Artwashing & gentrification (or the deeply interwoven web of arts & corporate interests)

I recently wrote a blog post about Artwashing London.  It looked at V22 and its connections to corporate interests and offshore company headquarters.  I will write another shortly and more about different cases I think could be classed as artwashing after that.

It is important that I explain my rationale.  This is not a conspiracy.  This is global capitalism underpinned by neoliberal ideology.  Nothing illegal but perhaps unethical?

My rationale for exploring artwashing and gentrification (and it’s a massive and well-hidden world) is partly in response to an academic argument about who causes gentrification but, more importantly, it’s about the layers of discourse that artwashing is just one element of and its impact on local people and communities who are often misled and confused by the complexity of art’s role in what is ultimately a global project in which real estate becomes pure profit – accumulation by dispossession.  This, for Marxist geographer David Harvey, is part of what he calls the ‘New Imperialism’.  I agree with this argument and it forms the basis of my practice and research.  You can read it here.

Watch Harvey sum up accumulation by dispossession and global and local class struggle here (highly recommended):

So, who really leads gentrification?  Who are the real pioneers of ‘the new frontier’ of gentrification?  Some argue it is artists, arts organisations and hipsters.  It is not.  It is commonly accepted that the state, together with transnational corporate interests, banks and global financial investors, decide where gentrification will happen next.  I argue it is not only this.  Some others claim artists and arts organisations who are victims – displaced once gentrification of an area picks up pace.

I claim things are not so simple.  What if artists, arts organisations, corporate and financial interests, and state interventions are effectively interwoven (to various extents)?  If we think about gentrification as a complex web of interrelations in which there are many, interconnected actors we can begin to understand why artwashing is often employed by gentrifiers of all ilk.  Simply put, if we think of gentrification as capitalism based upon neoliberal ideologies, then understand that art, state and, of course, corporate and financial investments, are all part of global capitalism we begin to see that it is possible for roles to overlap, to intertwine.

Most artists and many arts organisations are victims in this process – pawns in the neoliberal game, foot soldiers for accumulation by dispossession – but so are all the people living in areas earmarked for and undergoing gentrification!  But what about arts organisations?  Well, here it gets interesting - and complex.  Arts organisations are often led by directors who have numerous other corporate interests, often invested in by people with numerous other financial interests, and governed by trustees who, whilst not able to gain directly from their relationships with arts organisations, can benefit in many other ways that are immediately transferrable to their other business (and sometimes personal) interests.  Artwashing becomes attractive to these people, who, let’s be honest, are often capitalists, usually middle-class and frequently very wealthy and highly influential.  This is why the arts are so attractive to these people: they make up the majority of arts attendees and they make up most of the places in the boardrooms, the management teams and financial investors/ philanthropic donors.  It is a closed circle.  A mutually beneficial circle.  An exclusive, often secretive circle.  This is not conspiracy theory.  This is plain and simple reality under capitalism underpinned by neoliberal ideology.

Artwashing provides perfect corporate PR, enhances local property and land prices, and, most importantly (and divisively), it ‘builds trust’.  Artwashing ‘grows social capital’ which is described by the World Bank and most governments and foundations around the world as ‘the glue that keeps [the capitalist system] together’.  Artwashing helps arts organisations, governments, philanthropic trusts, and corporate and financial investors, build trust.  It helps them develop networks, social norms, values and understandings that monetise the social and reinforce neoliberal economics at every level, in every community.  It spins tightly interwoven webs around everyday life.  Artwashing becomes one face of hydra-headed gentrification.

It is for these reasons that I undertake my research and practice.  It is not to suggest that anything illegal is happening here.  Rather, it is to suggest that we must look very deeply into the interrelationships that underpin gentrification on every level.  There is, I argue, no such thing as a benign capitalist.  And gentrification always dispossesses and displaces those least able to contest its complex forms of exploitation.  I suggest that artwashing is but one element in this multi-layered process and it must be examined very carefully.  I also feel it is important to call people involved in artwashing gentrification out, not only to help people understand that all may not appear is it seems (the illusion of art) but also to start a discussion in which the ethics of artwashing are openly discussed and, hopefully, legislated against.