The Price and Who Pays (gentrification and art pt.III)


The work of an artist asks questions that highlight many issues facing their peers and community. Questions that pertain to us all like who is the audience, who has access, and do we need permission? Artists are a conduit for people; they are cultural mirrors that communicate the mode of our communities out into the world of controlling forces. It is imperative that we take into consideration what the art is inviting or how it takes form. Art itself becomes homogenized into acceptable bits that are not necessarily a reflection of the artist organically brought into fruition but influenced by the will of funders and what is easily consumed. There is a fear bred by the intermixing of social platforms which drives people to create in rapid succession; it affects the pace of their work to be rushed on a timeline counter to how creativity naturally comes and goes. The need to continually arrive and produce positions the art into a nonspace, space which is comfortable and any history given is purposefully placed for false nostalgia (think of the obsession with frontier san jose and the light tower v.s. San Jose rich radical histories), with the end goal being commerce. In the exchange of immediate validation within this myriad of forces, art is used as a mechanism for distraction. Carl Grodach of Queensland University has focused on a modern obsession that makes creativity the driving force of city revitalization. He says in one observation, "creativity has come to be prized not so much for the intrinsic values of imagination, innovation, and experimentation as for the possibility to exploit these qualities as a means of urban revitalization and wealth generation." He argues that art that is at the forefront is there because the city has progressively promoted types of art that aid in beautification, which is a coded process of making 'improvements' to urban areas. The process of beautification is recurrently ventured by city councils to transform urban areas, in hopes of pushing commerce and tourism, to a space they see as unprofitable. He goes on further to investigate what this unfinished series has been uncovering as well: "emphasis on policy has contributed to the misplaced assumption that artistic activity causes gentrification and displacement. At the same time, it often sets in motion programs that are detrimental to the creative environments such policies claim to support. It is time to end the current approach to creative city planning: the arts as amenities catalyze land development and lure upscale consumption." With the co-opting and commodifying of art by city control and corporate philanthropy, we see that art is not the cause of gentrification but a bridge reaching towards it. When residents do not democratically control spaces or when artists approach situations without a critical lens their spaces and bodies and work are used to attract outside interest that has little moral investment in uplifting said community. They become the arch towards displacement.

Corporate philanthropy is not our saving grace but only pushes us to dummy up our creations to fit capitalist structures instead of disrupting them.

Cities currently structure creativity in a way that locates what is safe and profitable, not what is honest. Gone are the days of arts and urban policies in support of art principally for the proliferation and creation of art (art for art's sake). There is a flagrant move to use art and culture production as the figurehead of economic development and urban revitalization. If we look at the progression of our cities, we can see the switch toward promoting cities or spaces as 'creative cities' or 'creative regions.' These are tactical ways of capitalizing creative activity. Cities become highly privatized, and corporate philanthropy introduces programs that hoard the power of the art. As their corporate powers grow so do the new developments; as the gatekeepers increase so does consumption and subsequent real estate values. Corporate philanthropy is not our saving grace but only pushes us to dummy up our creations to fit capitalist structures instead of disrupting them. We have entered a world where large groups of people doing important work are not taken as seriously or go unnoticed, but why? Because they are not willing to refashion their visions to fit the language or ideas of corporate philanthropy, because their work does not follow the view of 'stakeholders.' Or is it merely that they do not have the right 'tools' to earn grant money? Grantmakers, whether guised as community-driven or not, follow a corporate model, which creates gatekeepers. Artists and art collectives are struggling and have become less critical of where funding comes from as long as it comes. Artists, specifically Black and P.O.C. artists, at many points in life focus on survival before politics. For many of us, creation is vital to our survival; without it, our lives seem expressionless and dull. There is no such thing as clean money, but if we must live in this capitalist cycle, what options are available to us that instill our agency?

There was a time a few years back when I had the idea of investigating how some artists in San Jose navigate corporate philanthropy and access/permission. I interviewed a few people, and from that, these two responses give a little insight. Robbie Lopez, A Local artist who co-curated SPACE B with Marisol Picazo in San Jose, said, "I think that corporate philanthropy is a positive act as long as they give an artist free rein or little regulation/restrictions. Many art projects would not be possible without this type of funding. I think it is important that artists do their full research on who and where the money is coming from (company, corporation, etc. ) and what their values are also. I have always been scared to even open an application link to an art grant because of how confusing it seemed." He and Marisol were at this time searching for a permanent art space that fizzled I suppose. He continued to say, "I have no experience when it comes to applying for grants outside the state college system. I have looked into art/creative grants but easily get swayed away by the rigorous procedures." When I asked how they planned to fund the project, he said, "I think that doing anything without the government's hand is always better. Self-funded, I think, is everyone's dream but living in the Bay Area, it almost seems impossible."

At that time we recently had one of our hometown heroes shut their doors after ten years, Empire Seven Studios. E7S was an art space that took up residence in an old building that was in a forgotten corner of North San Jose in an industrial district. As a plea to the community, they started a GOFUNDME campaign asking for support to reopen elsewhere in town. Here is a snippet with some history from the GoFundMe page, "...After years of getting in trouble for painting the streets. I thought it was finally time to do things legit and start giving back to the community of artists I have gotten to know throughout the years. We found an old meat factory warehouse on the edge of Japantown. ...We started renting it, it took about a year and a half to fix up the place, but here is where Empire Seven Studios was born. My dream of finally owning and running an art gallery was realized...We gave many artists their first art show ever, and we are proud to have been able to support our local creative community as much as we have."

I was able to talk with Juan Carlos Araujo, who co-founded this space alongside Jennifer Ahn and pick his brain a bit. I started by asking what their experience with grants was, to which he said, "Our experience has been successful, and disappointing, although we do not let it discourage us from continuing to pursue grants available for small arts businesses. We are "for profit" independently own or L.L.C., and most grants are not available to us unless acquiring a fiscal sponsor if available in the grant process. This makes it harder, and some grants unavailable to us. Although we have ten years of experience in our resume, someone's 'Mission Statement' is more powerful as a 501(c)(3) with one year experience than any outstanding long track record. That's just a fact…" As co-founder of a space, I asked him what, if any, are the responsibilities of a grant receiving artist/space to the community. "Know your community. We have a lot of people saying that nobody is doing anything to create new exciting programming ideas for San Jose. But, in the meantime, some of us are trying to write grants, unfortunately we do get turned down. It's like walking into a bank and asking for a small loan. We have many transplants moving to 'Silicon Valley,' and if they are organized you will now be competing with someone who's only lived here one year but has the best ideas ever! One can't even be upset with the transplants, because at least they show up and rise to the opportunities being put out there. That's the most important part! Showing up. For anyone creating one time, or annual events: learn about who is here, who's been doing it, and embrace, respect those who are here cultivating as collaborators. Don't just use them as consultants to boost your 'own' event. We are always open-minded about trustworthy collaborations. With that said, everyone has our blessing. At least everyone is trying. Only, as a native, it's important to have and hold high expectations of doing things right. It's our responsibility, no one else's."

Juan Carlos said about grant necessity, "We never used grants before establishing our movement. We are very fortunate to say so, thanks to the people. Grants have helped us with some of our more impactful projects, like creating a storefront, and a second gallery project space for artists in residence, thanks to the O.C.A." The Knight Foundation actually helped Empire Seven with a mural project when nearing their ten years of producing. "Dennis Scholl, the former Knight Foundation 408 representative, granted us 15k for three murals, in a simple conversation I was able to convince I was worthy of him receiving our proposal," he said, thanking M.A.C.L.A., another local art space, for connecting them both. "Grants are extremely helpful if accessible, but a necessity if you're not willing to take the risk. Most grants have loopholes, requirements, expectations, deadlines, and not much profit. It is up to the grantee to make the best investment possible out of the opportunity. No guarantees, so a business plan is important for an independent business. Nonprofit is the same only your network is the key to funders. Be prepared for a lot of spritzers…Save your money, that's just smart thinking ahead. You really have to make sure that the grants available are also worth it. Weigh out your plans, options, and make sure what's the best fit, and go 100%. "

Resistance to big money in art is admirable, but it seems to reach a blurry impasse as we focus on artists and expect them to address this differently than other workers. For instance, most people would not shame a Walmart employee, but an artist taking money from Walmart for a project would be highly scrutinized. This conversation could shed light on the real divide between artistic work done for a paycheck, like painting a Facebook office wall versus taking a piece meant to communicate with an audience and just selling it to a corporation when they offer money. The line is blurred. The art world in San Jose is also home to gatekeeping corporate philanthropy, The Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation is a national foundation who have self-proclaimed strong local roots. It was started in 1950 by brothers John S. and James L. Knight, and the foundation has funding opportunities in communities that had Knight-Ridder newspapers. A central belief of the Knight brothers was that a well-informed community could best determine its real interests and is essential to a well-functioning, representative democracy. It is rare to find a publicized art event or project in San Jose that does not have The Knight Foundation tagged to the end.

Community groups in San Jose make sure to leave them a seat at the table, literally and figuratively. Local groups have held events where a reserved table for the foundation goes unoccupied. The grants are coming in, and yet San Jose has next to no artist owned and operated spaces. The artist is displaced and still sinking alongside those who are not even loosely connected to art. While it may seem that art in the city is becoming more abundant - if one were to view beautification efforts as abundance - it is alternatively becoming more rarefied. This type of reduced source funding or support of art limits accesses to crucial resources for artists of color and young, emerging artists. Many rapidly gentrified cities have an art walk and if one does not have a booth on the art walk, are they an artist? If one does not have a funded cosigner for creation, is it art?

From those old interviews there was one from a friend speaking on their experience with a Knight Foundation supported event called SubZero Fest, "Last year I got invited to table at SubZERO Festival, which was billed as "Focused on emerging and present subcultures thriving in our region, SubZERO is a D.I.Y., artistically bent, hi/lo-techno mashup where street meets geek." The cost to table at it was $195 for one day or $265 for both days. The cost to table during the art walks is $95 a pop." She added, "I generally sell zines and other projects for the cost of materials or trade, which is important to me. I knew that in order to make back the tabling fee, I'd have to mark up my zines, and I didn't want to make that compromise." In order to create in a world like this, there is a need to ask permission. People must wait until the money tree is shaken upon them. Amid all this displacement, artists are still receiving money from foundations, and with that money, they create, but is it progress? Artists should be encouraged to become involved in substantial efforts to reduce gentrification, not support it. Artists should not be afraid to question where the funding is coming from and request having more of a say in it, because they are ultimately the ones pushing culture. Artists and other community members should be a united force and urge each other to be unafraid of being more critical of the space they are taking in a place where marginalized folks are rapidly losing societal grounding. Recognize the disparity in the fact that an artist funded and operated space can rarely stay open. Otherwise, the art is once again a smokescreen for corporate power to flex its need for limitless capital. Art becomes a sight of beautification and cultural activation, but in the eyes of whom? According to their site, The Knight Foundation invests in cities which they say is helping them attract and nurture talent while promoting economic opportunity. There should be more investigation into how they are promoting economic opportunity and for whom.

We must not follow this pathway; it is our duty not to become a caricature of these capitalist structures. We need to set a boundary to make certain we are challenging these constructs

Have we created a complex that, like most human-made constructs, has made us too reliant? A reliance we pass down? In the book, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by Andrea Smith writes, "The framework of funding, in which organizations expect to be funded by benefactors rather than by their constituents, negatively impacts social movements as well. Sista II Sista and Sisters in Action for Power describe how their respective initial efforts to become a nonprofit ultimately shifted their focus from organizing to corporate management." This example shows how the moral barometer is placed upon us, the artist and the worker because the world of corporate philanthropy is one of imperialistic and exploitative practices. We must not follow this pathway; it is our duty not to become a caricature of these capitalist structures. We need to set a boundary to make certain we are challenging these constructs. However, as stated earlier, what are these boundaries? We cannot draw an all-encompassing 'line,' but situationally there are some steps we can take to ensure that people are informed and we do not shoot ourselves in the foot. When we do work that involves and influences people, we must expand, cultivate, and hold ourselves and one another accountable. We should acknowledge that different conditions may require us to carry different approaches and skills. Heather Mclean gives an interesting example of how an artist can and should recognize their complicity in a local problem using them as tools in displacing former populations or enforcing respectability politics on workers and the marginalized. In her research of rapid gentrification in a Toronto neighborhood, she explains a story of how "a group of homeowners in Toronto's low-income Bloordale neighbourhood used community-engaged arts to kick-start a transition from a strip club zone to an interactive cultural hub. The Dupont Improvement Group (D.I.G.I.N.), a local ratepayers organization, participated in these efforts by planning Bloor Night Light, part of the all-night Scotia Bank Nuit Blanche festival of contemporary art, a key City of Toronto creative city strategy." Much like in San Jose, a faceless corporate philanthropy group funded a large scale beautification project. She goes on to explain, "D.I.G.I.N. hoped that this programming would spark 'revitalization' in the immigrant reception neighbourhood by encouraging residents, shop-keepers, young families and festival goers to participate in artistic acts of cocreation. But some artists and activists working with the Toronto Free Gallery, a Bloordale-based artist-run centre, critiqued D.I.G.I.N.'s activities." The artists and activists working with the Toronto Free Gallery questioned the motives of D.I.G.I.N.'s activities and accused them of excluding homeless residents, sex workers, and drug users who are also residents of this neighborhood from the events. This tactic is used often, instead of investing in forms of harm reduction or support, cities team with corporate philanthropy to 'activate a space' which is a code word for remove blight by way of art. "They also claimed that some D.I.G.I.N. members' displayed revanchist attitudes towards marginalized residents in community meetings and on-line urban "revitalization" forums. Toronto Free has played a contradictory role in the neighbourhood. Since it moved to the area in 2007, the gallery helped catalyze the neighbourhood's swift gentrification into a trendy zone of galleries, coffee shops and restaurants... But, uncomfortable with their complicity in these processes of exclusion, some of the artists and activists working with Toronto Free have programmed disruptive and performative community-engaged, anti-racist, feminist and queer work critiquing gentrification politics." The D.G.I.N. members attitudes towards the marginalized residents bring to mind a particular tweet by a Knight Foundations Former Program Director Daniel Harris, who assumed that black and brown youth playing in an alley were drug dealers. (see first part of this series) The effort to be accountable for the ways we indirectly or directly affect the space we occupy is commendable and is one way to navigate this mess.

There is history in these places, but history is not just what was, it is also being lived, and if art will always seek to afford itself in spaces relegated to people the system forgot, then it needs to offer the quill that will rewrite these depraving cycles.

Inspecting how and why gentrification happens before this series even began had a charge in mind, that art was the primary culprit. In the modern version of urbanization and the interchanging of community members, a preconception was that art was the recurring figure in these happenings. Because of this observation, it seemed fitting to call the artist in as the root cause of disenfranchising those in disinvested urban areas. The problem with this suspicion was that it was too focused on the individual and reluctant to acknowledge outside forces that would allow each person to be their person with motives outside of others knowledge. Even in desponding times, the most nihilistic person will attach morals to their actions claiming the actions as being for those struggling most even if sometimes misplaced. Even though the expanding of findings was lengthy, it could be pulled apart even further. The art of gentrification is broader than just the artists who are workers also navigating neo-liberalism and late capitalism. Art is used in city planning as a tool for beautification, but this text would argue that beautification is a sterile mess. There is no doubt that city policy and corporatization of government is the primary cause of gentrification. Developers see gentrification as a positive thing, and that is a significant moral impasse. The context is so different to those living the conditions of displacement and those benefiting from the conditions of displacement, and caught between are the arts, which offer differing levels of capital to both worker and the powers that be. The truth is that art is a lubricant in the gears of gentrification, it takes the already confusing process of integrating artists and their scene into the disinvested areas and creates a business model out of this situation. Opportunism is the name of the game, and the speed in which it happens is vital to that game. Art reduces the friction between confused people and faceless entities profiting from the switch out. As time goes on these areas become further disinvested as their wealth is extracted via generations of people seeking gainful employment and searching for dignity in the eyes of the modern world. With no sigh or reluctance, they begin to see the boot on their progenitor's neck as a step stool to a dream placed in their mind. Can the situation be remedied? This text argues so. Through transparency and coalition, spaces can defy the predatory actions of capitalism's brainchild, cultural and urban imperialism. The conversations and actions required would be hard, but hard things are hard; that is no reason to sidestep them. These conversations are meant to break down walls, not put them up. There is history in these places, but history is not just what was, it is also being lived, and if art will always seek to afford itself in spaces relegated to people the system forgot, then it needs to offer the quill that will rewrite these depraving cycles. If one chooses to invest in a community then actually invest in it, do not outsource talent, but lift the talent within.

Richard Gutierrez