Reminding us Why We’re Here: An Arts and Culture Conversation

Atlanta arts leader Heather Infantry on why the arts are about more than museums

Station Soccer has been a big hit for people of all ages

A concert in the town square. A mural on the side of a building. An old school converted to a showcase of local history.

These are just some examples of how arts and culture play an important role in defining community and fostering thriving, vibrant places to live. Yet arts & culture is often overlooked and underappreciated – especially when it comes to local and regional planning, where things like transportation and land use frequently take center stage.

We recently talked to local arts leader Heather Infantry about the importance of arts & culture in metro Atlanta and why it must be a crucial part of the regional planning process.

Infantry is executive director of Generator, a nonprofit founded by Ryan Gravel that provides a platform for people to create ideas about the future of cities. She recently served on the steering committee for the Atlanta Regional Commission’s recently adopted Arts, Culture, & Creative Placemaking Strategic Plan.

Tell us a bit about your background. Why is arts and culture important to you?

I’ve always loved the arts.  I have a bachelor’s degree in theater, and I’ve always tried to keep a foot in that pool. I met my husband at an arts event, so there is no way to untangle me from arts and culture.

Arts and culture reminds us about why we’re here – it’s about people. Politicians distill an issue down to an individual and their story, corporations do it in their branding. But for some reason when we talk about the work of creating a better region, we forget about the people. Arts and culture, with its curiosity about people and what motivates them, reminds us.

Metro Atlanta is growing rapidly. Why is it important to incorporate arts, culture, and creative placemaking into the planning conversation?

The arts plays a part in attracting people to our region. It’s one of the reasons we’ve grown so much. Arts and culture helps to distinguish Atlanta from other places, and gives us an identity. When people move here, they bring their identities and add to the possibilities.

If we have an ecosystem that is well-funded and doesn’t emphasize high art, but people can show up and bring their traditions and have them valued as art forms, it makes for a vibrant and unique experience. I can live in Atlanta and be transported to another culture in my own backyard.

As you just pointed out, metro Atlanta is home to people of many cultures and backgrounds. How can we ensure that the regions’ arts and culture scene reflects that diversity?

We do that by broadening our definition of arts and culture. It’s not resigned to particular buildings or spaces. There are many parks and public rights of way where it can happen. By allowing that to happen and creating spaces for that to happen, we create a welcoming city and give visibility to folks who aren’t always seen.

It adds a level of complexity and messiness. A wide variety of voices is untidy – nothing about diversity is neat or easily categorized – seeing beauty in that and taking an approach that values the diversity and all the voices, is critical.

How can arts and culture help build community and a sense of place?

Arts and culture brings people out and gets people to come to a place and creates a possibility that they will bump into each other and spark a conversation and develop a friendship.

By bringing people together, arts and culture helps break down misconceptions we have of people, and from that there are all kinds of byproducts, like organizing around an issue.

Soccer in the Streets on the West End is a great example. They opened at the West End MARTA station last fall and had a huge response of young people wanting to play. With them came their moms who have been sitting in the bleachers and developing relationships. If those moms decide to mobilize around something, you better watch out because that will be very powerful.

As the arts community, we could do a better job of facilitating people meeting each other at events. We’re guilty sometimes of emphasizing the art over the people, but it’s a people-centric experience that only works when people are in the room. We can get lost in the art and miss an opportunity to connect with people.

Station Soccer has been a big hit for people of all ages
StationSoccer has been a big hit for people of all ages. Photo credit: Soccer in the Streets

How can arts and culture impact quality of life and equity in the Atlanta region?

I think the creative process can do that. We talk about arts and culture more often from the perspective of the final product. But what goes into creating a play or embodying a character, and really, everything in that process, has an impact on everyone who experiences it.

We should use the creative process as a community development tool and a way to bring people together and collect ideas. Art can simplify complexity and develops more buy-in…

From an equity standpoint, because the process is about curiosity and asking questions – it’s up to our imagination to interpret the words of the playwright, for example – it forces empathy for everyone’s ideas. There’s value in that kind of excavation when planning the region. We should really dig deep, ask why and get down to the community’s and the individual’s values.

Feature photo credit: Soccer in the Streets

What’s Next ATL, produced by the Atlanta Regional Commission, is a community resource that explores how metro Atlanta is growing and changing, and how the region is addressing its most pressing challenges.