Home » By State » Vermont » Public Arts and Creative Placemaking as Economic Drivers

Public Arts and Creative Placemaking as Economic Drivers

I was invited to be on the panel for a Public Arts Forum, specifically to talk about how it relates to Economic Development and my work with the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance.

Here is a an audio of my presentation, giving a brief overview of some of our work, and some details about one project in particular. For more information on that project, MILES (the Mobile Interactive Literary Exhibition Space), take a look here.
Be in touch if this sparks ideas for you, or if you’d like to ask any questions: jenaustinvt@gmail.com

Below is a transcript of the presentation (the actual one was shortened slightly due to time constraints).


Public Art Forum- Downtown Brattleboro

Jen Austin, Downtown Brattleboro Alliance Coordinator/ Small Town Legacies

We’ve been talking specifically about “Public Art”, but I’m going to step back a  little and talk about ‘Creative Placemaking” as it focuses more on the big picture, of why ‘public art’ is important and how it fits within an area. 

This framework tends to open us up to the ideas about what we want to highlight, and how we want to use those spaces.

I am the Coordinator, and only paid staff, for the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA). Although we rarely call it “Public Art”, DBA does invest heavily in Creative Placemaking. It falls under our mandates for Economic Development, Beautification/Design, and even Promotions.

That’s because places that are safe, comfortable, and inviting, strengthen communities by attracting locals and visitors who spend more time, and money, there.  

We are often approached by people who “have ideas”. For those actively pursuing their ideas, we offer connections, resources, and insights; sometimes small Facade Improvement or Economic Development grants and promotional and technical support.

We’ve helped launch arts-related projects: such as Brattleboro Literary Festival, Gallery Walk, So VT Dance Fest, and Tiny House Fest;

We’ve created events- like the upcoming BrattleBOO which incorporates aspects of public art- like the jack o lantern contest.

We’ve sponsored murals.

Still other projects are completed by those who would probably never consider themselves artists, like development of Pliny Park. Or even the downtown flower and holiday lights programs.

I think that is the beauty of understanding this is all about Creating Place: you don’t have to be an artist to think like one, and you don’t have to be an economic developer to act like one.

I think  one of our latest projects: MILES, is a good example of that.


I’d been working with a group of people on a large collaboration for a 3- year proposal for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. The project brought together a wide range of people, from Marlboro College to the Literary Festival, 118 Elliot, DBA, Write Action, Historical Society, Brooks Memorial Library, local schools, and many more. It was a long-shot proposal, highly competitive, with most funding going to large cities, and it had a quick turnaround.

Once that proposal was submitted, we all continued to meet to talk about what we could do, even if we didn’t get the grant:

Because the connections being made and excitement around possibilities was too rich to simply wait around or walk away.

About this time, the National Main Street announced a Placemaking grant focusing on the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” method, while having an impact on local economies, activate public spaces, and engage communities. It was being sponsored by Edward Jones nationally, further highlighting the economic returns of investing in placemaking.
It was also another highly competitive matching grant program, with funding going mostly to big cities, and a very tight turnaround.

I saw the potential for how it could help achieve, and expand, the goals of the larger project. So I contacted Lissa at 118 Elliot and started the conversation like i do way too many, “I have this kind of crazy idea…” and we were off and running.

Together with others from the group, we brainstormed, developed what seemed like a fairly feasible plan: inspired in part by the International Park(ing) Day, which encourages cities to use parking spaces for temporary tiny parks, transforming it into a place where community can gather and engage much differently than a parked car allows; we would create a mobile space connecting locals and visitors to the literary legacies of Brattleboro.

We submitted the grant, and moved on.

The larger group continued to meet, planning ways to continue the momentum even without the grants.

Then, to pretty much everyone’s surprise, we got the Placemaking grant.

I can’t even begin to share all the ups, downs, and crazy turns this has taken us on, and even though where we ended wasn’t exactly where I thought we’d go, the ride to get there has been very interesting, challenging, and even fun.

And, thanks to support from the local Edward Jones’ offices, Rotary Clubs, and individuals, MILES, the mobile, mini pop-up museum will be rolling into town for this year’s Literary Festival.

I don’t want to give too much of it away, because I want you to come experience it for yourself. But, our first exhibit features Lucy Terry Prince, the first known African American poet, and fierce advocate for equal rights under the law. She was a freed slave who lived and owned property in Guilford.

I can say, her story is inspiring, and has relevance even today.
Not only did we get that grant and make MILES a reality, but it is now the first part of the much larger, 3-year project “People, Places and History of Words in Brattleboro”, which was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities matching grant of $150,000. The project has many layers, culminating in an immersive, literary audio tour that will appeal to locals and visitors.

These projects are bringing groups together in new ways, taking big ideas and transforming them so they amplify local voices, strengthen community, and in the process, also attract visitors. This is exactly what creative placemaking is all about.

Through this process, some of the things I love about Brattleboro, have been reinforced. Like how, when you start talking about your ideas, you quickly realize that:

  1. Your idea may not be so crazy afterall
  2. There are so many talented ppl here  willing to get involved, you can make more happen than you realize, and
  3. Ppl here are willing to take a little risk and hop aboard a crazy train occasionally- as long as they know where it’s going
  4. If you miss one train, another one will surely be coming along shortly

These are true gifts of this community.

There is important work being done here, and people are coming together in new ways to create the places they want to experience.

I can’t wait to see what emerges next.