more pressing.

Dr. Anthony Schrag is a practicing artist and researcher, and Senior Lecturer at Queen Margaret’s University (Edinburgh). The central focus of his work examines the role of art in participatory and public contexts, with a specific focus on social conflict, agonism and ethics. His PhD and current research examines the notion of ‘Pro-Social Conflict’ within participatory and social-practice projects. His most recent publication The Failures of Public Art and Participation (co-edited with Cameron Cartiere) was released in Sept, 2022. He is currently the Primary Investigator on a RSE project developing a Rural Art Network (Scotland). He has worked nationally and internationally, including residencies in Iceland, USA, Canada, Pakistan, Finland, The Netherlands and South Africa, among others. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants including Royal Society of Edinburgh, The Hope Scot Trust, Creative Scotland, British Council, Royal Scottish Academy, the Dewar Arts Award, Standpoint Futures as well as a Henry Moore Artist Fellowship.

Caitlin McKinnon is an SGSAH funded PhD Candidate exploring Arts Management Education. Caitlin has sought to immerse herself in the arts and cultural world in a variety of different positions. Highlights include co-founding a community arts zine in her home town, volunteering with a Toronto Artists Collective during their takeover of a vacant subway kiosk, and working at the Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre to run story-based workshops for the local community.  More recently, Caitlin has worked on a number of different research projects commissioned by Creative Scotland, British Council (Scotland), Engage Scotland, as well as organizations such as Out of the Blue, the Stove, and SESQUI Canada. As a developing researcher, Caitlin’s research interests include discourses of arts management, professionalization, cultural policy, and relations of power in the cultural sector.


1. The Stove (n.d) ‘Our Aims’. Undated, The Stove website: https://thestove.org/our-aims/ (Accessed 22 Aug 2022)

2. David Harding (n.d.) ‘The Town Artist‘. Undated, David Harding website: www.davidharding.net/townartist (Accessed 22 Aug 2022)

3. The Black E (n.d) ‘About us.’ Undated, The Black E website: www.theblack-e.co.uk (Accessed 22 Aug 2022)

4. Craigmillar Festival (n.d.) ‘About Us.’ Undated, The Craigmillar Festival website: https://www.craigmillarfestival.org/ (Accessed 22 Aug 2022)

5. See for example: Rig Arts: https://www.rigarts.org/ or WHALE Arts: https://www.whalearts.co.uk/

6. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso, 2012. p. 177

7. See Schrag (2022) for more insight into these distinctions: Anthony Schrag, The Failure of Participation: the Details is in the Demos. In The Failure of Public Art and Participation edited by Anthony Schrag and Cameron Cartiere (Routledge: London, 2022).

8. Lewis Hyde, (1998) Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture (Edinburgh and London, Canongate, 1998), p. 94.

9. Cohen et al. (2016, p.9)

10. R. Steuteville, (January 22, 2016). Four types of placemaking. CNU. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/four-types-placemaking; T. Borrup, “Creative Placemaking: Art and Culture as a Partner in Community Revitalization,” in Fundamentals of Arts Management (pp. 1–22) (University of Massachusetts; Cohen, M., Gajendran, T., Lloyd, J., Maund, K., Smith, C., Bhim, S., & Vaughan, J. 2018). Valuing Creative Placemaking: Development of a Toolkit for Public and Private Stakeholders. NSW Government, Landcom. https://nova.newcastle.edu.au/vital/access/manager/Repository/uon:32653; Z.E. Moore, What is Placemaking? Definition & Examples. Spaces to Places. Retrieved November 9, 2021, from https://www.spacestoplaces.co.uk/blog/what-is-placemaking-definition-examples; American Planning Association. (n.d.). Creative placemaking. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from: https://www.planning.org/knowledgebase;  Kresge Foundation. (n.d.). Breaking down creative placemaking. Kresge. Retrieved November 16, 2021, from https://kresge.org/sites/default/files/library/creativeplacemakingintrokresgebookletversion_0.pdf

11. American Planning Association. (n.d.). Creative Placemaking. A. Markusen and Nicodemus A. Gadwa, Creative Placemaking: Executive Summary, (2010).Washington: NEA. Retrieved from www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/CreativePlacemaking-Paper.pdf; K. Kobersmith, (April 16, 2021). “How four rural towns are building vibrant communities through the tools of creative placemaking,” The Daily Yonder. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from: https://dailyyonder.com/how-four-rural-towns-are-building-vibrant-communities-through-the-tools-of-creative-placemaking/2021/04/14/.

12. T. Borrup, Creative placemaking, p.3, emphasis added

13. L. McCormack, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Creative Placemaking. Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Retrieved November 9, 2021, from https://www.lisc.org/our-stories/story/creative-placemaking-q-and-a

14. T. Borrup, Creative placemaking and McCormack, Everything You Ever wanted to Know.

15. Markusen and Nicodemus, A. (2010), p.3, emphasis added

16. T. Borrup, Borrup, Creative placemaking, p.1.

17. Bishop, Artificial Hells.

18. Thompson, Living as Form, Bishop, Artificial Hells or Sholette, History and Theory of Socially Engaged Art – http://www.sholetteseminars.com/history-theory-socially-engaged-art-2022/ [this is a seminar that Greg Sholette offers at CUNY]

19. Judy Baca, ‘The Great Wall.’ Undated. Judy Baca website: http://www.judybaca.com/artist/portfolio/the-great-wall/ (Accessed 22 Aug 2022)

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Social and Public Art Resource Centre (n.d.) ‘The Great Wall – History and Description’ Undated. Social and Public Art Resource website: https://sparcinla.org/the-great-wall-part-2/ (Accessed August 22, 2022)

23. Owen Kelly, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels. (London. Comedia Publishing Group in association with Marion Boyars, 1984).

24. Bishop, Artificial Hells, p 165

25. Ibid., p. 166

26. Ibid., p. 166

27. Tate Museum (n.d.) “Stuart Brisley”.  https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/stuart-brisley-813/stuart-brisley-archives-context-and-memory. (Accessed 22 Aug 2022).

28. DCMS, Creative Industries Mapping Document, (London: Department of Culture, Media and Sport/Stationery Office, 2004). p. 38.

29. DCMS, Creative Industries Mapping Document,  p. 8. (Emphasis added).

30. Schrag, “The Failure of Participation”.

31. M. Hutcheson, Making Place Work: Site Specific Socially Engaged Art in 21st Century Toronto (Ph,D Thesis), York University, 2014.

32. Katharine Wheeler, Lead on Partnerships and Project Development, The Stove, email to author, April 2022.

33. Matt Baker, Director, The Stove, email to author, April 2022

34. Arlene Goldbard, New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development (New York: Rockefeller, 2006) Or Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard, Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development (New York: Rockefeller, 2001).

35. Ibid.

36. Creative Scotland. (n.d.) ‘The Place Programme’ Undated. Creative Scotland website: https://www.creativescotland.com/funding/funding-programmes/targeted-funding/place-programme. (Accessed August 22, 2022).

37. Scottish Government (n.d.) ‘Place Principle.’ Undated. The Scottish Government website: https://www.gov.scot/publications/place-principle-introduction/. (Accessed August 22, 2022).

38. Creative Lives (n.d.) ‘Our Purpose.’ Undated. Creative Lives website: https://www.creative-lives.org/our-purpose (Accessed August 22, 2022).

39. Deveron Projects (n.d.) ‘Dalziel and Scullion.’ Undated. Deveron Projects website: https://www.deveron-projects.com/dalziel-scullion/. (Accessed August 22, 2022).

40. Hutcheson, Making Place Work.

41. Arts Council Ireland (n.d.) ‘Creative Places.’ Undated. Arts Council Ireland website: https://www.artscouncil.ie/Arts-in-Ireland/Strategic-development/Creative-Places/.(Accessed August 22, 2022).

42. L. Jancovich and D. Stevenson, D. “The ‘problem’ of participation in cultural policy,” in Cultures of Participation: Arts, Digital Media & Cultural Institutions, edited by B. Eriksson, C. Stage and B. Valtysson (London: Routledge, 2019), pp. 167-184.

43. For example, see D. Beel, Reinterpreting the Museum: Social Inclusion, Citizenship and the Urban Regeneration of Glasgow. PhD Thesis (Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2012). Or S. Pritchard, “Caught Doing Social Work? Socially Engaged Art and the Dangers of Becoming Social Workers,” (2018)  Culture Matters website: https://culturematters.org.uk/index.php/culture/theory/itemlist/user/780-stephenpritchard. Andy Hewitt (2011) also suggests that such work was positioning artists as “service providers” to a welfare state and such cultural policies are a “distortion of the public sphere.” Andrew Hewitt, “Privatizing the Public: Three Rhetorics of Art’s Public Good in ‘Third Way’ Cultural Policy,” Art & the Public Sphere, 1:1, pp.19-36. p. 28

44. Arts Council Ireland (n.d.) ‘Places Matter Programme.’ Undated. Arts Council Ireland website: https://www.artscouncil.ie/. (Accessed August 22, 2022).

45. Arts Council Ireland, “Place, Space, People”. Undated. Arts Council Ireland website: https://www.artscouncil.ie/Arts-in-Ireland/Local,-Place-and-Public-Art/Place,-Space-_-People/. (Accessed, August 22, 2022).

46. Arts Council Ireland, “Places Matter Programme”. Undated.

47. LeithLate (n.d.) ‘What We Do.’ Undated. LeithLate website: https://www.leithlate.co.uk/what-we-do. (Accessed August 22, 2022)

48. Unit 38, “Home”.  Undated. Unit 38 website: https://www.unit38.org/Home. (Accessed August 22, 2022)

49. The World Transformed, “Community Planning and Future Radical Municipalism”.  Undated. The World Transformed website: https://theworldtransformed.org/twt21/learning-latin-village-community-planning-and-future-radical-municipalism/. (Accessed August 22, 2022)

50. Ballymore Group, “Dublin Landings”. Undated. Ballymore Group website: https://www.ballymoregroup.com/news/placemaking-dublin-landings. (Accessed August 22, 2022)

51. Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (2020) ‘Insights from our Industry Champions: How Policy Makers can support local growth in the creative industries’ (2020) Policy and Evidence website: https://cdn2.assets-servd.host/creative-pec/production/assets/publications/Final-Insights-from-our-Industry-Champions_-Local-Growth.pdf. (Accessed 22 Aug 2022)

52. L. Lees and C. Melhuish, “Arts-led Regeneration in the UK: The Rhetoric and the Evidence on Urban Social Inclusion,”  European Urban and Regional Studies. vol. 22, no. 3 (2013), pp. 242–260.

53. K. Wide and R. Shand, “Lesson Drawing and Community Engagement: The Experience of Take A Part in Plymouth,” (pp. 35-43) in Developing a Sense of Place: The Role of the Arts in Regenerating Communities, edited by T. Ashley and A. Weedon (London: UCL Pres, 2020), pp.35-43.

54. Wide and Shand, “Lesson Drawing”.

55. Embers Report: Creative Placemaking For the South of Scotland (Dumfries: The Stove, 2022).

56. Oxford Online Dictionary, “Convert,” The Oxford Online Dictionary website.

57. Oxford Online Dictionary, “Adaptor,” The Oxford Online Dictionary website.

58. Greenspaces Scotland, “Derelict Sites Contribute to Perceptions of Urban Decline,” Undated Greenspaces Scotland website.  https://www.greenspacescotland.org.uk/news/derelict-sites-contribute-to-perceptions-of-urban-decline. (Accessed August 22, 2022).

59. UK Government, “Government Strategy to regenerate High Streets,” (2021) UK Government website: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-strategy-to-regenerate-high-streets (Accessed August 22, 2022)

60. Health Scotland, “Impact of Social and Physical Environments on Communities,” Undated. Health Scotland website: http://www.healthscotland.scot/health-inequalities/impact-of-social-and-physical-environments/communities (Accessed August 22, 2022).

61. Greenspaces Scotland, “Derelict Sites”.

62. “The Stove and The Town Centre,” Undated. The Stove website: https://thestove.org/the-stove-and-the-town-centre/ (Accessed August 22, 2022).

63. Scottish Contemporary Art Network, “#ArtUnlocked Placemaking,” (2021).  Scottish Contemporary Art Network website: https://sca-net.org/artunlocks-placemaking/ (Accessed August 22, 2022).

64. BBC Local News, “Dumfries town centre regeneration efforts put under microscope,” (April 25, 2022) BBC News website: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-south-scotland-61215423 (Accessed August 22, 2022). Curiously, the article did not mention The Stove as the innovators and initiators of such work, and it remains to be see how successful it would work in other locations without such a central (if invisible) adaptor as The Stove.

65. K. Wheeler, “Shifting the Focus,” (2022). What We Do Now website: https://whatwedonow.scot/blog/shifting-the-focus/ (Accessed September 6, 2022).