Creative Placemaking in Baton Rouge: A Q&A with Renee Chatelain
This post is by Camille Manning-Broome, CEO of CPEX.
When you think of the great cities of the world — Paris, London, New York, Tokyo — what’s the first thing that comes to mind? You think of Paris’ Eiffel Tower or walking around Montmartre. You imagine New York’s Statue of Liberty or the city’s art epicenter Chelsea. You envision Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing and London’s Tower Bridge. You think of their iconic architectural landmarks, beautiful historical districts and vibrant, art-filled neighborhoods.
Art is at the core of a thriving community; it’s a statement about that community’s identity and uniqueness. Art is essential to placemaking.
No one in Baton Rouge knows that better than Renee Chatelain. Chatelain has devoted her life to creating vibrant, artistic communities in Baton Rouge and throughout Louisiana. As the president and CEO of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, she finds innovative ways to use the arts to lift people up, bring them together and create community.
Chatelain’s work recently culminated in the Ebb & Flow Festival, a two-day arts exhibition, festival and collective that brought together existing spring arts events in Baton Rouge under an umbrella brand. It was an opportunity to showcase everything that makes Baton Rouge such a culturally rich, distinct, vibrant city.
I asked Chatelain to share her reflections on the festival and to help us learn more about Creative Relief, a project that uses art to identify and address community needs as part of disaster-recovery efforts, and get her take on specific ways the arts can strengthen our communities.
How did you plan the Ebb & Flow Festival?
We wanted to create an umbrella brand for all the arts events that happen in the spring in Baton Rouge, in this pocket of March and April where the weather gets better and so many people are enjoying outdoor festivals and activities. But instead of having festivals competing with each other, we wanted to have a string of events that aligned and complemented each other. The first thing we did was call together all the anchor festivals that happen in downtown and line up their dates and events. We promoted those events as autonomous events but also under Ebb & Flow.
We reached out to community artists and the creative sector and asked what they wanted to bring to the event. It was an open invitation to collaborate with others, to gather the arts community together in a free event for the whole community. It's designed to brand the city culturally, to showcase our art and culture and its accessibility throughout the city.
We were really thrilled and inspired by the results. We had nearly twice as many people as we anticipated participate and also broadened our partners to include BREC, literacy organizations, the universities, the EBR library, and the Baton Rouge Zoo. There were so many people that stepped up to be involved, and so it became a much larger conversation about what makes our city a quality place to live, what makes Baton Rouge special and unique. We also launched our app, FlowBR, which we hope will be used throughout the year for all arts and entertainment in our community.
Tell me about Creative Relief. How can the arts help communities in unexpected ways?
The project grew out of our response to the 2016 floods. While most of the emergency relief organizations focused on vital needs like shelter and food, the psycho-social needs were not necessarily met across population sectors. We wanted to identify and address those community needs in response to the flooding damage in the parishes that we serve.
So we worked with FEMA, the Red Cross and local disaster relief organizations to perform background checks and train volunteers from the arts sector. We did criminal background checks so our volunteers could immediately begin working in the shelters. We also looked for ways we could help support populations with specific needs, such as adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, people on the autism spectrum, aging populations and individuals with limited mobility. You have lots of groups going in to help occupy people’s time and doing good work, but there's a very diverse population whose needs should be addressed.
We partnered with organizations like the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to modify their Prime Time family literacy program. We showed films, we held jewelry-making workshops. Using the arts occupied people’s time doing something constructive, but more importantly, it restored a sense of normalcy to people’s lives. We also coordinated with artists who wanted to share their art, whether it was music performances or spoken word or some other form of art, with individuals in the shelters.
Supporting Louisiana artists in the recovery efforts so they could continue to create art was also important. We wanted to ensure our communities didn't experience a cultural depletion because of the floods. We connected local artists with the Jazz Foundation of America, which is New York-based, who came down and did amazing work with indigenous musicians here to help restore their homes. We provided our artists with the resources they needed to continue to create the art that makes Louisiana’s culture so distinct.
What’s next for Creative Relief? How has the program expanded since the 2016 floods?
Our program Creative Relief has since been adopted by the state and became Creative Louisiana. They connect artists and individuals statewide with local arts councils and with national and state funding.
Our project also has served as a national model for other arts organizations and for FEMA in responding to disasters across the country. We generated a report for FEMA at their invitation that has since been reported to the United Nations. With Hurricane Harvey in Houston, the recent disaster in the Virgin Islands and the flooding in Nebraska, we've become one of the organizations that people can reach out to for information and resources to use as tools in helping their communities recover from disasters.
I'm proud of how the Arts Council was able to use the arts to help people in times of crisis and that other people can use our model to support people recovering from a natural disaster. It just shows how the arts are a vital component in creating places that are strong and thriving. They are vital to the appeal and the success of any community.