I was invited to lecture at Winchester School of Art on 3rd November 2017 as part of their Talking Heads series.  This is a transcript of my lecture along with a link to my lecture slides (with notes) and a link to an edited recording of my discussion with Nick Stewart afterwards.  The lecture covers a broad range of topics from my research including creative cities and the creative class, social capital, placemaking, artwashing, art and gentrification, anti-gentrification art, anti-art activism, the radical avant-garde, and examples of artists engaging with regeneration that do not result in artwashing or gentrification.  It’s quite long but perhaps gives an overall illustration of my work and a taste of my PhD thesis, Artwashing: The Art of Regeneration, Social Capital and Anti-Gentrification Activism.

Screenshot from  Teviot Tales  by Hannah Nicklin (2016)Screenshot from  Teviot Tales  by Hannah Nicklin (2016)

Screenshot from Teviot Tales by Hannah Nicklin (2016)

See the PowerPoint slide presentation (click bottom right to view notes) here.

Listen to edits of the discussion after the lecture here.

Rethinking the role of artists in urban regeneration contexts


My research adopts a multi-disciplinary approach grounded in the methodologies of critical ethnography and critical discourse analysis, and in radical art history, critical theory and critical urban theory.  For me, art and space are socially produced.  So, my work seeks to synthesise art theory with urban theory, using critical theory as a lens to situate the research within cultural policy, politics, economics, and social psychology.

I attempt to propose new ways of thinking about the interrelated roles art plays within an increasingly uneven, transnational and globalised world, and the complex roles art plays in regeneration, gentrification and artwashing.  Those complexities are often both hidden behind simple narrative devices (such as communities taking control of their own housing, as in the case of Granby 4 Streets, for example) and used as a way of masking the layers of vested interests that coalesce around art projects involved in ‘urban renewal’.  Furthermore, I have found that attempts by artists and collectives to oppose gentrification are often appropriated by gentrifiers.  Sometimes, artists are commissioned to undertake permitted and limited ‘anti-gentrification’ actions.  My research has also found examples of arts organisations that had managed to drive or participate in smaller-scale community-led regeneration projects without becoming subsumed or completely instrumentalised.

[T]he corporate occupation of the arts is now a given (Trowell, 2013, pp. 37-38).

Urban regeneration

Art, now part of the UK Creative Industries, has been a key element for urban regeneration strategies for many years.  In the UK, the creative industries are described as one an important economic driver, growing at twice the rate of the overall economy (Department for Culture, Media & Sport, 2016).[1]  A recent Centre for Economics and Business Research report for Arts Council England and National Museums Directors’ Council categorised ‘the regeneration effects of investment in the arts and culture’ in terms of economic, social and environmental outcomes.  Economic outcomes are ‘Employment’, ‘Inward Investment’, ‘Attracting a skilled workforce’, ‘Property values’, and ‘Visitor and residual spending’.  Social outcomes are ‘Increased social capital’, ‘Change in perception of area’, ‘Volunteering’, ‘Residents’ confidence’, ‘Community cohesion’, ‘Educational achievement’, ‘Improved health and wellbeing’, and ‘Crime reduction’.  Environmental outcomes are ‘Reuse of redundant buildings’, ‘Increased sense of public safety’, ‘Reduced vandalism’, and ‘Pride in place’ (Centre for Economics and Business Research, 2013, p. 88).  Although the report’s authors acknowledged it was difficult to measure these outcomes accurately for several reasons, it suggested that the creative industries can reverse industrial decline, presenting ‘anecdotal evidence’ that higher investment in arts and culture might increase house prices.[2]  Participatory arts were said to offer ‘superior and sustained’ regeneration benefits when compared with other, more passive forms of ‘cultural consumption’ (Centre for Economics and Business Research, 2013, pp. 89-92).

The rise of the creative industries and its relationship to economic regeneration and urban renewal is perhaps best understood as a direct effect of neoliberal state governance.  Regeneration and gentrification are driven by a process known as ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Harvey, 2008).  This process has underpinned neoliberal capitalist since the 1970s, resulting in the centralisation of wealth and power by what is commonly termed ‘the 1%’.  David Harvey questioned whose interests the neoliberal state served, claiming that free market economics benefitted the self-interests of an elite rather than ‘everyone, everywhere’ (2007, p. 24).  It is clear that the UK creative industries perform an essential function in neoliberalism’s global free market.[3]

Cultural policy plays an explicit role in the neoliberal commodification of arts and culture, contributing, as Esther Leslie argued, ‘propagandistic hot air’ or ‘consolatory compensation’ (2011, p. 185).[4]  Unsurprisingly, the arts share many similarities with broader urban regeneration, such as the notions of sustainability and resilience.[5]  Urban geographer Tom Slater described how UK adherents of the ‘sinister American cult’ of New Urbanism were bolstered by the deeply conservative notion of ‘resilient cities’ that proffered a troubling image of urban planning as a melange of nostalgic streets and walkable, mixed communities that was built upon the perpetual fear of a ‘housing shortage’ (2014).  Crucially, he pointed out that these New Urbanists called themselves ‘placemakers’ who, through concepts such as ‘resilience’, naturalised not only recession and austerity, but also the dispersal of local people.  However, Slater also exposed another, hierarchical side to resilience which may be as relevant to art’s role in urban renewal as it is to urbanism:

Neoliberal urbanism has proved to be extraordinarily resilient, and the most ‘resilient community’ of all appears to be that of a cartel of politicians and financial executives, aided by think tanks and philanthropic organisations, who have ‘bounced back’ from a crisis they created with even more violence and venom towards marginalised citizens (who they treat as the culprits) (2014).

This ‘resilient community’ is strengthened by precarious clustering of creatives, hipsters and artists – the Creative Class.  They follow economist Richard Florida’s theory like a script.

And a profoundly conservative vein runs through what economic geographer Jamie Peck described as ‘the creativity script’ – individualistic and market-driven – in which creativity becomes a cheap and cheerful means of reinforcing fierce competition, valorising a ‘superior’ creative class, and validating it via the market and ‘post-progressive urban policy’.  Creative strategies such as placemaking or community engagement can be easily added to ‘business-as-usual urban-development policies’, offering ‘ideological cover for market driven or state-assisted’ gentrification.  These types of toolkit-based approaches to ‘arts-led regeneration’ require only a nod to the grassroots and to local authenticity to become a portable form of ‘fast-policy distribution’ – the perfect ‘creativity fix’ (Peck, 2009 [2007], pp. 5-7).[6]

A deepening incorporation of art within the discourse of neoliberal urban development (and therefore gentrification) thus leads to increasing complicity with state and corporate interests.  For filmmaker and writer Benedict Seymour: ‘the subsumption of art under regeneration is so advanced that to look at art without looking at the project for “urban renewal” in which it is inscribed is to miss half, or perhaps more than half, of its social (or rather, economic) function’ (2009, p. 34).  Meanwhile, for feminist geographer Leslie Kern, placemaking attempts to realign everyday life with a ‘simulacrum of a part urban timespace [sic]’: a privileged consumerist ideal in which ‘aesthetic tropes’, ‘performative practices’ and ‘vintage’ chic dispossess, marginalise and exclude people who cannot or do not wish to participate; simultaneously masking and enabling the ‘slow violence’ of gentrification (2016, p. 442).

So now council estate and social housing tenants face the violence of gentrification.  Their homes will be demolished, leading to dispossession and displacement.  Yet, as Lees, et al. illustrated, councils have often falsely demonised council tenants and estates as a ‘problem’ rather than an asset to legitimise the sale of land to property developers.  This process of demolishing council homes so that new private accommodation can be built for new wealthy incomers is sometimes described as ‘state-led gentrification’ (Lees, et al., 2014, p. 5).  Sociologist David Madden sums up this process succinctly:

Here’s how gentrification talk typically goes: poor neighborhoods are said to need ‘regeneration’ or ‘revitalization’, as if lifelessness and torpor – as opposed to impoverishment and disempowerment – were the problem.  Exclusion is rebranded as creative ‘renewal’.  The liberal mission to ‘increase diversity’ is perversely used as an excuse to turn residents out of their homes in places like Harlem or Brixton – areas famous for their long histories of independent political and cultural scenes (2013).

Once gentrified, areas are celebrated for having ‘bounced back’, whilst the fact that poverty has simply been dispersed or relocated is ignored (or perhaps celebrated).  For Madden, this ‘urban renaissance’ narrative, based as it is on ‘heroic elites’ saving inner cities from the ‘dangerous classes’, is both ‘condescending and often racist’ (2013).

Art as capital and infrastructural investment

The main element of Creative Cities policy is the building of new arts centres, galleries, opera houses, etc.  This is commonly known as the ‘Guggenheim Effect’.  The belief here is that massive investment in a large piece of arts infrastructure will bring tourists and wealthy new residents to areas which were previously believed to be lacking in both economic and cultural capital.  Whilst the costs of this infrastructure are often huge, the investment is not aimed at improving the lives of existing residents and businesses, rather it seeks to attract new residents and businesses – the Creative Class.  This has the very real effect of displacing people and businesses.

Creative Cities and the Creative Class

Urbanist Charles Landry invented and popularised the term the ‘Creative City’ in the late 1980s (Landry, 2014).   His book The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators (Landry, 2000), remains a key text in the field of urban regeneration.  Yet his earlier text, The Art of Regeneration: Urban Renewal through Cultural Activity (1996), revealed the role proposed for art and artists in the regeneration process.  Landry and co-authors Lesley Greene, François Matarasso and Franco Bianchini argued that artists and arts organisations were ‘urban agents par excellence’ whose creativity could improve ‘wealth…, social cohesion and quality of life’ and develop ‘imaginative’ and ‘empowered’ citizens (1996, pp. i-iii).  Involvement of the arts was here portrayed as an asset to urban renewal, particularly when instrumentalised:

[The arts] may help strengthen social cohesion, increase personal confidence and life skills, create common ground between people, improve their mental and physical well-being, strengthen their ability to act as democratic citizens, develop new training and employment routes, attract those whose needs are not addressed by other provision, or develop organisational capacity – or all of these (Landry, et al., 1996, p. 8).[7]

These ‘“softer” benefits of cultural investment’ were, the authors claimed, often overlooked by economics and financial measurement, yet offered ‘cheap and creative’ solutions to ‘intractable problems’ in which art (particularly participatory arts) became a ‘flexible, cost-effective and responsive mechanism’ with which to engage people and communities undergoing regeneration (Landry, et al., 1996, pp. 8-24).  How little seems to have changed since 1996.  It is interesting to consider the role of participatory arts specialist François Matarasso who was clearly an early advocate for art as lubricator for ‘urban renewal’.

Richard Florida became the main advocate for Creative Cities, emphasising the economic potential of ‘Creative Clusters’ and attempting to measure cities with a raft of odd ‘creativity indices’ including an assessment of Bohemianism (2002).[8]  And yet, even Florida has, this year, disavowed much of his earlier Creative Cities rhetoric, arguing instead that creative clustering had increased inequity, divided communities and accelerated gentrification (although it is worth noting that his main concern was for the impact that these ‘unforeseen’ consequences had on the middle-classes) (2017).  There have been many criticisms of Creative Cities and the Creative Class but this has not prevented its legions of global advocates from continuing to use these divisive concepts to underpin urban regeneration and renewal programmes.[9]  Indeed, a recently commissioned report for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport placed creative clusters at the heart of its argument that ‘the Creative Industries can underpin the UK’s future economic growth’ (DCMS, 2017).

It is this neoliberalisation of the arts as the Creative Industries that increasing stimulates a process known as ‘artwashing’.


Artwashing is a relatively new word.  It was perhaps first coined by anti-gentrification activists in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.  The term was also used by Mel Evans, an activist and artist associated with Platform and Liberate Tate, in her book Art Wash: Big Oil and the Arts (2015).  Although the book primarily investigates how oil corporations such as BP and Shell use artwashing as a form of PR, its critique can be expanded to areas of corporate and state intervention.  For Evans, artwashing helped cement the corporate ‘social licence to operate’: a fundamental element for many businesses which intends to protect them from less palatable aspects of their business by persuading the public to trust them (2015, pp. 70-84).  Corporations also gain significantly from their association with the arts.  However, Evans’ definition of artwashing is oriented towards large corporations and large arts institutions.

For artist and activist John Jordan, artwashing was the ‘sleight of hand that transforms “radical” art into a tool for upholding the status quo’ (2014).  Meanwhile, Colombian artist and art critic Guillermo Villamizar produced the following definition of artwashing:

A procedure in which an individual or company, government or other group promotes visual art and its concepts, to create a benefit and clean up its image in regards to corrupt behavior at the political, environmental, labor or social level, in an opposite manner to the goal of the announced initiatives of the artist (2017).

Nevertheless, this description seems to suggest artists are do not become involved or complicit in the process.  Other definitions of artwashing address how the practice is also applied at smaller scales and in specific local contexts.  For example, the use of artists in residence and arts events in Balfron Tower after its tenants had been evicted became a relatively well-documented case of artwashing (O’Sullivan, 2014; Balfron Social Club, 2015).  Artists in this case stood accused of producing a false cultural veneer that simultaneously served to mask social cleansing and sell luxury apartments.  However, Guardian art critic, Jonathan Jones, described the idea that artwashing was being used to disguise gentrification as ‘nonsense’, arguing that ‘Art, culture and, yes, cafes are not weapons of corporate capital.  And even if they do add value to property, that is not all they do.  There is such a thing as civilisation – and it has a way of looking a bit like “gentrification”’ (Jones, 2016).  This argument seems rather weak: it dismisses artwashing and, indeed, art’s role in the process of gentrification, instead promoting arts and culture as some form of civilising gift.

The term artwashing has grown in prominence in the last two or three years, particularly in the USA.  The most prominent example of anti-gentrification and anti-artwashing campaigning is that of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD).  BHAAAD vigorously campaigned for all art galleries in the neighbourhood to leave, accusing them of artwashing gentrification in the area (Aron, 2016; Barragan, 2016; Stromberg, 2016).  The alliance comprises several organisations: Union de Vecinos; Defend Boyle Heights; The Eastside Local of the Los Angeles Tenants Union; School of Echoes Los Angeles; and what BHAAAD describes as ‘Multiple Affinity Groups of Artists’.  These artists acknowledge the role art plays in gentrification and refuse to be used to artwash ‘the realities of racial and economic violence’ (Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing & Displacement, 2017).

Activist art collective Ultra-red pointed out that artists standing against displacement and artwashing in Boyle Heights were challenging the ‘political economy of cultural-oriented development’ using ‘bold and militant action’ to fight for social justice as part of a ‘priceless and collective art of resistance’ (2016).  BHAAAD’s acts of resistance resulted in their major source of ire, PSSST gallery, closing in February 2017.  The gallery decided that constant protests left it ‘unable to ethically and financially proceed’ with its mission (PSSST, 2017).  Defend Boyle Heights and BHAAAD released a statement claiming the gallery’s closure as a ‘victory’ that underlined the ‘importance of fighting against the “common sense” notion that gentrification is supposedly inevitable’, adding: ‘This is the tragedy of artwashing: it channels philanthropy into destroying neighborhoods’ (2017).

Artwashing has clear associations with the use of art to add a gloss of creativity to areas to increase property prices, gentrify neighbourhoods and ultimately displace local people who cannot afford to live there anymore.  It is also used by corporations to add a veneer of corporate social responsibility aimed at reassuring consumers that they care about issues and communities through cultural brand association.  Yet both such instances of artwashing are relatively large-scale, traditional forms of PR and marketing.  There is, I argue, another form of artwashing that is smaller in scale and relatively covert in nature.  Rather than attempting to increase the value of financial capital, as in the first instance, or exploit the cultural capital of large arts organisations as per the second, socially engaged art is used as a form of community-consultation-by-art that identifies, gathers, sanitises, archives and exploits the social capital of local people.  Like artwashing-as-corporate-social-licence, what could be termed ‘community artwashing’ operates on the principle of trust.  And socially engaged artists are specialists in gaining the trust of community members and are more likely to be trusted than business consultants.

When socially engaged art is commissioned by the state or local authorities or corporations or property developers, it is often instrumentalised as a way of ‘building’ social capital.  However, when this technique is applied to local people during or ahead of potential regeneration/ gentrification, it becomes a form of artwashing.  PR advantages are less important for community artwashing.  What counts is gaining a community’s trust so it can be exploited by commissioners to, for example, show that a community was ‘consulted’ prior to its displacement, show that developers ‘invested’ in local people before they were dispossessed, or simply to get some nice, happy pictures for the local press.

However, community artwashing has a double purpose: it also serves as an alternative way of selling ‘up-and-coming’ areas as creative and ‘happening’; ‘embedded’ socially engaged artists paving the way for artists in residence, galleries, single origin coffee shops and micro-brewed hipster bars.  It also can take the form of arts organisations taking control of ex-local government buildings and other disused spaces to set up studios and, in some cases, to take over the running of public libraries, such as in the case of V22 in London.[10]  Austerity, it seems, offers many ‘opportunities’ for arts organisations and artists to exploit communities using a façade of ‘community benefit’ and ‘social impact’.  I argue that community artwashing exploits intangible assets in a neighbourhood faced with or in the early stages of gentrification; socially engaged artists become its agents, bringing about a form of social change that is antithetical to the principles of social justice.  For anti-gentrification activists, Balfron Social Club: ‘The Social Art practitioner is placed in sites of contestation, and asked to do the footwork of those who really are creating concrete social change: the social cleansers’ (2015).

Let’s briefly explore the five forms of artwashing I’ve defined:

CORPORATE ARTWASHING involves big businesses using artwashing as a form of PR. Arts sponsorship, as activist Mel Evans pointed out, is about legitimising the corporate ‘social licence to operate’. A fundamental element for many businesses, it persuades the public to trust them (2015, pp. 70-84). 

Specially commissioned ‘street art’ and even carefully sited art galleries are hallmarks of DEVELOPER-LED ARTWASHING, enabling developers like LondoNewcastle, to promote individuality, fashionability, luxury and even ‘edginess’ to clients.  ‘Arty’ pop-up box parks are another form of developer-led artwashing. Like V22 Silvertown … Or The Artworks Elephant on the site of what was a public space – a playground on the edge of the Heygate Estate.  For writer Dan Hancox: a ‘shiny bauble’ to distract from the ‘social cleansing’ of the area.  Shipping containers on community land circumnavigate planning processes.  Locals wanted allotments, a pond, sports facilities, etc. Instead, they got a haven for hipsters that doubles up as a sales office for global developer Lend Lease who, along with Southwark council, are behind the social cleansing of the Heygate Estate.  Oh, and a colourful community mural remembering the ‘People of Southwark’ now displaced from the area. 

LOCAL AUTHORITY ARTWASHING uses art to rebrand communities THEY rebranded “failing” – part of a cultural rezoning. For example, Southwark Council’s film paints over the Heygate Estate, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre – over local people. 

Park Fiction, Hamburg.  The St. Pauli area of Hamburg has undergone sustained gentrification, turning a decaying, edgy, once working-class, industrial area into an increasingly middle-class one.  Artists appeared to be at the forefront of the struggle against gentrification.  Park Fiction – emblematic of socially engaged art as enabler of grassroots collective urban planning.  This accolade appears debatable, however, because Park Fiction was part of Hamburg city government’s broader regeneration agenda – an agenda that, like so many other cities around the world, fetishised art, culture and commerce.  It was, in fact, a test bed for a softer form of state-backed cultural intervention that harnessed the social capital of activists in St. Pauli on behalf of the state, which sought to pacify anti-gentrification protestors. City authorities also funded the construction of the park, giving €2.4 million to the project.

Park Fiction is now a popular location: ‘a colourful setting of subcultural chic within the on-going gentrification of St. Pauli’ surrounded by middle-class food places.  The park has increased property values, ‘inadvertently supporting’ the very ‘profit-orientated, socially irresponsible redevelopment’ that the activists claimed to oppose (2014, pp. 43-44).  Art changed a demand for a park into a Park Fiction, transforming the right to public space into a brand inspired by the postmodern film Pulp Fiction (Czenki & Schäfer, 2001, p. 100). 

ARTS-LED ARTWASHING.  Like Bow Arts Trust and their work with property developers and housing associations.  They used artists and arts events to artwash the 100% social cleansing of Balfron Tower.  Balfron Social Club opposed the artwashing of this stolen council housing icon.

Lastly, COMMUNITY ARTWASHING.  Like the ‘story harvesting’ of people living in social housing on the Aylesbury estate by Sticking Together SE17 – a socially engaged art commission to examine the ‘civic role of the arts’ that didn’t talk about the estate’s impending demolition.  Or The People’s Bureau – commissioned by Tate Modern, Southwark council, the developers of Elephant and Castle shopping centre, etc.  The artists involved designated it as an ‘opportunity area’.

Or Assemble … The story goes that Granby 4 Streets CLT happened upon a crazy not-artist/ not-architect collective and began collaborating with them to do up ten houses in Toxteth, Liverpool which, against all understanding and expectations, somehow won the 2015 Turner Prize. That’s the story.  Yet the reality is very different.  Posh group of mainly ex-Cambridge graduates, Assemble, were commissioned by the Community Land Trust which has a board of senior arts figures and financial investors. They were paid to do the work; to produce designs.  But the idea that the Turner Prize-winning regeneration project was led by a committed group of community members who had remained in Granby even after the devastation of New Labour’s Pathfinder programme, is unfortunately false.  Funding was provided by a secret private investor from Jersey.  

Whilst it has long been acknowledged that artists and arts organisations are prized for their ability to pioneer new gentrification processes and to support culture-led Creative City regeneration initiatives, they are increasingly co-opted and commissioned to perform more obliquely community-based functions with regeneration and gentrification agendas.  A key finding of my research is that, whilst artwashing is commonly believed to operate as a gloss that can increase an area’s desirability and its property values as well as reinforcing property developers’ social licences to operate and offering positive PR and enhanced ‘consumer trust’ for developers and local councils, it also functions at a smaller-scale within communities.  I call this ‘community artwashing’ – a process that does not seek to increase the value of physical assets such as property and land, nor does it feed from cultural capital.  Instead, socially engaged art and creative placemaking become vehicles for the often-vacuous process of community-consultation-by-art.

Social capital

Community artwashing claims to ‘build’ or ‘grow’ social capital within ‘deficient’ communities using participation in arts activities as a façade for the simultaneous ‘harvesting’ of local people’s existing social capital.  Art is used as a way of building ‘trust’, and socially engaged artists are experts in embedding within communities and earning their trust.  Social capital gleaned from local people undergoing or under threat of gentrification often takes the form of their memories, stories, histories and even old photographs.  It is used to create ‘memorials’ to disadvantaged communities displaced by gentrification, and as a way of showing how local people were consulted and perhaps even consented to their displacement by property developers and local councillors who invested in soon-to-be-displaced communities by bringing in an artist or arts organisation as creative consultants.

Social capital obtained during community artwashing also serves to produce attractive photographs of often marginalised and excluded people being creative – the perfect way to sell an ‘up-and-coming’ area as ‘authentic’, creative and cool; a place where artists are working with communities, living amongst them and making art; a beacon for hipsters and other creatives.  I argue that social capital theory underpins the quiet rise of community artwashing and that socially engaged artists employed as its agents should be thought of as ‘social capital artists’.  Social capital artists gather then sanitise the one thing that capitalism could not commodify – until now – the intangible bonds and ties that keep struggling and long-abandoned local people together.  Social capital artists gain people’s trust only to exploit it in neatly packaged, PR-friendly bundles; magically turning the valueless into monetary value via its recycling as an intangible asset.

Trust is perhaps the most crucial element in social capital theory, forming one of Putnam’s triad of core conditions for social capital alongside norms and networks (1993).  Trust is also an essential aspect of socially engaged art.  And, trust is also increasingly recognised within the PR world as an important part of brand management and security.  It is unsurprising then that art is used to artwash gentrification.  And social capital is commonly touted by the state, Arts Council England (ACE) and arts consultants as a solution to placemaking and to successfully engaging with ‘difficult to reach’ and ‘excluded’ people who do not seem interested in engaging with state-sanctioned cultural activities and art forms.  Moreover, social capital is considered a major driver of community development at local, national and international levels.  As such, it is also frequently cited by third sector organisations, philanthropic foundations and charities, and global NGOs as a panacea capable of righting almost all the world’s social wrongs.  Indeed, social capital is often considered as the ‘glue’ that keeps everything in our transnational world dominated by neoliberalism, workfare and austerity.

It can therefore be argued that art is an ideal tool for social capital theory, particularly when instrumentalised by the state and other vested interests.  Once instrumentalised as a vehicle for the promotion of wider state and corporate agendas, art can facilitate all three elements of Putnam’s social capital triad: art, when instrumentalised, not only builds trust, it also reinforces ‘civic’ norms based upon neoliberal ideology, and it creates ‘new’ networks in the form of Public-Private Partnerships or more complex variations in which third sector organisations and venture capitalists can also play a part.  Often, when art attempts to engage communities or to ‘include’ those with low levels of cultural engagement, it not only Others and devalues their own cultures but it also disempowers them by attempting to replace their ways of being and living with those of middle-class culture.  It does this through the conservative, economic definitions of trust, networks and norms of bourgeois culture and neoliberalism which are inherent within social capital theory.

Art becomes instrumentalised in the service of social capital.  For many artists and arts organisations, social capital is a positive form of social action and yet for others it is a tool for neoliberalism and conservative notions of an idealised ‘civic society’ in which communities are harnessed as a ‘public good’.  Such a view necessarily also produces the concept of ‘bad social capital’ which extends beyond traditional social ills such as crime, drugs, prostitution, etc. to include anyone who does not comply to the norms imposed by the state, anyone who distrusts community ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’, anyone who does not want to be part of or disagrees with the new ‘good’ social networks.  For yet others, social capital pacifies communities and consumers alike.

Artists against gentrification

Yet artists also form part of a growing number of urban social movements who oppose capitalism, neoliberalism, globalisation, climate exploitation, colonialism, gentrification and many other issues.  My research found that artists either tended to produce aesthetic interventions in their efforts to resist gentrification or to hide their artistic backgrounds beneath pseudonyms, often decrying some, if not all, of their activist practices as not-art.  The research revealed that, whilst PAD/D’s anti-gentrification protests used local street art and on-street exhibitions in attempts to raise community awareness and resistance in the Lower East Side, New York in the 1980s, their artist-led interventions were quickly subsumed within the very narrative being used to sell the gentrification of the neighbourhood: authentic, edgy and creative.  Property developers, press and art world all promoted PAD/D’s work and it quickly drew global attention to the area.

Park Fiction (PF) in Hamburg was promoted as artists and community members using direct action and art to ‘take back’ a disused space in the rapidly gentrifying district of St. Pauli that was turned into a public park that remains there to this day.  Some critics and even co-founder Christoph Schäfer felt that the project eventually acted as a cultural signifier of the area’s gentrification.  However, it appears that PF was not an example of grassroots artistic activism that was recuperated by developers and local authorities.  Rather, Schäfer was commissioned by the Hamburg authorities to produce a public art intervention; an intervention that seemed to act to reinforce the city’s gritty, self-organised, subcultural image which was itself an important element in the city’s overall gentrification.  It is possible to conclude that PF (and perhaps some of Schäfer’s later projects such as PlanBude) was a form of local authority-led artwashing insofar as the project was commissioned and funded by Hamburg authorities and used as a vehicle to sell the city’s ‘coolness’ globally.

Contemporary anti-gentrification interventions often use tactical media and anti-art to critique the ‘spectacle’ of gentrification and the spectacular and subtle ways in which art was used as part of this process.  In this context, I explored the work of Balfron Social Club (BSC) and Southwark Notes (SNAG) in London.  BSC fought for fifty percent of refurbished properties in Balfron Tower, Poplar, to be made available as social housing.  The tower was originally constructed as a monument to council housing’s utopian dream.  The local council gave it to a housing association (Poplar Harca) for free. They then decanted all its tenants before announcing that the only way to refurbish the Brutalist icon was to sell it off entirely as luxury apartments.  BSC used a range of primarily non-art interventions, strongly focusing on tactical use of social media, blogging, etc. to antagonise the housing association and call out socially engaged artists for their involvement in artwashing and attempts to appease what the collective considered to be an act of mass social cleansing.

SNAG’s approach to gentrification was different, grounded in long-term anti-gentrification activism and extensively connected to local, national and international networks.  The collective used acts of walking, street cinema, posters and other artistic interventions but primarily used tactical media and its website as a means of disseminating information and agitating.  It also used its knowledge of the art world and art theory to oppose public and socially engaged art interventions in its local borough of Southwark.  SNAG successfully prevented the construction of Mike Nelson’s Pyramid which was to have been built from the rubble of a demolished building on the Heygate Estate and were actively involved in other successful actions that disrupted and delayed the process of gentrification.  The collective also worked with Loretta Lees and other groups to produce a self-help guide, Staying Put (Lees, et al., 2014), for council estate tenants facing displacement because of gentrification.

However, unlike art’s supposed leading role in regenerating places and people and its ability to act as a lever for gentrification, anti-gentrification activism cannot rely on art to take a leading role in attempts to prevent or resist gentrification.  All the examples of anti-gentrification art I examined in my research were either co-opted or subsumed by the process or, in the cases of BSC and SNAG, left to fight guerrilla wars in which art was largely hidden or perhaps collapsed within everyday life.  The case studies all realised that it was unlikely that the processes of gentrification could be resisted, at least not without a mass movement.  BSC and SNAG continue to oppose gentrification and hope to build broader alliances with other anti-corporate movements and groups, however.  Both collectives were also involved in actions against what I term ‘social capital artists’ – artists involved in corporate and community artwashing – challenging and calling out socially engaged and public artists who were sometimes knowingly, sometimes inadvertently working to harvest social capital ahead of impending neighbourhood gentrification.

It is important to note that the anti-gentrification activist artists were all influenced to varying extents by the radical avant-garde.  As such, it is possible to argue that the radical avant-garde is alive in the form of today’s anti-art, tactical interventionism such as that employed by BSC and SNAG.  By disavowing art and using art theory against its institutionalised incarnations, these collectives avoid being subsumed by the art world and thereby conduct ‘knowing’ campaigns that expose the spectacles of art in the service of gentrification and the complex complicities of the gentrification process at local, national and international levels.  Their archives are widely accessed and contain important information that could be used to educate future generations about gentrification and corporate exploitation.  However, it is perhaps their creative acts of disobedience and refusal to conform or comply that remain their greatest assets.  Their actions seek freedom, liberation and social justice.  Their work extends beyond anti-gentrification.  Both SNAG and BSC do not oppose regeneration if it is beneficial to everyone already living in the areas.  They oppose the devastation of dispossession and displacement enforced by urbanism’s unstoppable juggernaut – gentrification – and the pernicious effects of artwashing.

The work of Platform, whilst not specifically anti-gentrification, was anti-oil, anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist.  Their work demonstrated powerful and organised collective strategies and tactics with which to challenge, resist and call out artwashing (in this case the corporate artwashing of Big Oil).  Platform were also able to successfully delegitimise the actions of large arts organisations such as Tate as well as corporate sponsors such as BP and Shell.  Their work acknowledges the influence of the radical avant-garde, offering a sophisticated, collectivist approach to arts, activism, education and research that I suggest could enable other movements such as anti-gentrification activists to better organise against the process whilst also continuing to avoid recuperation and co-option by the establishment.

A broader review of how other artists engage in urban regeneration and sometimes become involved in artwashing

My other case studies investigated a variety of ways that artists and arts organisations become involved in regeneration and community development projects.  It reveals a range of outcomes – some positive, others less so.  Some of the projects were complex, sometimes telling their stories in ways that used the gloss of art to obscure complexity and ambition; others were more straightforward and open in their narratives and practices.  It is therefore possible to loosely break these case studies into two groups: those whose work may be considered as artwashing and those whose work could not.  However, it is important to note that each case is unique.

The research indicated that the following projects could be associated with artwashing: the socially engaged artists Sajovic, Davies and Butler at the Elephant and Castle; Assemble’s work with Granby 4 Streets (G4S); Homebaked; and Situations.  Sajovic, Davies and Butler were funded by ACE, Southwark Council, Tate, and property developers (first St. Modwen and then Delancey) to work in the Elephant and Castle ‘opportunity area’.  They were challenged and called out by SNAG on several occasions and later acknowledged that they had perhaps underestimated the implications of being associated with the property developers.  Their work can be considered as a form of creative consultation – story harvesting – that was used by developers, the local council and Tate as positive community engagement.  When analysed, it appeared their projects could be classed as community artwashing.

Assemble’s relationship to G4S is more complex.  Originally promoted as a grassroots ‘collaboration’ between the architects-cum-socially-engaged-art collective and G4S, it became apparent that Assemble were commissioned and paid by private investors to undertake the work.  Assemble’s 2015 Turner Prize win gave the project in Liverpool and the collective itself global media attention.  The private investors used their own money to lever significant funds from ACE and a range of other funders.  Whilst G4S has improved the local area and guaranteed a very small number of homes under the terms of the Community Land Trust, the involvement of Assemble seemed to function as a form of corporate and state/ local government artwashing.  Indeed, the private investors later wrote that their involvement with Assemble and G4S was a sort of trial – an attempt to create a blueprint for similar scalable investments on a potentially global scale.

Like G4S, Homebaked was initially commissioned and funded by the Liverpool Biennial using ACE funds, amongst others, and it also used a ‘big name’ artist to attract art world and media attention to the project.  Jeanne van Heeswijk is a globally recognised socially engaged artist with many years’ experience working for regeneration projects.  The work in Anfield with Homebaked can also be considered as a relatively low-key yet important cultural intervention in a previously condemned area of Liverpool now undergoing significant regeneration that may, like Toxteth where G4S are based, lead to future gentrification.  The use of art can be considered as a form of state and local government artwashing with van Heeswijk cast in the role of, in the words of BAVO, an ‘NGO artist’.

Whilst not a specific case study, the work of ACE initiative Creative People and Places (CPP) can also be considered a form of community artwashing, although the extent to which this is true is very much dependent upon location.[11]  For example, Creative Barking and Dagenham (CBD) is a CPP project working in an area of London earmarked for gentrification.  Their work with local communities is one element of a coordinated package of culture-led regeneration that also consists of pioneering public art and the introduction of artist-led studios and initiatives, including interventions by Create London and a new studio space by Bow Arts Trust.[12]  Indeed, the area is London’s first Creative Industry Zone (London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, 2015).[13]  In this case, it appears CBD are producing a form of community artwashing within a broader package of state- and local government-led artwashing.  However, whereas CPP projects often appear to be pioneering primarily social, rather than physical regeneration projects that may lead to community artwashing, Fun Palaces (FP) does not.  FP may be encouraging art as a civic function, but its focus is on the promotion of creativity and voluntarism as soft activism, thereby supporting the state, via ‘social action’ (a variant of social capital theory), as it continues to undermine the welfare state.

Analysis of Artefacting’s work in Mexico and India revealed that it was engaged in community development activities, working to help local people to become more self-sufficient, to take more responsibility for their lives and communities.  Its work was often complicated by local politics but, in Oaxaca, Mexico it was forced to constitute its project there as an NGO.  Acting as an outsider and mediator working between people from the colony, the Mexican state and a European philanthropic foundation created a situation that led Artefacting’s founder, artist Alex White-Mazzarella to question his role in such situations.  The research indicated that ‘socio-cultural’ art (a variant of socially engaged art) could be successful when relatively autonomous and grassroots but unable to achieve its desired outcomes when faced with increasingly bureaucratic projects that sought to instrumentalise the collective.[14]  Artefacting’s work did not involve artwashing.

Two cases involved in this research engaged in regeneration processes in ways that enabled art to become a vehicle for relatively positive local change: Encounters Arts (EA) and the Stove Network (SN).  Both organisations were led by artists who were experienced in working in regeneration projects and who were also capable community and artistic facilitators: Ruth Ben-Tovim (EA) and Matt Baker (SN).  EA delivered a successful creative community consultation process for the community-led Atmos Project in Totnes and, whilst it later felt a little marginalised, the project became a unique example of the Community Right to Buy initiative and an important step forward for the Transition Towns movement.  Meanwhile, in Dumfries, SN played a leading role in helping the town take the lead in a culture- and community-led regeneration plan that gained significant recognition across Scotland and beyond.  Both projects utilised techniques commonly associated with creative placemaking to create relatively democratic spaces in which local people could contribute positively to localised regeneration agendas.  Nevertheless, it is possible that the creative visions for the regeneration of Totnes and Dumfries appealed to middle-class values rather than those of working-class residents.  It is also possible that both initiatives, whilst small-scale and in small towns, may have the long-term effect of contributing to localised forms of gentrification as the regeneration sites become recognised and property prices in the locale increase.


My research aims to provide new understandings of the different roles artwashing can play in communities, including its links to gentrification agendas.  It also offers new ways of thinking about how and why social capital theory underpins much of the instrumentalisation of art as well as saturating state and local government policies, third sector and charitable foundation agendas, and corporate agendas.  The research identified social capital as a key link (or ‘bridge’) between art, instrumentalism, regeneration, gentrification and artwashing.  Social capital’s importance for PR and the enhancement of corporate social responsibility cannot be underestimated.  This function is as attractive to state and local governments, arts organisations, third sector organisations, etc. as it is to corporations, investors and property developers.  Social capital is a critical element of neoliberal governance, monetising the valueless and serving to bond people together through normative and limited notions of trust.  As such it serves to push through austerity and the demolition of the welfare state by replacing paid work with entrepreneurialism, voluntarism and ‘civic duty’; certainty with precarity.  Art, especially socially engaged art, is a perfect means to achieve a social capitalist end, with artists becoming the model twenty-first century post-Fordist worker.

My research also offers original thinking about and evidence of how anti-art and activist strategies can be used to disrupt the status quo and, in the case of anti-gentrification activism, undermine not only those involved in property development and gentrification, but also to challenge and undermine the role arts organisations and artists play when paid to serve state, local authority and corporate interests.  The research revealed that the radical avant-garde is alive and well in activist art interventions such as those opposing gentrification or the interests of Big Oil.  This supports John Roberts’s notion of a contemporary ‘suspensive “third” avant-garde’: explicitly oppositional and anti-capitalist; concrete (anti)artistic practices that directly critique not only the institutions of art but also those of capital and the state.  The radical avant-garde today can therefore be seen to exist in the cracks of neoliberalism as re-politicised acts of resistance against the totality of capitalism, grounded in collectivism and ‘nonaesthetic reason’ (Roberts, 2010, pp. 726-727).

My thesis linked the contemporary reincarnation of the radical avant-garde as activist art or cultural activism to revived and reinvigorated ideas about the right to the city, social justice, freedom and liberation.  It explored and synthesised ideas from social psychology with those of art and urban theories and integrated them with specific theories and policies about regeneration and gentrification.  I postulate that, in keeping with the radical avant-garde, disobedience and dissent, non-compliance and non-conformity, are what make us human and make us creative.  Conversely, my research has revealed that, contrary to widespread beliefs, art that is instrumentalised and normalised as a tool for technocratic neoliberal governance or corporate exploitation seeks to instil obedience, false consent, compliance and conformity upon its participants.  This, as is illustrated by key social psychologists, deprives individuals of their freedom to achieve self-realisation and relative autonomy; it kills creativity; it disempowers and alienates us.  The interdisciplinary nature of the research also offers new ways of understanding the complexities of art that focus upon regeneration and gentrification but can be applied beyond this singular perspective.  I hope my work offers a contribution to the fields of art theory, cultural policy and urban theory as well as fields such as human geography, development studies, and political and economic theory.

My findings offer several possibilities for future research which could be undertaken from different disciplinary perspectives.  The general findings could be compared to other instances in which art is involved in regeneration, or in which art is a component of anti-gentrification activism, or in cases of artwashing.  The new and tentative definition of ‘community artwashing’ could also be investigated in more detail and indeed this is one area I am working on at the moment, analysing instances of artwashing to differentiate other forms – as I have begun to outline in this lecture.[15]  Furthermore, the integration of social capital within art in all the forms discussed in this thesis could be examined and analysed in broader contexts such as health and wellbeing, civic responsibility, and institutional participation, engagement, outreach and education agendas.  It would also be worthwhile to explore how specific examples of contemporary activist art and cultural activism from around the globe support or reject the notion of a third, suspensive form of the radical avant-garde, including if and how these practices link to notions of non-art or Gregory Sholette’s concept of ‘dark matter’ (2003).

Finally, it would seem highly relevant to further examine art from the social psychological perspective that offers different ways of thinking about art and creativity than today’s emphasis on positivistic approaches based upon cognitive psychology, mindfulness and neuropsychology.  For example, the works of psychoanalysts D.W. Winnicott and Erich Fromm reintroduce notions of playing, living creativity, the aesthetic experience as cultural experience, potential space, noncompliance, disobedience, self-realisation, and freedom into our ways of considering how art and creativity are part of everyday life and what that might mean about how we live creatively together.  The arts are essentially humanistic and social.  This is the moment to think of the arts as such rather than instrumentalise them in the name of conformity or financial gain, or reduce them to numbers and evidence-based functions in the positivist conceits of measurability and accountability.


[1] For more UK creative industries data, see, for example, http://www.thecreativeindustries.co.uk/uk-creative-overview/facts-and-figures and https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/creative-industries-economic-estimates-january-2016.

[2] The CEBR reported: ‘The exact mechanisms through which investment in the arts and culture drives regeneration vary.  The past and current circumstances of each location are unique and the effects of interventions are dependent upon these circumstances.  We also noted that it is rate for regeneration efforts involving the arts and culture to take place in isolation.  Rather, cultural efforts usually form part of a broader strategy including, for example, the development of green spaces or revitalising commercial districts.  Pinpointing the precise contribution of investments in the arts and culture in this context is of course problematic because there is so much else changing at the same time’ (2013, p. 89).

[3] For Will Davies: ‘Viewing the world “like” a market, and governing it “as if” it were a market, are hallmarks of neoliberalism’ (2014, p. 21).

[4] Leslie was deeply critical of cultural policy makers and cultural theorists, claiming they were ‘willing ideologues’ of the ‘privatization needed to promote the industrialization of culture and its annexing to the production of values, monetary and other’ who operated with a broad policy remit that broad remit spanning ‘the banal to the fatal’ (2011, pp. 185-186).

[5] For example, both utilised notions of ‘sustainability’ before moving on to the change focused term, ‘resilience’.  Mark Robinson’s Making Adaptive Resilience Real report for Arts Council England made the point that ‘resilience’ was more useful word than ‘sustainability’ (2010, p. 14).

[6] For Peck, creative cities policies were ‘being stamped out cookie-cutter style across the urban landscape, spanning a quite remarkable range of settings having become policies of choice, in particular, for those left-leaning mayors who have learned to live with, if not love, the market order.  Nominally bespoke creativity strategies can be purchased from consultants in practically any mid-sized city these days, or they can be lifted off the shelf from countless websites and urban regeneration conferences’ (2009 [2007], p. 7).

[7] This statement can perhaps be considered a precursor to François Matarasso’s Use or Ornament?

[8] It is worth noting that Florida decided to remove the ‘Bohemian Index’ from his revised edition of the book.  This change did not reduce his emphasis on Bohemianism and the arts as key drivers of Creative Cities, however (Florida, 2012).

[9] Brian Tochterman, for example, argued that Florida (himself following Jane Jacobs) used ‘progressive social and cultural politics’ and notions of community to disguise a stronger economic perspective that promotes global neoliberalism, creative destruction and market-led urban regeneration (2012, p. 83).

[10] It is beyond the scope of this thesis to discuss the fast-moving ways in which artwashing is being used.  However, the case of V22 in London is particularly interesting and illustrates the appropriation by arts organisations with the support of Arts Council England, the Mayor of London, and a range of other backers.  To read more about V22, see: http://www.v22collection.com.

[11] There are 21 CPP projects across England.

[12] BAT were involved in the artwashing and gentrification of Balfron Tower.

[13] For more about Barking Creative Industries Zone, see: https://www.lbbd.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Barking-Creative-Industries.pdf.

[14] Mazzarella did not like the term ‘socially engaged art’.

[15] It may be possible, for example, to break down artwashing into specific categories such as ‘corporate’, ‘developer-led’, ‘local authority-led’, ‘arts-led’ and ‘community’ artwashing.  More research is needed to undertake a thorough analysis however.

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