New Art Scene in the Neighborhood - Good or Bad?

A new art scene can be exciting for some - such as emerging artists, and investors - and worrisome for others - such as the residents in the neighborhood who see their community change. Such anxieties from residents towards new gallery spaces gentrifying their neighborhood have created a lot of tension in Los Angeles' Boyles Heights. There, activists are fighting tooth and nail to drive out galleries which have popped up over the last couple years. Leonardo Vilchis is the executive director of Union de Vecinos, a Boyle Heights nonprofit representing low-income residents, and he says:

"Put in an art gallery with paintings that cost tens of thousands of thousands of dollars and the audience that comes to this place starts looking for other kinds of amenities. They look for the brewery, for the coffee shop for the place to hang out. All of those things increase the cost and the value of the local neighborhood. "

But how does the socially conscious artist resist the gentrification that they so often unintentionally support? 

Thankfully, activists from Boyles Heights have many lessons to teach, including which is a guide for artists on how not to be complicit in gentrification. It is a guide that urges artists to participate in fighting for justice alongside their practice - a necessary condition of being a part of a community.

One of the most powerful examples of socially engaged artists changing their neighborhood for the better comes from renowned potter Theaster Gates where he tackles housing deterioration in his hometown of South Side Chicago. "You very quickly learn how to make something out of nothing...I feel like as a potter you also learn how to shape the world", he remarks at his riveting 2015 TED talk

Theaster's property restoration projects have created new spaces for cinema, lectures, exhibitions, performances, workshops, etc. while revitalizing the community which participates in them. His collaborative models extend across activists, developers, artists, architects, and educators. Such amazing work counters the power of many artists and developers who pave the way for wealthy white crowds to move in and gentrify low-income neighborhoods.

By the end of the Theaster Gates video, the TED Talk host asks Gates: "How can you make sure the projects you are creating actually are for the disadvantaged...?"

This question is vital for artists who seek to provide a social good for their communities but do no want to be agents of gentrification. Oftentimes "artists find themselves in the uncomfortable and confusing position of feeling as if they have become inadvertently complicit in driving gentrification, even as they are also being victimized by the trend." (Miami Herald)

According to "An Artists’ Guide to Not Being Complicit with Gentrification", the first steps artists must take has to do with joining the struggles of their neighbors, and educating themselves on their new community.

Step one of the guide focuses directly on the issue of how artists can counter the raising property prices that comes along with the cultural heat they bring in:

"While we realize that as artists we contribute to the first wave of gentrification, we can choose to support our neighbors by joining them in demanding housing justice, by protesting unfair rent hikes, lacking repairs, or businesses that don’t serve the needs of long-term residents."

Supporting our neighbors also means being highly critical of the art spaces we inhabit. Step four encourages artists to interrogate the structural impacts of these art spaces regardless of their manager's intentions:

"Is it worth supporting an art space when we know that it is currently contributing to or will contribute to someone losing their home?"

When an artist can ask these deeper questions, explore better possibilities for where their work can exist, and challenge unjust housing practices alongside their neighbors, a new artistic movement can help a community grow together instead of drive residents out.

"Beauty is an essential need" says Theaster, and like him, artists can provide beauty to a neighborhood in which all can participate and benefit from.

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