Artwashing: The Role of Artists in Gentrification

The article below is a transcript of the video “Artwashing: The Role of Artists in Gentrification”


Depending on who you are talking to, the word ‘gentrification’ will spark a lot of different responses. 

Some people think it can be a good thing. Some people think it’s straight up violence. Some people think it’s inevitable. Some people blame “the arts”.

If you ask someone what they think of art and gentrification, chances are, you’ll usually hear something like: 

“It is not art that gentrifies a town, it is greed.”

“blame crony capitalism!”

“not all gentrification is bad” 

“what’s wrong with making your city better?”

“I don’t know if gentrification can even be stopped”

Some people will argue that gentrification isn’t all bad because think it’s synonymous with community improvement. There are those who say that it’s not artists that gentrify, but instead, it’s greedy people. And I’d say they are partially right. Some folks will get defensive of the arts saying it’s not causing gentrification, while at the same time, there is an undeniable link between communities with an influx of art and the coinciding rise of real estate prices. If art seems to always be a precursor of gentrification, how can we NOT blame artists?

What is gentrification?

Gentrification is a messy bitch. It’s got a lot of moving parts. It takes a long time. There’s a lot of different socioeconomic things happening all at once. So it’s really hard to boil it down to an easy-to-understand definition.

But I’m going to try anyways.

Gentrification is a word for describing a bunch of different things that happen over the span of many years in a given community. It describes a process that includes a lot of moving parts and players. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes many years. But for the simplicity of this discussion, i’ll break it down as follows:

Gentrification is the result that is produced when capital improvements are made to a community, such as parks, rail trails and coffee shops, which causes property values rise, and ultimately, displaces lower income residents. Put simply, it’s a three part process:

Step 1. Make capital improvements
Step 2. Property values rise
Step 3. Lower income residents get displaced

Step 1: Make Capital Improvements

What are capital improvements? 

The definition from Investopedia defines capital improvements as:

…the addition of a permanent structural change or the restoration of some aspect of a property that will either enhance the property’s overall value, prolongs its useful life, or adapt it to new uses. Individuals, businesses, and cities can make capital improvements to the property they own…

Investopedia

Capital improvements can take many forms, such as:

  • parks
  • bike lanes
  • rail trails
  • coffee shops
  • art galleries
  • murals
  • trees
  • retail shops
  • restaurants
  • new buildings
  • restored buildings
  • filled in potholes
  • landscaping
  • farmers markets
  • parking garages
  • hotels

Literally anything that could be considered a positive addition or improvement to the community can act as a capital improvement.

Step 2: Property Values Rise

Capital improvements raise the perceived value of a community. You’ll start to hear people say things like,

“Wow, this is a great place to live. I can bike to the farmers market before I head to brunch, cruise some art galleries, slurp some oysters at the local microbrewery then watch a rad b-list indie band at the local music venue.”

Living here has suddenly become a really great idea. And folks with money from out of town are catching on. And where there are folks, there are houses. And where there are houses, there are people who are in the business of selling houses. We call them real estate agents. 

These lovely folks are in the business of selling property to get the highest profit for their seller and themselves. And the commodity they are selling, the property, is not just a building and some grass, bushes and what not. 

There’s a famous quote in the real estate industry you might be familiar with:

“location, location, location!” 

Meaning, when you buy property, you have full control over the structure and/or land within that property. You can change and fix your property to suit your needs. But you cannot change anything beyond the border of your property, i.e. the surrounding community, so purchasing property where the surrounding community is considered to have a higher value is considered a better investment than a “nice” building in an area that is considered “lower in value”.

Real estate agents aren’t just selling the house, they are selling the location and the community. Therefore, all those capital improvements made to the community have now raised the value of the product they are tasked with selling. 

Step 3: Lower income residents get displaced

So the realtors are in heaven. The housing market is on fire. The neighborhood has become extremely desirable and houses are selling fast. Real estate investors are gobbling up buildings because they are still relatively cheap and they see the property value rising. Landlords see other landlords raising their rents, so they do the same. Everyone wants to live here now, so people will pay whatever you ask! 

But not everyone has that luxury. People with less resources, social connections and money have less choices. They are at the mercy of whatever is leftover at the bottom of the market, if there is anything at all. Landlords have more options of who to rent to, which enables them to discriminate against “less desirable” people. 

Many people end up having to uproot their lives and move to somewhere that is also considered “less desirable” – where the rents are still low, which eventually starts the cycle of gentrification all over again. Because…

Artists are usually poor

Creative labor is undervalued in our society. A lot of us in creative fields have to hustle our asses off to make ends meet. Many of us have to work side gigs in the service industry or rely on contracting work with no employee benefits. 

We have to pay higher taxes for being self employed. We are usually uninsured or underinsured since health insurance is tied to traditional employment and traditional employment jobs for artists are not the norm. 

If you do decide to buy your own insurance, the cost of doing so is akin to paying a second rent. And in many creative industries, workers now compete with each other on crowdfunding sites like Fiverr, where you can get a logo for $5.

But art, design, aesthetic… these things are all extremely valuable. And rich people know this. Which is why… 

Art is leveraged by real estate to grow property value

So, the real estate industry is very much interested in step #2 in the process of gentrification (the rise of property values).

Hiring engineers, architects, landscapers and construction laborers to build things is expensive. It requires a lot of permitting, approvals and administrative procedure. It’s expensive because our society recognizes the inherent value of physical and intellectual labor. 

But creative labor is undervalued by the general public, so hiring an artist to paint a mural will cost far less. In some cases, it could cost you nothing if you convince them they are “contributing to the community”. Most artists are starving for a chance to “make it”. So they become an easy target for a cost effective way to make capital improvements. 

It’s not hard to find examples of art festivals and art districts being sponsored by real estate companies:

So when the aesthetic value of the community rises, it forges the way for other capital investment to follow suit. Which is why people will often say that… 

Artists are the harbingers of gentrification

Along with coffee shops, artists are seen as the bringers of doom for low income neighborhoods; the usherers of gentrification, even though many of them are poor working class people themselves. 

Some folks will get defensive at this allegation, especially art advocates and artists themselves. You might hear things like:

“We’re just trying to make a living” 

“Don’t you want to improve your neighborhood?” 

“You don’t LIKE the arts?” 

“Well, I enjoy culture, so sue me!”

But in saying these things, which are obviously true and agreeable notions, the real estate industry has won the game, they have successfully “art-washed” their ploy to attract and encourage capital improvements to the neighborhood, increasing the value of their product and raising their profit margin. 

And what did the artist get for it? Why were they in it in the first place? 

Many artists do truly want to improve their community. And they see the very legitimate value of what they are contributing. But in the end they are helpless to forces of capital and the vultures that comprise the real estate industry. 

So, you’re telling artists to stop making art!?!

No. 

I’m telling artists to reject society’s notion that they have less value than they actually have. I’m telling artists that it’s in capital’s best interest to keep us convinced that we should be grateful for the crumbs we are thrown. They want us to keep thinking we need them more than they need us.

But we have more power than they want us to realize. And if we start realizing that power, imagine what we could do with it? We could use it to collectivize, to organize, to bargain. To make demands for a more equal society.

Always remind yourself that your creative labor is worth more than what capitalist society dictates. 

Our society is set up to suit the needs of property owners first, the capital class, not the working class. And realizing your value as a creative laborer is a direct threat to their power.

And yes, we all have to eat. So you will inevitably have to sell some of your creative labor to the capitalist class. But make sure you demand the full value of your work. Undercutting your colleagues in the field drives down the percieved value of our work, which, in the long run, will end up hurting all of us, yourself included. And try not to do work for companies that directly profit off of things that should be basic human rights like housing and health care, if you can help it.

And if you have been complicit, consciously or unconsciously, in art-washing, it’s ok. You’re ok. You’re not canceled. It’s never too late to change. 

Seize yourself, do not grease the wheels of gentrification. Use your power to fight for better conditions for the working class, and by proxy yourself. 

Extras

Here are a short list of folks who are using their power as artists to fight the power. Please let me know if I should add anyone to this list:

I want to remind us all that art is dangerous. I want to remind you of the history of artists who have been murdered, slaughtered, imprisoned, chopped up, refused entrance. The history of art, whether it’s in music or written or what have you, has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans.

Toni Morrison