Kingston Creative story – the importance and limits of partnership
“A single twig breaks, but a bundle of twigs is strong” (Tecumseh, Shawnee Warrior, North America). Kingston Creative has delivered over 54 meet-ups, 23 artwalks, 74 murals, with hundreds of creatives trained in the short space of five years. The success narrative often focuses on singular genius, but Kingston Creative’s success is due to a team of strong, visionary leaders and a diversity of partnerships – including over 100 volunteers, 20 community organisations, and 43 key stakeholders from public, private, and third sector. Kingston Creative’s popularity and volunteer interest is indicative of a need for change in the national development conversation to include cultural aspects and ground-up approaches.
As a cultural initiative dedicated to the creation of a Downtown Kingston Art District (DKAD), Kingston Creative recognised the importance of partnerships between government, business, and the residents, the diverse stakeholders in the oldest part of our city of Kingston. Partnership and cooperation, rather than just consultation, is key to the DKAD’s creation. In a space where ‘bad mind’ is often spoken of, let us reflect on the potential of ‘good mind’ to bring about transformative change.
Why Downtown Kingston?
As one of the oldest parts of Kingston, Downtown reflects Jamaican history and culture. Some of the oldest Jamaican companies are in Downtown. Additionally, this part of the city houses Kingston’s main market. The residential communities represent the labour force of Downtown and beyond. Given these intersections, it is not surprising that Downtown is also a cultural incubator for formal organisations such as the Institute of Jamaica (1879) and informal culture such as the Rae Town Street Dance. It is also one of the most feared parts of the city. Being in Downtown at night was, especially before 2018, beyond specific dances, a no-go for those from outside Downtown. However, that is changing as per the establishment of the ROK hotel (2022). Kingston Creative has been a major catalyst of this transformation.
Jamaicans Reimagining Jamaica
In 2017, Andrea Dempster-Chung and co-founders Allan Daisley and Jennifer Bailey floated the idea of Downtown Kingston Art District (DKAD) at a presentation at UWI Conference, Imagine Kingston as a Regenerative City. The core query was, having travelled to other vibrant culture-driven downtowns internationally, they wondered – why not Kingston, the birthplace of reggae and dancehall and a UNESCO Creative City of Music. Their answer was the creation of a Downtown Kingston Art District.
The use of cultural/creative industries as part of an urban development strategy is not new (since 1961) and is generally referred to as creative placemaking. The authors of arguably the first creative placemaking paper, Ann Markusen & Anne Gadwa Nicodemus (in 2010), defined creative placemaking as a “process where partners … shape the physical and social character of a neighbourhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities to bring diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” Additionally, creative placemaking “animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, (and) improves local business viability and public safety … but arts and culture are at its core”. The very concept of creative placemaking, therefore, emphasises partnership with a diversity of stakeholders in the service of arts and culture, a concept that is at the core of Kingston Creative’s modus operandi.
By 2018, that conference idea had become Kingston Creative. An ArtWalk of Downtown was developed – with the support of volunteers as guides. The ArtWalk is a walking tour throughout Downtown, highlighting points of old and recent cultural interest in the area. The concept was simple. Get people to come Downtown for art and culture on a Sunday… for free.
The first ArtWalk on April 28, 2018, created headlines and epitomised the cooperative and collaborative spirit that undergirds Kingston Creative. People of all ages, classes, and nationalities wanted to be part of the change – the new Downtown – and volunteered.
Volunteers became the engine of Kingston Creative and still are. The continuity of the ArtWalk depended on volunteers.
The timing of the ArtWalk was due to the National Gallery of Jamaica’s (NGJ), one of the first ArtWalk partners, “Last Sundays’” programme, and the guests were taken to the NGJ as a part of the tour. Other ArtWalk partners included members of Downtown business and residential communities, such as F&B Downtown, the CB Facey Foundation and Rise Life Foundation. Karib F.U.N.K., headed by artist Lee Rose, also organised the volunteers and artist performances for the early festivals. Many of these initial partners remain on board, and the Artwalk happened each month until the advent of COVID-19 and returns in September 2022.
Volunteers are also involved in Kingston Creative governance through the various pods, which are committees focused on community, marketing, art district, and events. The pods are largely run by volunteer force, determining much of the direction and philosophy of Kingston Creative. The Community Pod is responsible for building the relationship with the residential communities of Downtown Kingston. Members of the Community Pod attend the various Downtown Community Development Committee (CDC) meetings; and liaise with various community leaders and creatives.
Downtown Residential Communities
One instance of that partnership is the development of the Community-specific ArtWalks which were funded by the EU and the Jamaica Social Investment Fund. These Community ArtWalks – of Trench Town, Tivoli, Beat Street, and Rae Town – have allowed for exposure for local creatives and earning for community members and are based on cooperation and partnership with community organisations. These ArtWalks are also acknowledgement of these communities’ cultural bona fides and their viability as tourism destinations.
The input of downtown residents into Kingston Creative is not limited to community ArtWalks, training workshops, and the Community Pod. Downtown residents serve in pods and are on the Kingston Creative Board. It is not a consultative approach, but a partnership and mainstreaming approach that aims to keep Kingston Creative loyal to the creative placemaking goals of diversity and arts and culture orientation. One such is the inclusion of community locations on the Downtown tours to support residents’ economic livelihood.
Another is providing discounts for all Downtown residents for use of the Creative Hub facilities on Harbour Street.
Gentrification is an issue. Gentrification is defined as the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, often displacing current inhabitants in the process. The increase in property values as a result of the association with artists and creativity is well-known but often has negative implications for the original creative innovators. An example is Miami’s Little Haiti, which is a culturally vibrant area, known for its murals, but where real estate development for residents from higher socio-economic brackets has priced out the original residents. Here is where Kingston Creative’s partnership approach with both residents and the business community offers an alternative model.
Downtown Business Community
Downtown Kingston also represents one of the long-standing centres of commerce in Jamaica, therefore, partnership with Downtown’s business community is a priority. Ueli Bangerter of Swiss Stores, founded in 1935, was one of the first partners of Kingston Creative. Its location on Harbour Street and Water Lane has become Kingston Creative’s de facto headquarters, providing the location for ArtWalks, and now is the site of the Kingston Creative Coworking Hub, which includes studio and office space.
The engagement with the Downtown business community has grown. This year, the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce signed an MOU with Kingston Creative for Downtown redevelopment, resulting in business owners and creatives sitting at the table in partnership.
This is only the latest cooperative effort, and future projects around developing a Block of Excellence pilot project are under way.
Paint the City
Downtown murals are another signature element of Kingston Creative’s work and expanded on the work of Paint Jamaica in Fleet Street with community enterprise Life Yard. These murals have received local and international attention, have served as the background for music videos and films, and are a staple of formal and informal tours. Importantly, it has sparked other mural projects, catalysing similar projects across the island and providing much needed employment for visual artists. For a DKAD project to be a reality, there needs to be a multiplicity of organisations creating and contributing to the arts and culture. In Kingston Creative’s philosophy, there is room for all.
KC’s Paint the City project falls under the Art District pod, led by Doris Gross, board director and one of Kingston Creative’s earliest volunteers. Kingston Creative seeks the funding, an open call is issued, and designs are submitted by artists, evaluated by a jury, and artists are selected and commissioned to do the work. These teams consist of Jamaican artists, including Downtown residents. Therefore, it is Jamaicans changing the face of Jamaica, an important philosophical point not to be overlooked. The Paint the City project is also representative of Kingston’s Creative collaborative model with private-sector paint sponsors like Sherwin Williams and government funding through The Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF), a division of the Ministry of Tourism. The project also includes murals commissioned directly by the private sector, including The Gleaner and GraceKennedy. These murals change the brand of Downtown Kingston and contribute to economic, social, and cultural sustainability of the district.
In the last few weeks, there has been much talk in Jamaica about migration. It is important to recognise that the reasons for migration are not just financial. The importance of the cultural and artistic landscape to people’s life is more than livelihood issues. Jamaicans want to live in a place where creativity flourishes and where they can walk the streets safely with their families, enjoying the culture. A recent Gleaner article discussed the lovers coming to Water Lane murals.
Government is a very important stakeholder and key to widening development conversations to include the cultural and creative industries. Kingston Creative has received significant government support, through the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, which was the first contributor to Kingston Creative. The First 50 initiative was a Kingston Creative call for pledges from 50 entities with a minimum of $1 million per contribution, to build a broad coalition of 50 organisations that were willing to invest in the culture and transformation of Downtown Kingston. Additionally, Kingston Creative currently receives funding from the Tourism Enhancement Fund to improve its cultural tourism offerings such as Kingston Creative Tours and the new Kulcha App. However, established arts funding government bodies are rare in the Caribbean. In the absence of sustained and dedicated cultural funds, public-private-third sector partnerships, such as those characterised by Kingston Creative, offer a means for sustainability in cultural funding.
Kingston Creative also has partnerships with international organisations. For example, Kingston Creative currently partners with the Inter-American Development Bank’s IDB Lab in the CreaTech project. The CreaTech programme aims ‘to increase market access for Jamaican creative entrepreneurs by providing global market access, new digital platforms, technologies, training and capacity-building to add economic and social value to cultural assets through the development of new business models.’ This programme is being implemented through The Creative Hub. Previous international partners include the European Union and the World Bank.
Jamaican and Caribbean Creatives
At the heart of any art or cultural district are the artists. The Creative Hub represents the third signature Kingston Creative project and one centring artists. It is a joint venture between The Hub Coworking, led by Joelle Smith and Kingston Creative, and occupies the top floor of F&B Downtown at Swiss Stores. It is a space to support the often-virtual nature of small creative businesses – with a podcast studio, shared workspaces, offices, and meeting rooms.
All are available for rental and booking with discounts for Downtown residents. The Creative Hub has hosted numerous creative entrepreneurs and even an NPR Tiny Desk Concert, by artist Sevana, in addition to hosting numerous CreaTech programmes like the Incubator, Accelerator, Hackathon and Best Pitch Forward, funded by the Development Bank of Jamaica, JAMPRO, IDB Lab, and corporates.
As part of the pandemic response, Jamaican creatives moved online. The move to the online digital world was necessary but difficult for many creatives. In response, Kingston Creative started its Digital Commissions programme. Over 250 artists (25 per cent from Downtown) were paid to create digital work as part of the Kingston Creative’s online ArtWalk programme. Digital Commissions ran from March to May 2020 at a cost of $2.7 million.
Digital Commissions expanded into a Caribbean-wide programme called CATAPULT I, with the support of Barbadian arts organisation Fresh Milk, diasporic 501(c)3 NGO The American Friends of Jamaica (AFJ), and the Open Society Foundations. CATAPULT was designed to address the digital divide faced by Caribbean artists, cultural practitioners, and creative entrepreneurs during the pandemic. It is arguably the first arts programme involving English, Spanish, Dutch, and French-speaking Caribbean territories. However, to go Caribbean-wide, funding was required. CATAPULT I became possible with US$320,000 from the Open Society Foundations and the AFJ. It has made a cross-Caribbean multilingual creative community a reality. It was considered such a success that both the American Friends of Jamaica and the Open Society Foundation are back on board for a second round in 2022, and to date, US$470,000 has been granted to 1,535 creatives in 27 Caribbean countries.
The Future – it takes cash to care
All the ingredients for the vision of Kingston as a Creative City and Downtown as a vibrant art district existed before Kingston Creative. Kingston has talented creatives, a location with past, present, and future cultural resonance, committed residents, a long-standing business community, and an invested local and national government. However, there was need for a broker – a catalyst. Kingston Creative has been able to have wildly different parties sitting at the table together. The Kingston Creative Board has representatives from creative communities, Downtown – residents and business - the Jamaican Diaspora, social and business entrepreneurs, and academia. However, sustainability remains an issue.
As a Jamaican politician once noted, “it takes cash to care”. As with the CATAPULT and CreaTech stories, funding partners are required for core mission support and to pay staff, but also for the programmes themselves. Established cultural funding government bodies and private sector cultural philanthropy (or impact investment) are scarce. The result is an underfunded and underinvested, micro-cultural sector. Growth requires scaling up, and for Kingston Creative, this means handling a multiplicity of funding sources. On the plus side, this patchwork of multiple funding sources means that Kingston Creative cannot be unduly influenced by any one funder. Negatively, much administrative time is taken up with the funding search and reporting to multiple entities. Therefore, despite all its partnerships and governance philosophy, without a significant change in cultural support philanthropy and mindset in Jamaica, the next four years of Kingston Creative and, in fact, Creative (City of ) Kingston are not guaranteed.
Kim-Marie Spence is the programme convenor for the Arts Management and Cultural Policy at Queen’s University Belfast and specialises in cultural industries, policy and creative cities. She is also a director of Kingston Creative, an arts NGO and a former film commissioner/head of creative industries in Jamaica. Please support Kingston Creative by donating https://kingstoncreative.org/donate/