Using Levitt Pavilion Denver as a case study, a new white paper examines the role of community identity, collective memory, shifting perceptions and equitable belonging over time
What is, and what should be, the role of the arts in communities undergoing change?
A new white paper, Listening to the Music of Community Change: Findings from a Pre/Post Research Study at Levitt Pavilion Denver, examines to what degree the development of a new cultural asset like an outdoor music venue plays a role in perceptions of a neighborhood and park over time, using Levitt Pavilion Denver as a case study. The study’s release follows a pandemic-fueled wave of interest in public spaces and offers timely insights for civic leaders, practitioners and funders seeking to build more equitable and thriving public spaces.
Commissioned by the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation and conducted by Slover Linett Audience Research, the study focuses on Denver’s Ruby Hill neighborhood, a largely residential, predominantly low-income Hispanic/Latinx community. Reflecting on fieldwork conducted during the “pre” phase of the research in 2013 (before design and construction of Levitt Pavilion Denver began) and the “post” phase in 2019 (during the pavilion’s third concert season), the white paper explores shifting perceptions of Ruby Hill Park, the local area, and the pavilion through the lens of lived experiences of local residents and park users before and after the cultural asset came into being; the role of collective memory in shaping attitudes toward the arts investment; and how equitable practices and processes can further a sense of belonging while fostering long-term investment in the community.
The new report is a case study of how a creative placemaking project can be positioned and programmed to become a community asset that is reflective of a neighborhood’s local character and inspires community attachment, while also being responsive to the dynamism of a rapidly growing and changing metropolitan area.
“As we reflect upon a year of tremendous challenges, loss and hardship, when many of our country’s inequities were laid bare, the role of the arts in fostering community and a sense of belonging has taken on even greater importance,” says Sharon Yazowski, executive director of the Levitt Foundation. “This research has already informed our work, as we hope it will inspire others, to broaden inclusionary practices and support creative placemaking in communities undergoing change, with equity at the forefront.”
The Levitt Foundation focuses its funding and research on creative placemaking, believing in the power of public spaces to create a more just and equitable society, and the power of the arts to inspire joy, nourish well-being and create shared community experiences that foster connections. The Foundation partners with communities across the country, providing grants to activate underused public spaces through free, live music. In addition to its grantmaking, the Foundation has been part of the creative placemaking field’s dialogue and evolution and has committed to research and critical self-reflection, both to contribute to the field and to inform its own programs and practices.
In 2013, the Levitt Foundation commissioned Slover Linett to conduct a three-part study to better understand and document the impact of permanent Levitt music venues, focusing on community-level outcomes such as accessibility of the arts, community engagement, neighborhood vibrancy and perceived safety and livability. The first two parts of the study were published as a white paper in 2016, Setting the Stage for Community Change: Reflecting on Creative Placemaking Outcomes. Among other findings, that report explored how the experience of free Levitt concerts fosters social interactions within groups and across demographic boundaries, which, in turn, builds social capital.
The 2021 white paper presents the third part of the research, a Pre/Post Research Study at Levitt Pavilion Denver, which explores the precursor to social capital—a sense of belonging. Slover Linett focused on the unique “situatedness” of Ruby Hill Park, including its location and history of use, in order to understand the preconditions for Levitt Pavilion Denver’s creation and how it has begun to contribute to a sense of place and overall community vitality.
Slover Linett used largely qualitative research methods—ethnographic observation, naturalistic in-context interviews, standardized intercept interviews, and one-on-one stakeholder interviews—to understand the role and impact of Levitt Pavilion Denver over time and across multiple definitions of “community,” inviting a range of perspectives on the pavilion and its concerts, the park, surrounding neighborhoods, and Denver as a whole. The researchers aimed to be attuned to systemic drivers of equity and inequity in the local community context and listened for perceptions among area residents, Denver community stakeholders, and concertgoers about how Levitt Pavilion Denver has (or could) play a role in shifting those dynamics.
“This research has been a rich conversation with many voices, including longtime local residents and more recent arrivals,” says Tanya Treptow, PhD, lead author of the study and Slover Linett’s vice president and co-director of research. “By exploring these multi-layered, intersecting perspectives, we hope that this case study honors the complexity of communities and uncovers insights that can be useful to a wide range of practitioners and funders of creative placemaking and equitable arts-and-community-development projects.”
- Levitt Pavilion Denver has helped create a stronger, more equitable community of music lovers in Denver, filling a longstanding gap in the area’s arts landscape through free, high-caliber and wide-ranging music programming that is proximate to neighborhoods previously lacking consistent arts access, brings disparate music-loving audiences together, and enhances a sense of belonging through the pavilion’s laid-back, casual vibe.
- To foster long-term investment in the local community that supports a sense of belonging, Levitt Pavilion Denver could emphasize the community-led process at the core of its creation to better retain collective memory and navigate tensions around demographic change in the area, as well as potential barriers to participation. To project strong signals of welcome and support a sense of belonging, Levitt Pavilion Denver may consider more frequently bringing recognizable elements of the neighborhood into the project space, while increasing its presence within the community outside of the venue.
- Having taken a nuanced view of the complexities of Denver’s live music ecosystem, Levitt Pavilion Denver has played an important role in creating a nurturing environment for musicians in the city through opportunities both on and off the stage, in terms of competitive pay, helping artists reach broader audiences, and connecting artists to each other and to educational partnerships with schools and nonprofits.
- The concentrated collaboration at the heart of Levitt Pavilion Denver’s public/private partnership with the City involves the sharing of resources in a complex landscape among multiple stakeholders, which may make it difficult to attribute beneficial outcomes, or responsibility for challenges, to a single entity. A continued commitment to balancing established policies with project intention can lay the groundwork for shared, ecosystem-level progress to drive equitable public spaces.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE FIELD
The final section of the white paper includes Suggestions for the Field, co-authored by Slover Linett and the Levitt Foundation—guidance to those working in, or philanthropically supporting, a range of creative placemaking efforts, from music-based projects to those involving other arts disciplines or taking place in diverse community contexts. The Suggestions for the Field are grouped under four themes: Building on community assets; Working with complex community systems; Developing community-centered outcomes; and Supporting a sense of belonging.
Topics discussed include how the collective memory of a project’s origins may fade and be replaced by new perceptions or suppositions; the importance of setting realistic expectations of change and impact while linking to other efforts to amplify positive outcomes; acknowledging that creative placemaking work is not neutral, particularly when it involves arts and cultural components that are closely tied to differing community identities; and finding ways to tie belonging within the creative placemaking space to forms of belonging outside that space, in the surrounding community.