This is the text from my talk for the Market Forces event at the Swap Market Govanhill in Glasgow on 18th July 2019. It looks at the role artists play in the game of neoliberal planned gentrification.

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Today, artists are portrayed by the creative industries as exemplars of a new class of creative entrepreneurs. The now ubiquitous ‘creative city’ has become, as urban geographer Loretta Lees explained, an emancipatory ideal for the new ‘creative class’ and a revanchist reality for the city’s ‘others’ (2014, p. 52). For Lees, et al., ‘High living in a council owned tower block is stigmatized, living in a privately rented or owned tower block is the ultimate in urban chic’ (2010, p. xiv). This class polarisation, driven by a global free market economy, restricts community organisations (including arts organisations) tasked with tackling exclusion and poverty to the limited objectives set by the state and their funders (Mayer, 2007, p. 100). Yet, gentrification also mobilises movements in support of the dispossessed – lower class people and communities (Lees, et al., 2008, p. 240).

In the 1980s, art historians Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Ryan recognised that gentrification was ‘aided and abetted by an “artistic” process whereby poverty and homelessness are served up for aesthetic pleasure’, ridding gentrifying areas of ‘a “useless” class’ (1984, p. 111). More recently, artists Jenna Graham and Nicolas Vass examined how artists often support gentrification, sometimes acting as a soft alternative to hostile policing (2014, p. 14).

For art historian Andrea Phillips, many arts projects, whilst claiming to be interdisciplinary and socially committed, often become enmeshed in ‘temporal and flexible, market-friendly ideals about the lives and long-term needs of potential users’, reproducing neoliberal tenets such as individual ownership and privatisation in so doing.[1] Phillips explained how state support for the arts, particularly in Northern Europe, ‘violently’ shifted from a primarily welfare state model which portrayed art as a ‘common and shared social good’ to a ‘capitalized model’ based upon private investment and collaboration with the private sector (Phillips, 2012, pp. 152-154). The relative autonomy of art, once supported by the welfare state as a property of social relations, became, for Phillips, a politically-charged economic factor under neoliberal arts agendas.

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).[2]

While artists and arts organisations may have little to directly gain from their involvement in gentrification, they are encouraged to become part of the regeneration process by a ‘new regime of selective privatization’ that increasingly trades arts funding and status for instrumentalisation and civic governance (Phillips, 2012, p. 154). Those unwilling to comply face the likelihood of disinvestment and loss of cultural status. As Esther Leslie argued, once the arts were touched by ‘the magic wand of industry’ and transformed into the creative industries, creativity became a ‘raw material’ capable of adding ‘value to contents and [generating] values for individuals and societies’ whilst also conjuring values ‘out of nothing, out of themselves’ (2011, p. 184). Similarly, in THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE: The Future is [Self]Organised, artists Anthony Davies, Stephan Dillemuth and Jakob Jakobsen described the subsumption of arts and culture by neoliberal free market dynamics as follows:

In recent decades we have seen a very close integration of market dynamics and culture. We have witnessed the rise and rise of the Creative Industries. These promised the liberation of Marx’s alienated workers in a process of creative self-realisation and autonomy. Through creativity of the hands and the hearts, they would grant capitalism a human face. Artists, with their idealism, flexibility and enthusiasm to work even under precarious circumstances, became the role model for a new concept of capitalism, leading its ‘triumphant procession around the globe’. The hopes for this spectacle were twofold: it would strengthen belief in capitalism’s new formula, and it would disguise the fact that, like so much else wealth generated under the sign of creativity, it was the product of a proliferation of speculation, and increasing indebtedness. Meanwhile, under the procession’s grinding wheels, the sweatshops, child labour, privatisation of commons and all other disasters that accompany the economic warfare of rich versus poor, continued unabated (2012).

The neoliberal fetishisation of artists and creativity as exemplars of post-Fordist precarity and innovation in the face of complexities and uncertainties generated by global capitalist expansionism led art to become the perfect tool for generalised gentrification. Indeed, it is possible to contend that socially engaged art became an ideal, low-cost method of neoliberal soft power – the standard-bearer for the paradoxical creative destruction of capitalism predicted by economist Joseph Schumpeter and, following John E. Elliott, similarly by Karl Marx (1980).[3]

Yet the relationship of art and artists to gentrification has changed with each new wave of gentrification, although these waves often co-exist. Artists began by being conceived of as individual agents, acting as a vanguard for the colonisation of working-class neighbourhoods before eventually being displaced themselves by organised capitalist commodification which followed the pioneering artist/ gentrifiers. Gentrification, in its third phase, was encouraged as an ‘engine of urban regeneration’ by the state, local councils and public agencies who used art institutions and institutionalised forms of art (including public art and socially engaged art) to promote regeneration and thereby gentrification. The state utilised art as both infrastructural (hard) and communicative (soft) tools for gentrification; artists providing cultural capital for the purposes of identifying, utilising and valorising urban areas deemed to be in decline and in need of regeneration (Cameron & Coaffee, 2005, pp. 39-40).[4]

Urban geographer David Ley described artists as the pioneers for a ‘new middle class’ – the ‘new cultural class’ (1996, p. 15).[5] Whilst for Sharon Zukin, artists were the ‘stalking horse’ for capital investment whose ‘artistic mode of production’ became commodified by corporate investors as a means of merging capital accumulation with the cultural sphere (1988, p. 15). Urban planners Stuart Cameron and Jon Coaffee described the relationship between the arts and gentrification as ‘mutually dependent’ in which the ‘production of art’ in the first phase was usurped, in the second, by the ‘commodification and private consumption of this artistic milieu’ before becoming dominated, in the third phase, by the ‘public consumption of art’ in the form of ‘public art and artistic events’ and infrastructure projects – galleries, museums, etc. (2005, p. 46, authors’ italics).

It could be argued that the use of socially engaged art and outreach programmes represents a fourth stage in the commodification of art in the service of gentrification: the service of art as an instrument for state and private interests – a noticeable change in the function of the new cultural class in relation to the various phases of gentrification, transitioning from urban pioneers operating at the margins of economics and society to integral elements of centrality – both the foot soldiers of gentrification and ideal neoliberal workers.

Many ‘pioneering’ artists were not primarily interested in living spaces but in live/ work spaces (Rosler, 2010). For Ley, pioneering artists of the new cultural class sought the authenticity of the urban as a reaction to their anthropological desire to ‘unveil’ culture. This drive to explore urban environs led artists to be portrayed by some academics as the ‘expeditionary force for the inner-city gentrifiers’ – their ‘colonising arm’ (Ley, 1996, p. 195). The media, on the contrary, tended to frame artists as ‘rhetorical heroes’ whose creativity enhanced the perceived corporate sterility of much urban regeneration whilst also masking the process of gentrification. Once ‘dangerous’ and ‘unwieldy’ urban areas are, in the eyes of the press, frequently pacified with the arrival of artists and the new creative class; their ‘innovation’ miraculously transforming no-go-zones into ‘bohemian’ neighbourhoods. Artists became ‘trailblazers’, ‘artist-settlers’, ‘urban adventurers’ and ‘shock troops’ but, when they inevitably became threatened with displacement as their injection of cultural capital is swallowed by economic capital, artists were often portrayed as victims of gentrification; cue discussions within the press and by politicians about whether ‘artist enclaves’ should be protected from ‘the “true” gentrifiers’ (Makagon, 2010, pp. 27-8).

Nevertheless, whilst artists often choose to work in ‘edgy’ areas and accept their work is often precarious, insecure and likely to ultimately result in displacement, long-term residents threatened with displacement by gentrification have no such luxury. There is a class difference at work here that is often obfuscated by artists arguing that they, like lower-class council estate residents, are also victims of gentrification (Ball, 2016). However, it is worth remembering Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Ryan’s response to critic Craig Owens’s remarks that Lower East Side artists in the 1980s were the victims of gentrification: ‘To portray artists as the victims of gentrification is to mock the plight of the neighborhood’s real victims … [A]rtists cannot be exempted from responsibility’ (1984, p. 42). Artists involved in gentrification have been portrayed less positively in the media recently, however. For example, architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright described artists as the ‘kamikaze pilots of urban renewal’.[6] He recognised that their often well-intentioned ‘community-led’ attempts to improve their areas would often result in gentrification (Wainwright, 2016).[7]

Meanwhile, many artists and arts organisations appear either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge how their actions, no matter how well-intentioned, may inadvertently lead to increasing an area’s potential to be gentrified. Gentrification, as urbanist Jason Patch explains, ‘will not spring forth from anywhere an artist (or real estate mogul or urban planner) chooses’ but requires a specific set of economic conditions that would initially attract ‘creative workers’ (2004, p. 170). This is the domain of the state and corporate investment. Nonetheless, entrepreneurs clearly value the places and practices of artists (Ley, 2003, p. 2535).[8] But as art, enterprise and the state became evermore closely related under New Labour and subsequent governments, protest, dissent and resistance became integrated and institutionalised within the regeneration (and thereby gentrification) process as ‘public participation’ (Lees, 2014, pp. 937-8).[9] Similarly, creative placemaking reflects the growing move towards creative entrepreneurialism by using art as a means of enticing the wealthy, middle classes and new investors to (re)made places (Panton, 2014).

For Neil Smith, the ‘New Urban Frontier’ was built upon a myth that rationalised ‘the violence of gentrification and displacement’ and acted as a veil for an ‘everyday frontier’ that was the ‘stark product of entrepreneurial exploitation’ – the ‘frontier of profitability’ (1996, p. 22).[10] Clearly, entrepreneurialism and pursuit of profit underwrite Creative City agendas, often leading to inequality, exclusion, dispossession and unrest. For human geographer Oliver Mould, notions of the Creative City relied upon globally reproducible homogeneity which he considered to be ‘the antithesis of creativity’; an ‘economically deterministic pastiche’ (2015, p. 3). Creative placemaking can also be considered in this vein: a practice that encourages public/ private initiatives to integrate art, creative consultation, urban design, participatory democracy, civic governance and economic revitalisation in processes dressed as ‘community-led development’. Creativity becomes part of the neoliberal ‘market-building project’ that rolls-back some (particularly Keynesian) social and institutional functions and rolls-out creative- and community-led alternatives as part of its ‘destructively creative social order’ (Peck & Tickell, 2007, pp. 33-4, authors’ italics). There is, however, a vast chasm between, for example, social capital, community governance and creative consultation and the radical demands for social justice, to take back the city and for the right to the city.

Artists and arts organisations have accepted concessions from property developers and local authorities for many years. This enables artists and smaller arts organisations to access temporary spaces for below-market rents as well as often enabling landlords to access significantly discounted business rate relief (as is common in the UK). Meanwhile, developers and local councils use the influx of artists to market these areas as ‘cultural’ and ‘happening’, which often increases local property values. For artist Martha Rosler, this process places artists and arts administrators within ‘the conversation on civic trendiness’ (Rosler, 2014, p. 191). This leads artists to become, inadvertently and perhaps intentionally, a means of increasing property values, thereby accelerating the process of gentrification.

However, artists are often cast as the foot soldiers of gentrification and its victims, useful tools for regenerating places and placemaking, and temporal tenants for meanwhile spaces and pop-up shops. These roles are inevitably portrayed as either positive or negative, although sometimes neutrally. Artists are frequently praised by property developers, state institutions, funders and some third sector organisations for their role in reimagining and redeveloping people and places; it is equally common for them to be criticised by activists, social housing tenants, campaign groups and, increasingly, academics and journalists, for their role as gentrifying pioneers; and, equally, artists embroiled in this complex and temporal web of contested spaces and places often attempt to neutralise their own role, particularly when questioned about their intentions and their partnerships with other groups.[11]

Cameron and Coaffee describe three waves of gentrification: in the first, artists function as the initiators of gentrification; in the second, property capital follows artists into newly gentrified areas, displacing first wave artists and commodifying culture; in the third wave, public policy, including arts and cultural initiatives and public art, acts as a form of ‘“positive” gentrification’ (2005, pp. 39-40). This description, whilst interesting, places unreasonable responsibility on artists as initiators of gentrification and does not recognise that they do not define the ‘New Urban Frontier’, nor do they prepare its ground. This is done by systematic and planned disinvestment and devalorisation in which once healthy areas are turned into no-go zones. Artists, it seems, are often merely pawns in the regeneration game. The game is planned. It is planned gentrification. And we would do well to blame the planners, not the players, for the catastrophically unjust results that follow.


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[1] Phillips linked ‘border-crossing’ to ‘interdisciplinarity’ and ‘participation’ to ‘social commitment’ (2012, p. 153). The intention is to consider the extent to which regeneration is linked to, if not one and the same as, gentrification; part of a general strategy of capital accumulation in which art is one of its primary instruments. It explores the following areas in turn: regeneration; gentrification; New Urbanism; the Creative City; creative placemaking; and the role of art and artists within the gentrification process.

[2] 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).

[3] For economist Elliott, ‘Despite well-known differences, the respective visions of capitalism’s future by Marx and Schumpeter show striking and neglected similarities. This is illustrated, first, by their strong focus upon capitalism’s progressive and creative properties; second, by their analyses of capitalism’s dysfunctional properties; and third, by their respective analyses of the creatively destructive character of institutional and attitudinal change in advanced capitalism’ (1980, p. 45).

[4] Often, of course, dressed up as ‘regeneration’, ‘renewal’, ‘renaissance’, ‘placemaking’, etc.

[5] For Cameron and Coaffee, this new middle or cultural class was comprised of ‘professionals in the media, higher education, the design and caring professions, especially those working in the state or non-profit rather than the commercial sector’ (2005, p. 41).

[6] Wainwright stated: ‘For years, gentrification boosters such as Richard Florida have argued it is the surefire [sic] formula for urban regeneration, proselytising their magic recipe to rapt mayors around the world. Blighted neighbourhoods could be miraculously transformed by incentivising the arrival of the “creative class” of artists, gay couples and brave bohemians: those frontline pioneers who would take on rundown buildings and seed the pop-up micro-breweries, artisanal bakeries and farmers’ markets that would encourage the more timid middle classes to follow. Houses are done up, community gardens appear, and investors flock to reap the rewards’ (2016).

[7] Wainwright wrote: ‘The community group that gets together to revive a street market or establish an urban garden, or the penniless artists who turn a leaky warehouse into a gallery, are indirectly responsible for catalysing the very forces they are usually determined to prevent’ (2016).

[8] Ley expanded on this assertion by stating that the link between art and enterprise stretched ‘from festivals to festival markets, from cultural production to cultural economies, to an intensified economic colonisation of the cultural realm, to the representation of the creative city not as a means of redemption but as a means of economic accumulation’ (2003, p. 2542).

[9] For Lees, the institutionalisation of dissent and protest created what she described as a ‘post-political condition’ (2014, pp. 937-8).

[10] Smith wrote: ‘Areas that were once sharply redlined by banks and other financial institutions were sharply “greenlined” in the 1980s. Loan officers are instructed to take down their old maps with red lines around working-class and minority neighborhoods and replace them with new maps sporting green lines: make every possible loan within the greenlined neighborhood’ (1996, p. 22).

[11] The 2015 Turner Prize-winning work of Assembly in Granby Four Streets, Toxteth, Liverpool is a well-known example.

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