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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.

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When Good Ideas Occur To Lazy Readers

Occasionally I get a sense that I have a bunch of interesting ideas percolating in my subconscious because I will occasionally misread the title of an article and have a whole slew of assumptions about the article which don’t bear out. It makes me think my subconscious has these ideas but is just waiting for someone else to do all the hard work of proving they are viable.

This occurred with an piece in Fast Company about how Minnesota based Artspace (not to be confused with ArtPlace) prevents artists from being displaced from communities due to the gentrification they helped encourage.

Artspace has done this by building all types of artist housing/work spaces in the Twin Cities (as well as 21 other cities in the US). Because Artspace controls the housing, the artists aren’t as apt to be priced out of the neighborhood as they have been in so many other place.

But the article title which included the words “artists revived an old warehouse district–and got to stick around to reap the benefits of what they helped create” and “Give Artists Their Own Real Estate Developers,” made me think someone came up with a plan where the artists received some increasing financial benefit as the neighborhood improved.

I imagined there might be some sort of version of the 1% for art for the neighborhood where artists received a share of every real estate transaction that occurred–every time a construction project began; every time a property was sold or leased to a new business; every time an apartment was rented and re-rented–artists actually benefited financially from the improving fortunes of the neighborhood.

Since all this came flooding into my mind when I caught sight of the titles, I am not quite sure how it would work. But I wonder if a city would be willing to license an organization like Artspace or create a sort of investment fund which would receive a cut of all transactions for 25-30 years. I am not sure at what stage this might happen. Gentrification of a neighborhood often starts when artists move into spaces they aren’t really supposed to be inhabiting so they wouldn’t want to call attention to themselves too soon.

All charter artist members of the organization/fund would get a payout every so often which would help diminish the impact of the gentrification and benefit those responsible for inspiring the improving conditions. If the money was going to a non-profit like Artspace, perhaps they would use a portion of the funds to develop low cost artist accommodations and seed similar artist beneficial gentrification efforts in other cities.

Imagine artists having a piece of every Starbucks lease, every high rise luxury apartment construction project, every boutique shop renovation, every bar and restaurant opening, every skyrocketing apartment rental or sale.

And if having to pay that percentage inhibits this sort of development–well that is all the longer that artists can actually afford to live there. It would actually be good if companies started moaning publicly about paying a percentage because it would start to illustrate the real economic impact of the arts.

Just think if rather than just real estate, every transaction, from cups of coffee and shoes sold to parking fees and haircuts, within a district was charged even a quarter of a percent in support of the artists there. At the end of every year you would have some real hard data about the economic growth the presence of artists initiated in that neighborhood.

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Gentrifying Both Space And Time

So apparently arts activity can not only gentrify neighborhoods, it can gentrify time as well. I was attending some First Friday performances on the lawn of the state arts museum this past Friday and got to talking with the guy who organizes the activities. He is a prime mover in the arts scene involved with boards of a couple organizations, presenter of performances and a key figure in the arts district revitalization.

He told me that the downtown arts community was thinking about moving the gallery walk activities to another Friday. What had begun many years back as an attempt to bring activity to downtown at night by having galleries open succeeded a little too well. The First Friday activities made the district such a cool place to be that eventually the older mature crowd ended up supplanted by a younger, rowdy bar crawling crowd. Actually, this probably qualifies as a de-gentrification, doesn’t it?

Now no one is visiting the galleries and buying on First Fridays, but the bars are making their monthly payroll in one night. Things have gotten a little rowdy to the point where the police department is requiring that the downtown merchants association bring 14 more special duty officers on. The bars are being levied for the extra cost.

About a year ago, I started hearing about “slow art Fridays” on the 3rd Friday. From my discussion Friday night, I understand that this was laying the groundwork for the shift. Galleries and fashion houses are open on the 3rd Friday for this event and apparently the older, art buying demographic is showing up.

In the meantime, less effort is being put into the programming and promotion of arts events on First Fridays. There are still things going on and the doors are open, but the resources are being redirected. I was speaking with a ticket office clerk yesterday and he confirmed that things were dead in one of the cornerstone venues this past Friday.

So you are probably wondering, what keeps people from going down every Friday night and getting drunk in the streets? Nothing. There is nothing stopping people from doing the same thing on third Fridays, but they aren’t doing it yet. Since people aren’t really patronizing the galleries, that isn’t a motivating factor for coming downtown. Perhaps I am not listening to the right radio stations or reading the right newspapers or Twitter feeds, but I haven’t really seen bars pushing drink specials on First Fridays. They don’t have to. Probably the energy of being part of a big crowd is what is most attractive to people.

Perhaps it is the perception that they are engaging in a cultural activity that motivates people to attend even though they make a beeline for the bars. If the galleries and related businesses start closing up at 5 pm on the first Friday, then maybe the crowds will start to dissipate or end up migrating to the third Friday. If the galleries have the resources to open on First Fridays, it might be good in the long run training people to appreciate art through the continual exposure. Even if they aren’t buying now, they may be more open to doing so in the future. There is a proverb that one generation plants the tree and the next enjoys the shade. That is a tough thing to endure though if you have to pay your bills today.

The thing I think will keep third Fridays from being overrun is that it takes more effort to ascertain if the current Friday is the third one in the month than it does to recognize it is the first one. That may be the saving grace of the slow art theme of third Friday.

It is rather frustrating to keep hearing stories of artists becoming victims of their own success. You eke out an existence in squalid setting. Gradually things get better to the point where you are recognizing some success. But that means you have a handful of successful years before you are either priced out of your location or the aura of success attracts people who aren’t interested in your products driving away those who are. Is there any place that has been able to strike a balance and maintain the long term success and affordability environment for an arts community that was responsible for sparking a neighborhood revitalization?

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Squatting As Economic Stimulus

In the last year I have posted about businesses encouraging the presence of artists in Philadelphia and London as a strategy for filling empty store fronts and infusing vitality into neighborhoods. I also wrote about artists taking advantage of obscenely low real estate prices in Detroit to purchase properties and establish a little artist colony in that city.

So I read with some interest a Guardian story about an cultural organization in London which is, though they reject the term, squatting in the high rent commercial district. The aim of the group, The Oubliette, is “to support the arts without the need for public or private sector funding.” (Appropriating involuntary in-kind donations of space from the private sector doesn’t seem to be a problem, however.)

The group does a little work prior to “moving in,” generating a business plan and proposal which highlights, among other things, the security they bring to the empty property.

They even have a sort of business plan, which they plan to tout around the capital’s wealthy property magnates. The goal? To persuade the rich to lend their empty properties to the Oubliette to use for exhibitions, concerts and plays. “It’s an alternative way of offering extraordinarily wealthy people a way to contribute to the arts without an enormous pecuniary investment,” according to the erudite Simon.


In terms of floor space, their new gaff would be the envy of nearly every arts centre in the country. It is so big, in fact, that last Friday’s event, a collaboration with homelessness charity The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, only used parts of the ground and first floors. There was an art exhibition, featuring work by homeless people, as well as the Oubliette’s artist-in-residence, Philip Firsov, and a number of different classical music groups staged mini-concerts in some of the building’s many rooms.

The event was one of many unusual partnerships the Oubliette are trying to forge in an attempt to turn squatting into a legitimate way of showcasing the arts without the taxpayer’s help, while disassociating themselves from wilder, less well organised squatters in other London mansions.


The group is currently in the process of preparing PowerPoint presentations to give to the owners of empty buildings – both commercial and residential – to persuade them to allow the Oubliette to use their spaces as arts platforms. A draft pitch, seen by the Guardian, attempts to sell squatting as a way of providing free security, preventing property devaluation and adding value to the community.

Twenty-four-hour security costs £7,500 per guard per month, claims the pitch, adding that a derelict property can “result in a loss of up to 18% value on neighbouring property prices”. What’s more, the Oubliette pledge to improve empty buildings. “Our dedicated team includes certified workers in electrics, plumbing and construction,” they say, promising to “return the property back to the owner clean and functional within 28 days’ written notice of wanting the property back”.

The Oubliette is based around a “live-in core” of eight people with distinct roles, including “IT guru”, “PR operative”, “graphic designer”, “legal adviser” (a trainee barrister), “artist-in-residence” and “copywriter”. They have grand plans, according to Simon, who until 2002 was an IT worker living in Chelsea. “Our long-term strategic ambition is to negotiate for consent with an owner of a suitable empty premise for leave to remain,” he said. “Occupying properties in high-profile locations allows us to raise public awareness and garner support, whilst also furthering the organisational aspects of our project and pitch to proprietors.”

He is confident of success, and claims to have successfully negotiated consent to squat in eight properties in London in the past seven years.

While I don’t really condone squatting. I am pleased that they commit to improving a location rather than conforming to the stereotype of artists for whom mundane concerns like maintaining their environment interferes with the connection with their muse. Part of me hopes their presence helps drive real estate prices up. We all know that the arts can lead to the gentrification of run down areas. Usually the artists are priced out of the area before they can contribute to the gentrification of an already gentrified area. No one knows what the ceiling for economic stimulation by the arts might be.

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