Beyond Walls mural

Meet Barr’s New Arts & Creativity Program Officer

Six Questions with SueEllen Kroll.

1. As Arts & Creativity program officer, what will you focus on?

Currently, I’m working closely with San San on a little bit of everything to understand the landscape of our expanded Massachusetts region. I’m a Massachusetts native, so I have some understanding of the ecosystem—especially outside of Boston. Over time, I’ll be focusing more on the Foundation’s capacity-building efforts (like our partnership with the Klarman Family Foundation) and our creative placemaking investments.

2. What is creative placemaking?

Creative placemaking is the convergence of arts with community and economic development. It is a term to describe a range of community-based arts methods and creative tools communities use to activate and improve their neighborhoods. This means everything from enhancing entrepreneurship opportunities, developing public space, and focusing on public health. Arts and culture are an important way to engage communities in conversations. Creative placemaking allows people from different backgrounds and sectors to work together for better communities. Giles Li, executive director of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center and a 2017 Barr Fellow, wrote a blog for us recently on how this has been an important strategy for their work.

3. Before Barr, you were the director of grants and strategic partnerships at the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. What is one lesson in effective grantmaking you’re bringing with you?

One is the importance of balancing ambition with what is feasible. I’m attracted to bold ideas. Yet, I came to appreciate the importance of working with organizations to come to an honest understanding of their capacity. I love seeing the excitement and willingness to take risks. You also need to know that organizational change takes time and careful planning to enable those exciting ideas.

4. Describe a favorite project from your time in Rhode Island.

One of my favorite projects was Catalyzing Newport. This was a new model we developed for catalyzing culture at the local level. It involved hosting national thought leaders, or “catalysts,” in Newport for week-long residencies deeply tied to community issues. We focused on ways to empower the local community to have a voice in decision-making. We hosted a dozen catalyst residencies in three years that experimented with many exciting new program ideas. As an example of one project, we brought public high school students and Yale graduate students together to create a seven-foot model of their ideal community center. We unveiled the model at a community dinner where residents discussed their hopes and dreams for the neighborhood. The people we worked with were creative and thoughtful in their problem-solving. We wanted to bring all voices to the table on issues of development and other challenges facing Newport.

5. Do you consider yourself a creative person? What are your creative pursuits?

I’m careful not to call myself an artist, but I do consider myself creative. I have produced and worked on podcasts, radio shows, and when I find time, I dabble in some travel writing and photography projects. My podcasts are generally story-based. In one series, I interviewed people about their breakup stories. In another, I collected stories about people’s worst job experiences. It was right after the recession, Rhode Island had the nation's second-worst economy, and I wanted people to hear these stories and feel less isolated.

6. What’s one recent artist, exhibit, or creative experience that left an impression and why?

I recently went to MassMoCA and saw an exhibit by a Maine photographer, Tanja Hollander, “Are you really my friend?” The artist took a portrait of each of her 626 Facebook friends, and I spent hours looking at the portraits. You couldn’t escape the current events of our time in her work. I wasn’t expecting that international thread. There were interesting questions posed about friendship in the digital age. It was a great exhibit that shows how arts and culture deliver on in-person experiences in an increasingly impersonal world.

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SueEllen Kroll

Senior Program Officer, Arts & Creativity