I have been in an ongoing discussion about artists and gentrification. Part of this discussion has stemmed from a piece of artwork by Olivia Robinson Are You There Lord Baltimore? It's Me Olivia Robinson, Citizen Journalist investigating many of the artist-centered developments happening in Station North an Arts and Entertainment District in Baltimore. The piece was on view in an exhibition I curated, Baltimore From Many Perspectives at D center Baltimore from June 15th - July 21st. Another part of the discussion took place at a Design Conversation hosted by D center that took place on July 2nd at the Windup Space. And last, but not least was the Artist & Neighborhood Change Conference organized by Station North Arts and Entertainment District on June 20th and 21st.

The conference looked at artists' roles in urban change, questioning the part they play in gentrification, whether this is always negative, and the layers of complex issues that contribute to why this discussion is often difficult to have. Development, renewal, the history of cities and other topics were considered in a series of panel discussions that brought to the surface many of the multi-layered questions that are rooted in any discussion about urban change and the role of the artist in the process.

The conference was a wonderful way to begin a discussion about these issues. Marketing itself as a "conference on gentrification and cultural vitality in transitioning communities" I thought that something that was touched upon briefly in the question and answers of several panels, but was not delved into as deeply as it could be was a discussion of values and culture and which cultures are being valued in a neighborhood that is being transitioned to become an "artist" centered community. Especially as resources begin to move into under-resourced neighborhoods to develop their physical structures, we must continue to question who are the ones that benefit from these resources? What values are driving where these resources go? Is this inclusive of all in the neighborhood or do some have more access then others? And if some do have more access, what is dictating this access and is it based on historical injustice?

The design conversation continued this discussion. The topic, facilitating connections, featured panelists that were artists, curators, designers and a writer who have partnered with organizations, communities and other individual artists to do work in urban environments. The conversation quickly turned to race, how these projects are funded , who has access to these resources and who becomes the experts on these projects. A question was raised about the whiteness of the panel and whether there is a discrepancy in who receives support to facilitate projects like this – are they members of the community that is being worked with or artists from different backgrounds (racially, class-wise, etc.)? Do the resources benefit those living in the community in a sustainable way? Or are they used as a way to shift resources into a neighborhood that then become part of a benefit for folks moving in from outside of the community and who often come from privilege of one sort or another. It was a heated discussion, but one that at least to me felt needed as one considers the discrepancy in who has access to wealth, especially in our cities and the ways that real estate has been used in the past to benefit some and make profit off of others and how this has often been racially and class based.

This brings us to the role of the artist. I love artists, I think that creativity is a beautiful and necessary part of life. I do not, however, think that we live in a society where true creativity is valued holistically. That leads me to the question - what is the responsibility of the artist? Especially artists that have had access to opportunity. There is agency in being a recognized artist. There is valuable experience in having access to art growing up in family life, in primary and secondary school, in higher education and in having the choice to live a creative lifestyle as an adult, even if this means one would make less money than in another career field.

And when we look at the deep rooted injustices based on race, gender, sexual preference and class that still exist in this country, one must ask, if an artist has benefited from the amount of money one's family has, by the color of one's skin, by one's gender or sexual preference, does one then have responsibility to use the resources one has to work toward change and a more just and equitable society. My answer is yes.

And I look toward artists in particular because of the place that they live in. It is somewhere in between. They have access to power, but often choose to live in a way that releases some of the privilege that they would have access to in another field. In fact at the Design Conversation someone brought this up, saying artists are not the bad-guys, that they could very well be corporate lawyers and wouldn't that be worse? Not if both are benefiting from an unjust system and doing nothing to change it.

The great benefit I see in having been trained as an artist is the acknowledging, shaping and practicing the use of one's voice (the ability to share one's truth with the world). With this experience, artists have agency to play a more active and responsible role in the communities in which they live, work and play be this based in neighborhoods, cities, countries or the larger world. They are too often trained to over look this power, however, and instead of acknowledging their potential role feel put upon and blamed. How do we change this conversation? How do we value our artists of all backgrounds? How do we ensure that resources are ending up where they are needed most? How do we ensure that those who have historically been blocked from resources are no longer? How do we make sure all have access to the creativity inherent in being and have a platform for their voice?

In a world where one does not suffer injustice because of one's privilege, one often cannot see the injustice that others are suffering. Creativity becomes key in being able to speak one's truth in a way that others can understand and empathize with. If those in under-resourced communities are blocked from access to creative pursuits, it is up to those of us who have had the privilege of expressing ourselves to work to ensure that this changes.

Two other interesting articles on this topic:

Fanon Hill's article Is Art Only For the Elite?


Klaus Phillipsen's blog Artists – The Pawns in Gentrification?