ArtWashing Sounded Reasonable When I Suggested It

Over the years I have written about the gentrification effect of artists in neighborhoods. While artists are often displaced as they make a neighborhood increasingly trendy, there have been cases where artists went into an area knowing their stay would likely be short term.

By and large, these voluntary arrangements sounded reasonable. Artists would occupy empty storefronts making them look less dismal, helping to lower crime rates and providing a little bit of revenue for landlords in spaces that would otherwise generate none. As long as no one was under the illusion that this arrangement would last long, everyone can be generally satisfied.

However, a recent story on The Atlantic’s CityLab labels the intentional use of artists by London developers to enhance property values as ArtWashing.

When a commercial project is subjected to artwashing, the work and presence of artists and creative workers is used to add a cursory sheen to a place’s transformation. Just as greenwashing tries to humanize new buildings with superficial nods to green concerns (such as wind turbines that never turn), artwashing provides similar distraction. By highlighting the new creative uses for inner-city areas, it presents regeneration not through its long-term effects—the transfer of residency from poor to rich—but as a much shorter journey from neglect to creativity.

The author, Feargus O’Sullivan, discusses a number of cases in which artists were welcomed in wholeheartedly and then either forced out or subjected to unfriendly lease terms when their leases were up. He expresses some resentment for struggling artists being displaced by trust fund kids who like the lifestyle but don’t really need the space. Though he notes that even these people are, in turn, being nudged out in favor of the next higher grade of tenants.

He acknowledges that the situation is a little murky at times leaving some artists semi-complicit in the whole process due to the way they receive support. He cites a group that is producing a work with a critical tone that “art institutions sit comfy in the pockets of big corporations” in a space provided to them by a big developer who is eager to be associated with an artsy group.

O’Sullivan also asks us to consider that while artists may be subject to displacement as a result of their success, in some situations they may be displacers themselves. Although in most of the cases he cities, they were economic peers of those they lived among. (My emphasis.)

In celebrating their role, we are allowing the process of displacement to be mystified, and thus masked. An attitude has arisen which says, “Before, there was crime and emptiness; now we’ve got galleries and coffee. You’re telling me you actually preferred crack dens?” This shuts down debate by asserting that art and cafés for incomers were the only viable antidotes to lawlessness and poverty, when in fact they merely shunt them elsewhere. It erroneously suggests that creative uses of urban spaces are an end point, and reveals the ugly undertone beneath much talk of neighborhood change: That these inner city areas are just too good to be squandered on the low-income people being displaced from them.

So while artist inspired gentrification has long been recognized to be a mixed blessing for artists at best, it needs to be recognized that this gentrification isn’t actually solving the basic problem that existed. It is bringing much welcomed renewal to the physical elements of the area, but those in residence when the renewal begins don’t really experience much benefit at all.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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