Breathing Art into the City

Carol Coletta’s urban upbringing established for her the pattern of a great and vibrant city as a place where people can stumble onto the fun and stumble onto each other. It has simple amenities, lots of intensity and high mobility.

“I grew up in a perfect urban neighborhood,” Coletta says of her beloved hometown of Memphis. “I could walk to school, the grocery, the library, the movie theater, and friends’ homes. I could jump on a bus and get downtown all by myself. The freedom of that was great.”

As she was beginning her career back in Memphis in the ‘70s, Coletta found she had a knack for creating downtown events that sparked renewal on the streets she loved to explore. Ultimately, the chief administrative officer of Memphis hired her to establish the city’s first downtown redevelopment organization.

It was a dream job for Coletta. She was a young woman working inside city hall for a CAO who was open to ideas about revitalizing Memphis. “We were at a moment when we could move a lot of things,” she recalls.

But the challenges were daunting. Memphis sat directly at the center of the Civil Rights Movement, when deep-rooted notions of place and community were in an upheaval. And it was here, on April 3, 1968, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He was assassinated the next day at the Lorraine Motel on Mulberry Street.

Coletta says that it was difficult at that point to envision Memphis-or any city-as a welcoming setting for the cultivation of culture and people.

“The world was definitely moving away from downtown at that point, and that only accelerated after the disruptions over race and injustice,” she says. “Our biggest challenge then was just getting people to believe that things could be different, that there could be a different future for this place than was easily recognizable.”

Since those heady Memphis days, Coletta has been building cities—not in the bricks and mortar way, but by nurturing all the intangibles that bring life to the streets. Through her experience as CEO of CEOs for Cities, executive director of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, host and producer of the radio show, Smart City, and as the head of her own consulting firm, she discovered that renewal efforts must honor the hard work that is already happening in the field. A successful transformation of a city is a unique reflection of the assets and the context of that particular place.

“The fact is that we want to make sure that we always remember where the juice is, and it’s local,” she says.

Art is the new frontier in building up cities, according to Coletta. It’s a powerful way to enhance the quality of place, attract and keep the talent, and allow people to thrive in place. “Every city, every community has arts and artists,” she notes. Art draws the senses to what is truly moving a city. It brings the distinctiveness of a place into stark relief. It connects people, places, ideas, and resources.

Today, Coletta is the director of ArtPlace, a grant and loan-making organization that coordinates philanthropic and government resources to fund creative placemaking in communities across America. ArtPlace identifies the creative pulse of a community and uses that as a sort of divining rod for locating fertile areas in which to make investments.

“The first sign of transformation is an increase in vibrancy,” she explains, “but there are a thousand different ways to produce vibrancy. Artists are endlessly creative in finding those ways.”

Coletta now lives in Chicago—another city she adores. She loves the intensity and the way the Chicago River and Lake Michigan shoreline blend with the flow of the city. And the art is big and bold. Just around the corner from her office stands a 50-foot Picasso sculpture that was commissioned by Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1967. Coletta can stroll past it every day on her way out to lunch.

She sees it as a gift, but she knows that to most Chicagoans, it’s nothing particularly special. It’s just part of the air they breathe on the streets of a great city.