A Continuing Conversation: Artists and Gentrification

July 21, 2013

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?



A Place Within Community

May 18, 2013
"For the people with beautiful ideas, a place within community." This was the title of my graduate school reflection project written after my first six weeks in Baltimore (six years ago). It comes to mind now, after a busy week full of courageous people implementing beautiful ideas and working together to create positive change within the city. It inspires me to write this morning and pay homage to all those that made an impact this week.

I started off at 9am on Monday morning at the Mind Your...
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Articulating Why

April 16, 2013
Working on a video to launch a kickstarter to fund the next exhibition I am curating that will open in June. My dear friend who often doubles as my editor after viewing it said, “I know what you are going to do, I know how you are going to do it, but why is it important?” I often end up here, thinking that the why is obvious and that people who are not me will understand why I do what I do. I forget sometimes that most everyone does not think like I do. 

The exhibition is about connections...

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On Text Messages and Communication

March 16, 2013
OR Has Technology Really Improved Whether or Not we Understand Each Other?

I try not to have conversations via text message. I find text messages useful to confirm a meeting place and time, to let someone know you got home all right and to let someone know you are thinking about them. The moment however when circumstances create a more complex interaction, a meeting that is difficult to coordinate, a discussion about values, an expression of feelings I find text messages often further complica...

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The Man in the High Castle

March 6, 2013
I just completed reading the Philip K. Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle. I am left perplexed. The book tells the story of an alternate universe in which Germany, Japan and Italy win World War II and have segmented the globe. Slavery and racism are prevalent. The Nazis still hold power and a book, which tells the story of an alternate reality in which the United States wins the war is banned. The book follows a handful of characters as they travel through this alternate universe. 

What I ...

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Respect for the Spoken Word

March 3, 2013
This post is for all those who instead of putting words on the page, speak them. I have much love and respect for all those that do.

speaking words that flow from the soul
into the air, away they go
reflecting sounds ebb and flow
a natural order set forth
artfully sewn

weaving rhythms
words build, stream and roll
revelations unfolding
stories told
the ears perceive, the mind knows

each word a piece
a sign 
the goal

remembered rapture
the senses hone
the meaning, the beginning
the end unknown

and so is revealed...

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Something about Development

February 26, 2013

Let's first look at the definition.

development |diˈveləpmənt|


1 the process of developing or being developed: she traces the development of the novel | the development of less invasive treatment.

a specified state of growth or advancement: the wings attain their full development several hours after birth.

a new and refined product or idea: the latest developments in information technology.

an event constituting a new stage in a changing situation: I don't think t...

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Creative Time

December 13, 2012
Being introduced this afternoon by a co-worker as an avid blogger reminded me that it has been too long since my last post. Life is busy currently. A new job keeps my nose to the grindstone, I will be moving again in the new year and as always the holiday bustle only adds to the list of things to do. And yet in this time of plenty of things to fill my time, I am reminded of something I often say, that one has time for what one makes time for and so I am making time tonight to put these words ...
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Red Flags

November 5, 2012

Red Flags, a production of the Baltimore Performance Kitchen at the Arena Players had its final performance on Sunday. I was able to attend and woke the next morning still thinking about the experience. The show included music, dance, spoken word, video and audience engagement that brought the viewers into the creation and conclusion of the event. The production, a collaboration by Bashi Rose, LOVE the poet and Vincent Thomas was commissioned by the Baltimore Performance Kitchen, ...

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Autumn Days

October 28, 2012

I think I write every year about how much I like Autumn. Here is this year's post in honor of my favorite season and time of year. I am on a train to New York City, all the trees are yellow orange, except the ones that are red and we just passed by an impressive sculpture of a man on a horse with wings and flags. The air is crisp, the sky is beautiful whether perfectly blue or low and grey. Today it has been both.

It is a time of year for new beginnings, for transformations. A time t...

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My blog

This blog will address issues of communication, art, and life from my point of view. It is a means for me to keep writing, thinking critically, and finding meaning in my life and work.