The Nonprofit Quarterly published a piece last year titled “The Role of Artists in Gentrification: Linking the Art World to Resistance Movements,” in which Cyndi Suarez gave some background to the phenomenon of “artwashing” and examined research done by another writer, Peter Moskowitz, on gentrification. Both writers explained the story of today’s artistic involvement in gentrification as one rooted in post-World War II homeownership programs, redlining, and the suburban migration.
Somewhere along the way, white artists who began to move back into the cities from the suburbs in the 1970s did so with what Moskowitz describes as the “aesthetic, economic, and spatial values of the suburbs.” They were a product of their environments, and so moved into the city with more concern about “marketable art than art that inspired social change.”
It’s clear that equity and inclusion have become buzz words in the arts world, as elsewhere. From an institutional perspective, museums are facing the demand to be more equitable and inclusive, to ask themselves how they can change and serve the communities in which they exist. But what about awareness on the part of the artist?
At the end of February, Baltimore-based organization Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS) held a community forum on “Creating a Black Arts District” in Baltimore. LBS, according to their website, is a “grassroots think-tank which advances the public policy interest of Black people, in Baltimore, through: youth leadership development, political advocacy, and autonomous intellectual innovation.”
The forum brought together a broad swath in age and demographic, but when the floor opened to discussion, a few common threads became clear. The most prominent idea was that longtime residents of Baltimore were seeing outsiders move into low-rent spaces to open new, arts-related businesses that didn’t involve or take into account the existing community—a narrative familiar across America.
Those residents that had been in Baltimore for 60+ years told stories about having to fight tooth and nail against the expansion of the large institutions for higher learning in the city, and to them, the artistic community posed a similar threat.
As the city has been changing, the voices of longtime residents have been ignored. Incoming artists aren’t aware of their roles in the process of displacement. Existing culture and history risks being lost to the creation of “new” neighborhoods. Mass displacement seems to be around the corner, unless residents can change something.
In informed discussions about the role of the artist, words like privilege, displacement, and tools of gentrification often come up. The point is not that the blame for the detrimental effects of gentrification lies in the artist—of course there are much larger forces at play. Rather, the arts are being used as a tool on the path to displacement. If national trends are any indication, the artists who encroach as community outsiders in fact have a stake similar to longtime residents in the process of gentrification. Across the country, the artists initially involved in neighborhood “transformations” are themselves pushed out as rents rise. Artists and arts organizations have an opportunity to recognize their place in the system, and to take responsibility in it.
This starts with taking the time to develop an understanding of the existing community into which new residents are entering. It means, to begin with, getting involved in the housing discussions. What those Baltimore residents wanted was to create a space that both represented and expressly served the needs of their community, one which otherwise risked further marginalization and eviction. They recognized, in seeking to create a Black arts district, that art has a strong social power, but that power can only reach its full potential when combined with social awareness.