The Arts Organization’s Role in Addressing Gentrification

This post is the third in a three-part Blogging Fellows series on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Read the full series.

Candy Chang's public art piece, "Before I Die," installed in a New Orleans neighborhood.
Candy Chang’s public art piece, “Before I Die,” installed in the Marigny Fauborg in New Orleans, is an example of when artists connect deeply with community members in shifting landscapes.

The role of the artist and arts organization in gentrification

Gentrification is an uncomfortable word for artists. The beginning of rapid development in a neighborhood can often be tracked down to when a large group of artists (usually young, energetic transplant artists with good intentions and empty pockets) move in. The influx of new creative energy stirs up city governance and private sector interests, which then rouses a line of incentives for development, a shift in racial and class demographics, and the departure of long-time residents and homeowners who can no longer afford heightened rent or property taxes.

A quick reaction for many is to point fingers at artists for starting a process of gentrification in a neighborhood (and sometimes, artists harbor the most resentment and nostalgia for blighted buildings and abandoned lots). But are artists willing to consider shared responsibility for rapid and unsettling change? What are the roles of artists and arts organizations in addressing gentrification?

Arts organizations in particular play a huge part in this social process. While arts organizations who receive more from the top of the power and resources pyramid might have the privilege to ignore the complicated dynamics of gentrification, I believe an arts organization’s choice to ignore their civic impact makes it irrelevant. Instead, arts and culture organizations should embrace their unique role as placemakers and cultural agents to foster creative thinking and reflection towards more equitable development. With collective intentionality, arts organizations can shift the thinking around the relationships between artists and evolving neighborhoods, and build networks to create opportunities for talking about that shift.

Power in collective intentionality

The Talks series at the recent National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture created an environment for arts organizations to address issues of diversity, equity, intentionality and relationship building in the communities where we work. Executive Director of Alternate Roots, Carlton Turner, gave an especially profound talk on the theme of Taking Collective Action. In it, he said:

It shouldn’t be hard for us to agree that there is power in what we [arts and culture organizations] do. The question is, what do we do with that power? It’s important to… be intentional in our thinking about how we are using tools to shape the way we collectively think about the world.

Intentionality in process, systems, and artistic product are essential in creating artistic work that is relevant and transformative. There is no right way for an arts organization to do this—it depends on the group and their audience—but the collected effort of diverse organizations can alleviate the recurrent inequitable patterns of development.

Theatre for reflection, community discussion, and transformation

Arts organizations interested in sustaining their community relevance must recognize their part in the social process of gentrification and neighborhood transition before they can shift the perspective of their audience or larger society. My theatre ensemble, Cripple Creek Theatre Company, is committed to making socially relevant work and we understand that true social change starts from within our organization. We have focused conversations as an ensemble (made up of northern transplants, southerners, and New Orleanians) on what our responsibility is to both our audience and our place. This has allowed us to be more intentional about how we operate and present work, and think more deeply about our relationship as an organization to the city. (I wrote about our most recent piece, “Possum Kingdom,” in my blog post on HowlRound.)

To read a more in-depth analysis of art and its intersection with gentrification within the context of New Orleans, I encourage you to read Catherine Michna’s “How NOT to be a Gentrifier with your Theatre: A Starter List.”

Dance Alliance of New Orleans (DANO)

One example of an arts organization that already intentionally focuses on issues of gentrification, class, and diversity is the Dance Alliance of New Orleans (DANO), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the New Orleans dance community and increase the visibility of dance in all its forms.

Dance is integral to the culture and history of New Orleans, and the city offers a wide range of dance, from afro-Caribbean to modern experimental. However, many of these local dance ensembles rarely connect with one another, and instead operate as small islands that present work to a niche audience. Dancers in the city recognized this lack of connectedness and began organizing community conversations that invited dancers from all over the city to speak to their concerns and needs, particularly with relation to the landscape of New Orleans neighborhoods. From these conversations, DANO was created.

Though still in its early stages, DANO intends to be a support system for all dance in New Orleans, with a desire to be a membership-driven organization with voting rights that hosts community events, professional development, and offers information about all dance work happening in the city. This sort of creative placemaking is slow and intentional, making sure decisions are equitable and representative of the diverse dance ensembles that make up the New Orleans dance community. DANO creates an artistic network that intentionally connects its members across local communities and neighborhoods, and builds an identity for their collective impact as actively engaged, conscious, artists with a commitment to social practice.

Art as a tool for positive transformation

Institutions that aim to preserve and cultivate arts and culture practices have power to shape perspectives and practices within complex social processes like gentrification. Those of us within these arts and culture organizations have a responsibility to consider our work as an intentional tool for learning, dialogue, and shaping the way people think and act.

What organizations in your local community are intentionally creating space for addressing art’s role in transitioning urban neighborhoods? What practices are they using to connect their work to issues of gentrification, class, and race in their immediate area?

Francesca McKenzie is a theater maker, educator, yoga teacher, and community organizer based in New Orleans. She is a company member of Cripple Creek Theater, an ensemble that produces socially and politically relevant plays to spark positive social action. She has worked with numerous theater companies in New Orleans such as Goat in the Road Productions, Southern Rep, and The NOLA Project. She is also a theater arts integration teacher through Kid SmART at several New Orleans Charter Public Schools. Follow her on Twitter @CheskaMcKenzie.

  • Kelvin D.

    “Gentrification is an uncomfortable word for artists.” I think the word “SOME” should be put before “artists”because I believe that, inherently, a great part of the uncomfortable nature of Gentrification is that some people are comfortable with it. Growth of business and a marginalized group of people you WANT to see at your institution becomes more feasible and reflects well on your organization (generalizing). However, when we address whose responsibility it is to be social stewards in art-making and creative place-making, I fail to see the incentive presented when issued such a challenge. Let me explain: we are taught to make art for an audience, a target audience if possible, and that that is our job as artists and institutions. Teaching innovative engagement and audience development comes later but, by that time, an artists or institution can become extreme reliant on the audience they have targeted and managed to sustain over time. Starting from the beginning again seems daunting and the efforts become less energized than they were when they were recruiting that first audience. (Just my view).

    “A responsibility to consider our work as an intentional tool for learning, dialogue, and shaping the way people think and act.” I agree with the intention of this statement and value its tenacity for CONTINUED study of our audiences and its needs. As the community changes (for or against gentrification) an arts institution’s priorities should also change and continue to be relevant within that community whatever its changes mean for the people in the community. The responsibility, however, for an arts institution should be, as a business, to continue to translate the way people think and act into programming, community engagement and the overall mission of the institution. Only then can we have art makers and institutions in that are built with a cognizant attitude to the people and social dynamics that shape the community around them and utilize it to further its own sustainability.

  • Josh E

    Great article, Frank. I want to challenge you on one important point though: where you write, “While arts organizations who receive more from the top of the power and resources pyramid might have the privilege to ignore the complicated dynamics of gentrification, I believe an arts organization’s choice to ignore their civic impact makes it irrelevant.” Regardless of their commitment to thoughtful/democractic civic engagement, certain organizations that may have disproportionate access to political or economic power are not irrelevant for obvious reasons. Rather than being irrelevant, those that choose to ignore their civic impact are dangerous, and to dismiss them means that they will continue to operate without course correction. Which is to say, labeling them irrelevant means we lose the opportunity to mitigate their danger and build a more positive, inclusive movement with such organizations that are well resourced. I don’t want to seem too idealistic here, because obviously some organizations just don’t give a shit and that won’t change. But I think we shouldn’t get conciliatory about the potential of collective transformation (collective meaning ALL of us; institutions + communities + individuals) by calling those who aren’t (yet) on board “irrelevant.” That’s too easy, and it leaves too much space for them to go ahead with their ultimately damaging/disconnected work. Either way, thanks for the thoughtful piece, stay nasty!

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  • Alison K.

    Gentrification has been an ongoing conversation in the Bay Area for quite some time. Recently though, the conversation has reached fever pitch, turning into an out-and-out yelling match. KQED’s Forum radio program hosted the discussion “What is Gentrification?” spawned a flurry of heated responses on-air and on-line. Earlier this month, the panel discussion “Re-engineering: Arts and Tech in the Bay Area” (organized in response to protesters blocking Google buses) attracted a
    standing-room-only crowd.

    Sprinkled throughout these discussions (and many more like them), is mention that artists are being pushed out because of gentrification. Many of us within the arts recognize that artists/arts organizations bear the complicated role of being both victims and harbingers of gentrification. Understanding this odd social position enables us to do something about it – namely, as you point out, through slow and intentional development within and without the arts community. The example you pose, DANO, is an interesting one in this regard, and I’d like to hear more about how the organization is forming equitable, intentional relationships outside the dance community – the neighborhoods where the DANO members do their work, and the communities represented within that work.

    KQED Forum’s radio program “What is Gentrification?”:

    “Art, Tech, and Gentrification in San Francisco” in Hyperallergic:

    “SF protesters block Google buses” in Salon:

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  • Sherri

    According to a national study: “Freeman’s work found that low-income residents were no more likely to move out of their homes when a neighborhood gentrifies than when it doesn’t.”

  • deeeeeeeeeeeeez

    When artists start getting paid the same as bankers and lawyers they can start worrying about gentrifying neighborhoods.