Artists, urban decay and renewal

This is an obvious and dependable cycle to those of us who professional artists,  gallery workers and investment bankers.  It happens in every city and will continue to happen and is perhaps the single most powerful agent of change to any community, bringing millions or even billions of dollars eventually to whatever neighbourhood is lucky enough to be participating.

What is this elemental force of human nature? It is a formula, really -> Take a lower economic neighbourhood within a city that is relatively close to the urban core and has good public transportation infrastructure, adequate bicycle lanes and add artists. Lots of artists. Wait for 5-20 years and viola! first galleries will start popping up here and there, and then design shops, alternative cafes and restaurants. Writers, designers, musicians, dancers, activists and ilk soon follow. Designer boutiques then start appearing; the restaurants start to get a bit trendy, the rents go up and then the condo developers buy up property, bribe and pay off city officials and start the process of injecting expensive sky boxes into the formerly quaint hood. Artists and galleries cannot afford area anymore and move.

This really only works if you start with visual artists as a solid base. You see, visual artists are the best tenants for a run-down property – they are fanatical about obtaining and holding onto studio space. They will sublet to other artists and police the rent fastidiously in order to keep the space – they will dedicate their lives around a studio space and not move anywhere else … even for a better standard of living.  They will likely not complain about the building and will actually beautify a neighbourhood through their own ingenuity and also rally together to bring improvements to a community.  Once a community is affected long enough the real estate prices start to rise and the landlord of a run-down property finds him or her self able to sell a building for a great profit – usually to condo developers or business people.

What other class of people literally make something out of nothing? Who else can generate an entire robust economy by just living their lives as they normally do? Who else would take such risks and dedicate so many years for little financial reward and so much boon to all around them? Visual artists, that’s who. Writers are too selfish, dancers are too fussy, designers are too dependent on the perceptions of clients, academics are too flakey, architects are too smug to take the lead and don’t get me started on lawyers, doctors, salesmen, etc.  Nope, it’s artists who do the heavy lifting because they have to – because artists are more powerful and important in a very significant and lasting way than any other single profession, but no one realizes this or certainly would never admit it. No one is going to give a fuck about Joe the electrical engineer or Wanda the software developer a hundred years from now – but they will care about the cultural treasures of artists and the robust, wonderful neighbourhoods that we created on the way.

You see, in our society we give money, respect and prominence to professionals like scientists, politicians, engineers, accountants, business leaders, doctors, etc. This is because they are not as important as the creative class, but we need to them to build and maintain our cities, infrastructures and the day to day business of a healthy society so we reward them with all the trappings of respect and comfort they think they deserve. Anybody can do what they do, really, but they can’t do what most artists do. In essence, they are the oily rags of the engine of our culture and drudge along in banal jobs that satisfy some need installed by their oily rag parents and do what needs to be done the most important aspect of society can grow and flourish – it is all to support and showcase visual artists.  Our society will be judged by what the unheralded artists in your neighbourhood are producing and not by laws, commerce or policies of those who do not participate in the visual arts.

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There is a writer, Richard Hamilton, who wrote a book called “The Creative Class” that echoes some of the same observations I think – I have not read his work and some of it seems kinda whacked but he’s obviously getting some of his better insights from artists around him. Most intellectuals do.

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