Does Gentrification make boring art?
After watching British critic Jonathan P. Watts’ recent film on Frieze about the relationship between artists and the co-option of vacant space, I have had a bunch of questions floating around my head.
There Goes The Neighbourhood describes a number of ambitious arts projects and art spaces in London which have influenced, as well as been complicit in, gentrification.
Art and artists often use, and directly benefit from the development of towns, cities and communities. The flipside of urban development is that artists - as well as almost every other community that bring diversity - are pushed out of affordable space to live, work and socialise.
I have been wondering how this might relate to Wellington as the Urban Dream Brokerage, where I work as broker, is working within a facet of this ‘urban regeneration’ industry. I know that in the 90’s and early 2000’s the top end of Cuba St and other pockets provided a hot house for art and creative talent, with studios and flats affordable: germinating ambitious emerging artists, developing our art and culture landscape to what it is today. There are stories of Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jo Randerson and half of the Wellington art and music industry being active at the top end of Cuba St, Cable St and Newtown around that time. This prolific period was also assisted by the development of other successful initiatives like the Pace Scheme - affectionately dubbed the ‘Artist’s Dole’ - brought in by Labour, the growth of the Fringe and International Festival and spaces like Enjoy, BATS and Taki Rua-Depot, which allowed for the development of artist-run projects across the visual and performing arts. Numerous events, projects and galleries took on alternative project spaces.
Like BATS, Enjoy is still running (about to turn 16!). It is hard to imagine it’s artist run origins as it plays a vital role as contemporary public gallery within the arts ecosystem. So where then, do we go to find the ambitious, experimental, alternative and flat-out risky projects that exist outside of the established institutions?
Each year we see a bunch of student run exhibitions pop up around town. In traditional, alternative and vacant spaces, it is a refreshing few weeks in the art calendar. It reminds us that it is possible for experimental artist run spaces to exist.
Just recently, I brokered the Urban Dream Brokerage’s forty-second project. Yet I still wonder where the rest of the participatory work is hiding. We have just been through an incredible festival season, with the Fringe, the Performance Arcade and the New Zealand Festival. All of which have been excellent contributions to the art landscape in their own way, but I wonder if this festival-centric culture is discouraging or distracting people from generating the really successful, genuine, grassroots projects. The kind of artworks, performances or ideas that are resourceful. Ideas so good, that you want to realise them no matter what. Maybe we need to be less careful with our ideas in terms of imagining them being big budget productions - we need to test, pilot and present these ideas. Take more risks with our work and practises.
A lot of incredible proposals and projects are seeking funding to be realised. Would they happen if the funding isn’t obtained? If the art relies on the funding to exist, then funding makes very little art at all!
It’s increasingly important that as artists we remain ambitious, but also, resourceful. I am not convinced it is more funding or artist run spaces we need. In Wellington Enjoy, City Gallery, 30 Upstairs, Toi Poneke and the dealer galleries all continue to do their thing. It is very specific and refined. What we are lacking in Wellington is experimental arts projects. Resourceful, flexible, site responsive projects. We have such a vast and varied art community in Wellington. I see Urban Dream Brokerage as a keen facilitator and advocate for anyone with an innovative idea for the use of vacant space. We have seen many exhibitions in vacant space - it is now a tried and true model. What we want to see is exciting interactive/participatory work that can really contribute to our cultural landscape, its feeling and energy.
Urban Dream Brokerage is the sum total of its parts. It is a body of work that adds to a successful notion of utilising unused space in our city whilst simultaneously opening access to the arts, for public and practitioners. Making common ground. There are a couple of projects that for me, really exemplify an innovative concept and use of space.
The ‘go to’ for me has been Moodbank. Vanessa Crowe and Sarah Baker’s project, initiated in a former bank in Manners Street and now gaining new incarnations, is an incredibly well developed and thoughtful conceptual artwork that is extremely accessible - because of its slick design and installation, not in spite of. It really shows how a significant artwork can present an alternative system and use in our rather linear thinking neo-liberal society.
Another stand out, Amy Church and Hayley Jeffrey’s Imaginarium. An incredibly simple project that placed cardboard boxes, tape and some pens in what was Whitcoulls in Courtenay Place. All that was required was a little nostalgic creativity.
And then there was Political Cuts by Barbarian Productions, a very well crafted participatory performance. Free haircuts and coffee in exchange for some thoughtful political discussion. In the bringing together of its different parts this was a significant artwork.
We have plenty of incredible vacant spaces. So, I arrive at the point of challenging artists, students, community groups, designers - anyone with an innovative idea, to mobilise.
As well as seeking funding. As well as putting your proposals into the established spaces, think about how you could expand your practice. How you might expand your ideas and engage a public or community in a meaningful way.
Art is provocative right? We should share it. If we rely completely on established spaces we consign art to artefact - we allow it to become disengaged, boring. We need to avoid the gentrification of ideas by focusing on critical, relevant, experimental work. New ideas that push out far beyond the gallery.