Expanding a sense of place to create community

From left to right, top to bottom. Ann Brusky, Nancy Halverson, Meaghan Singletary and Sharon Yazowski participate in the “Expanding Place Through Adaptive Programming” panel at the Walk/Bike/Places conference.

During last month’s Walk/Bike/Places conference, Levitt Foundation Executive Director Sharon Yazowski moderated an engaging virtual panel with Levitt grantees from Sioux Falls, S.D., Trenton, N.J. and Sheboygan, Wisc., titled “Expanding Place Through Adaptive Programming.” The conversation focused on how these nonprofits continued to build community through the arts during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how their experiences and lessons learned have influenced their programming in 2021 and beyond, expanding their thinking around place, access and the arts. 

“This past year was focused on adaptive programming to continue to connect people with each other to offer comfort, healing, and a sense of togetherness, even while needing to be apart,” Yazowski said. ”Through rethinking their programming these three nonprofits created a sense of place and opportunity for social connection beyond their traditional sites.”

Moving beyond physical boundaries  
Nancy Halverson, the executive director of Levitt Shell Sioux Falls, also known as Levitt at the Falls, shared how her team organized pop-up concerts around the city and created its first online programming last year. As Halverson said, “The creative was still there, it hadn’t gone away, the place just was quiet for a while.” Faced with the closure of the Levitt Sioux Falls stage, Halverson and her team found new places to create community through music.

At a local food giveaway, Levitt Sioux Falls hired local roving musicians to walk amongst the cars and play for families sitting in the heat for hours as they waited for a box of food. Staff handed out bubbles and water bottles and brought smiles to the faces of parents and children. At a local senior center, Levitt Sioux Falls hired a band to play in the parking lot for seniors who had not been outside for months. After a 90-minute concert, one resident enjoyed the music so much, she asked if the band could keep playing.

Halverson and her team also created Levitt in Your Living Room, featuring virtual performances and online interviews with artists who were supposed to perform on the Levitt stage in 2020. The virtual programming was so successful, South Dakota Public Broadcasting began airing Levitt in Your Living Room in 2020 and has now partnered with Levitt Sioux Falls on a new digital series called “Music Matters.” The new series will delve into what inspires the artists performing in this year’s concert series.

A moment from Levitt Sioux Falls’ “pink out” virtual show featuring Kings & Associates.

Over in Sheboygan, Wis., the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (the nonprofit behind the Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series) presented a series of outdoor mobile concerts on five Thursday nights in the summer of 2020, transforming the top of a commercial truck into a stage on wheels, featuring two to three musicians atop the vehicle who headed into neighborhoods across the city.

Sheboygan residents watch an outdoor mobile concert.

“We had to pivot and find new creative ways to take that [Levitt AMP Sheboygan] experience and make it mobile,” said Ann Brusky, Director of Public Programs at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC). “We could collaborate and support artists and partners and reach people beyond physical boundaries. It was uplifting and it was necessary, especially during a pandemic.”

While the Levitt Amp Sheboygan Music Series is on hold for this summer, JMKAC will continue to operate beyond its traditional borders in 2021. JMKAC will host several concerts across the city, because it was such an uplifting experience to reach new audiences in 2020 and make the arts more accessible to local children.

Increasing access to the arts
Over in Trenton, N.J., Meaghan Singletary, Development Manager at the Trenton Downtown Association, shared how the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series, faced with the cancellation of its 2020 music season, pivoted to create the Sidewalk Chalk Project. On October 4, 2020, at 36 locations in all four wards of the city, the Trenton community was encouraged to “art where you are” as a way to brighten local neighborhoods.

Sidewalk 2
Young people participate in Trenton’s Sidewalk Chalk project.

Singletary observed that the citywide nature of the Sidewalk Chalk Project helped the nonprofit connect with people who had never attended a Levitt concert. “You can prepare the best concert ever. You can host the best event of your life, but if your community is not there at its fullest capacity and fully represented in as many ways as possible, your event loses its meaning,” said Singletary. The Trenton Downtown Association plans to continue the Sidewalk Chalk Project in communities across the city this year and hopes to add a musical element.

Developing new partnerships
For Halverson, Brusky, and Singletary, bringing creative placemaking into the community meant moving beyond the usual set of local partners. Several pop-up concerts were developed in conjunction with social service organizations to provide music and connection to local residents in need of support. Levitt Sioux Falls, for example, worked with a homeless shelter to create a pop-up event. “We ended up making great friends with the folks there,” Halverson said. “We’re actually working on a program where some of their residents who can be more involved in the community are going to come volunteer for us this summer .” 

The virtual session ended with each panelist sharing their thoughts on the key elements to creating place in non-traditional spaces. Above all, they agreed that joy and representation are essential ingredients. “There are so many rich assets in neighborhoods across every city,” Yazowski said. “It’s getting to know neighborhood residents and collaboratively building upon those assets to create an authentic sense of place.”

While we’re filled with hope and excitement as many Levitt lawns are once again filled with friends, families and neighbors enjoying free, live music, we’re all taking to heart the lessons learned during the pandemic year, especially when it comes to creating a sense of place and community in unlikely spaces. A big thank you to the organizers of the 2021 Walk/Bike/Places Conference for including this session!


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