IDEAS at Zephyr Gallery.
IDEAS at Zephyr Gallery.

What is a creative chamber of commerce? It’s a term you may have heard lately, since the nonprofit IDEAS (formerly IDEAS 40203) has been popping up in arts news and is now hosting an ambitious slate of events in a two-month-long residency at NuLu’s Zephyr Gallery.

IDEAS founder Theo Edmonds recently told Insider he hopes their time at Zephyr will help the public “more easily understand the scope of what we do.”

But before we head over to experience what IDEAS is doing, Insider wanted to learn a little more about the group’s many projects and plans.

What is creative placemaking?

IDEAS is heavy into something called “creative placemaking.” From this National Endowment for the Arts report, we can pull a pretty clear definition of what that means:

“In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.”

ideas_logoCreative placemaking is probably best known for “tactical urbanism,” projects like last fall’s Resurfaced — places that exist, art exhibits that are big and bold.

But IDEAS doesn’t focus on physical structures. It’s focused on creating and shaping a place (Louisville) by designing and implementing frameworks that can be used by its artists and entrepreneurs to transform neighborhoods. The goal is sustainable change made by focusing on five pillars of community: business, jobs creation, after-school programs, job skills and green spaces.

To boil it down even further, Edmonds said IDEAS is about “the artist as the innovator” — using the creative mind to inspire business innovation and civic innovation in order to create lasting generational change. Well OK, but how do you do that?

What’s the process?

The IDEAS process has several key components, but it all starts around an idea. That’s step one: finding a person or group with vision. IDEAS believes artists and entrepreneurs with vision are opportunities for the community to grow.

Theo Edmonds and Joshua J. Miller of IDEAS.
Theo Edmonds and Joshua Miller of IDEAS.

In step two, IDEAS helps that person or persons create a coalition. The coalition is key to “making (the) opportunity a reality,” said Edmonds.

Coalition creation, or reaching out to allies and partners, is key to the IDEAS approach. Purposefully positioned at a central social point, IDEAS can help its visionaries connect to other artists, business people, civic leaders, and a host of other entities who can bring a diverse set of skills and resources.

Next comes the prototyping phase. What is the idea, and how can a small version of it be made? IDEAS is big on taking chances at this phase, when risks are “smart calculated risks,” according to Edmonds. IDEAS believes in learning from failure, finding out why successes work, and then being ready to scale the prototype way up.

Once a working model of the idea has had its rough edges sanded down, the IDEAS team sets the idea and its coalition loose in the world to see how it does. This stage often includes attempts to find larger grants to help grow the idea.

To recap: First we have the idea, then the coalition, then the prototype, then the idea sets sail.

That’s the purest, most straightforward version of the IDEAS process. Of course, a group focused on innovation isn’t averse to trying new things. Sometimes the coalition comes first. Sometimes the coalition is a small strategic partnership of an artist and a company. Sometimes the partnership is the idea.

But the goal is always the same: to create a system (be it private or public, or a combination of the two) that can serve its community.

Let’s look at a concrete example: Roots & Wings.

“Mayor Fischer totally gets credit for this,” said Edmonds. Last spring, Fischer introduced IDEAS to a local poet named Lance G. Newman II. This was just after the much publicized violence at Waterfront Park and the Big Four Bridge by roving gangs of youths.

Newman, who often operates under the nome de plume Mr. Spreadlove, is an emerging poet, a force in Louisville’s growing slam poetry scene, and a strong voice in the African-American community on both sides of the Ninth Street divide. Poetry is his art, but it’s also his tool for social change, as he helps shed light on other poets and helps young people express themselves without violence.

Lance G. Newman II at Copper & Kings.
Lance G. Newman II at Copper & Kings.

IDEAS helped Newman stage “Spreadlove Lou,” four poetry-and-music-based nights all throughout Louisville. Edmonds said these events sought to use art to open a dialogue around a difficult subject. This was an IDEAS prototype. They were curious to see how Newman’s particular brand of community organizing by way of poetry could create energy in the community.

Based on the success of “Spreadlove Lou,” Newman was invited to be one of the lead artists in a project IDEAS and partner Youthbuild were working on in Smoketown. “The Smoketown Poetry Opera,” held last October, told the story of the historic neighborhood, taught communication skills to younger Smoketown residents, and brought an audience of more than 300 people out for a one-night event.

This success led to the creation of Roots & Wings, a group that made news last week as finalists for another $250,000 grant from Artplace America. (Let’s say that again: Out of 1,283 national applicants, Roots & Wings is one of 90 finalists competing for one of 45 or so $250,000 grants.)

This is what IDEAS does. Take the idea, in this case poetry/activism/outreach, then create a strong coalition. At various stages, it has included Youthbuild, city government, Newman, filmmaker Lavel White, Bridge Kids International, The Kentucky Center for African American Heritage and a host of other local poets, musicians and artists. They work the prototype — first the “Spreadlove Lou” events, then the “Smoketown Poetry Opera.” Last but not least, they scale it up: the creation of Roots & Wings.

Newman told Insider via email that Roots & Wings will “reinforce Louisville’s diverse artistic promises and cultivate a new generation of performers.” The grant will be decided in June.

What are they up to now?

IDEAS has its fingers in a large number of pies for such a young organization. Along with an impressive number of partners, they have helped secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for local artists and small business startups.

IDEAS made headlines last year upon teaming up with (among others) Smoketown’s Youthbuild to apply for and receive a creative placemaking grant from the aforementioned Artplace America that brought $250,000 to the rapidly changing, historically African-American neighborhood. That grant led to the creation of a Creative Innovation Zone in Smoketown that has already birthed The Steam Exchange, celebrity chef Ed Lee’s culinary arts training program, the “Smoketown Poetry Opera,” the Urban Appalachia exchange and other developing projects.

Man Bartlett
Man Bartlett

Of course, those big numbers make it easy to overlook the mere $90,000 IDEAS got from the NEA to partner national artists with Louisville businesses to help foster innovation. A great example of this is Brooklyn artist Man Bartlett’s recent collaboration with Thrive365, a health care company developing an app to help people with diabetes and pre-diabetes conditions.

Bartlett’s body of work has, at times, explored online- or social media-based art, as well as featured digital content in live performance. His focus on understanding how the digital and personal interact to create meaningful and engrossing experiences makes him an ideal mind to understand how an app interacts with a daily user.

Where did IDEAS come from?

IDEAS started its life as a collaboration between the Old Louisville Chamber of Commerce and the Brooklyn-based Residencies Unlimited (RU). Edmonds has a history with RU and thought they could do good work in Old Louisville.

What followed was a series of art shows that brought Louisville artists together with national and international artists. The series was so successful, Edmonds and his partner, Joshua Miller, were invited to take over the Old Louisville Chamber of Commerce. It morphed into IDEAS 40203, which has recently morphed again by dropping the ZIP code.

“Our work was starting to occur all across the city — in the West End, in Germantown, in Smoketown,” said Edmonds. Now it is simply called IDEAS.

What’s next?

After their two-month stay at Zephyr, IDEAS will be moving their base of operations to Germantown. Their new space will house four small business startups, an art gallery and their offices.

For a complete list of IDEAS events at Zephyr, check the website.

Author’s Note: Full disclosure — in my role as a local poet, I have been offered the opportunity to read/perform my poetry at the Roots & Wings “Slow Jam” on Feb. 20, which is part of IDEAS’ residence at Zephyr Gallery.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.