Acting Locally: How Artists Can Shape the Nature of Change in their Communities

Two young women carefully balance freshly packed artworks as they embrace their hosts and exit a small bungalow just off the boulevard. They are in town from St. Louis, having recently closed their exhibition at THE FRANKLIN, an artist-run project space and curatorial lab on Chicago’s west side. The structure — a 12’ x 12’ wooden cube with custom designed ventilation screens, deck flooring, corrugated ceiling panes, and six moveable walls — lives in the backyard of Edra Soto, a conceptual artist, and her husband Dan Sullivan, a woodworker and furniture designer. Soto points out a panel of the painted tarp that covers THE FRANKLIN’s walls. “I Can’t Go On. I’ll Go On,” is rendered in deep jade script near the bottom right corner. “That’s a reference to Deborah Boardman. She was my teacher,” Soto said of the influential artist and School of the Art Institute professor who passed away in November 2015.

Soto and Sullivan have lived in East Garfield Park for nearly 10 years. When they began looking for homes, the neighborhood seemed like a logical choice: it was close to the loop, near transportation, and the lot sizes were longer than what is typical in Chicago. Besides, the neighborhood was considered up-and-coming, and Sullivan was already working there. Once the housing bubble burst, though, and East Garfield Park no longer looked appealing to developers, the mostly low income, African American residents and the artists living among them were left to fend for themselves.

Visitors enjoying art and community at THE FRANKLIN in Chicago's East Garfield Park neighborhod
Visitors enjoying art and community at THE FRANKLIN in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood

Artists are easy targets for derision, but are they really to blame for gentrification? The federal government defines low-to moderate-income earners as those who make less than 80% of an area’s median income. In 2011, families in the bottom two quintiles of wage earners earned $48,000 or less. In 2014, the median income for people who identified as a fine artist or craftsperson was $44,000, proving that many working artists have more in common with the people they are blamed with displacing than with the developers who are driving the change. Artists have a vested interest in maintaining an area’s affordability. Their creativity, ingenuity, innovative sensibilities, and access to social and cultural capital help unlock the potential of neighborhoods suffering from decades of disinvestment.

New York-based ArtHome is an entrepreneurial nonprofit that encourages cultural communities to be “long-term stakeholders” in their neighborhoods by helping low-income artists gain access to homeownership. The group offers financial training, loan counseling, and other services that it says also serve the community at large. “Having the New York Mortgage Coalition adopt our homebuyer handbook across the board – not just for artists – was a major validation. It confirmed that artists are not marginal to this conversation about affordable housing, but could be central contributors to it,” Esther Robinson, Founder and Director of ArtHome said. Robinson, who also works as a filmmaker, has owned her home in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood for 15 years. “What’s been important is that I have the flexibility to use resources like time. I’m able to go to [city council] meetings during the day, for example, and represent our neighborhood’s interests,” she said. “I’m an artist, yes, but I’m also committed to a process that builds and ultimately stabilizes our community more broadly.”

In Chicago, Soto and Sullivan use their social capital to keep exhibitions and programs at the THE FRANKLIN free. No money has ever exchanged hands for any of their projects. Instead, they work closely with artists to create unique installations that not only respond to the physical structure, but also engage the surrounding community. Many collaborators have been students, faculty, and fellow alumni of the School of the Art Institute where Soto studied. Karen Craig, an artist who participates in events at THE FRANKLIN believes strongly in the potential artists have to transform communities. “Right after I moved to East Garfield Park [in 2009], the economy collapsed and all of the speculation that had been building up here faltered,” she said in an email. “Although I continue to have hope and work toward rebuilding and redeveloping my west side community, I was happy to see this type of hype go away,” she added. Identifying as an artist can also provide resources and advantages the entire community can use. Craig has been a volunteer member of the Garfield Park Community Council for five years and helped launch the Neighborhood Market, which provides employment opportunities for youth and encourages neighborhood artists and entrepreneurs to participate as vendors. She also chairs the development committee for the neighborhood advisory council.

The idea that the arts can be a catalyst for social change is essential for Theaster Gates, an artist and arts administrator at the University of Chicago. For several years, Gates worked as a teaching artist in schools and community-based organizations while nurturing a career as a potter. As his profile began to rise in the art world, he began adding elements of performance, architecture, and urban planning to that object-based work. “Once I went beyond clay, new opportunities opened up for me. I spent a lot of time at Harvard [during my Loeb Fellowship year] thinking about an ethical development model,” he said. “I thought about how Jane Jacobs believed redevelopment needed to respect the needs of the people. I wanted to think about ways to facilitate success that didn’t always lead with how much money we could get.”

Members of the Dorchester Community Garden, a program of Chicago-based Rebuild Foundation, prepare the garden for spring planting.
Members of the Dorchester Community Garden, a program of Chicago-based Rebuild Foundation, prepare the garden for spring planting.

In 2012, Gates launched Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit that encourages community-driven redevelopment using arts and culture as a tool. So far, they’ve rehabbed several buildings in Chicago’s Grand Crossing community, converting them into hubs for culture. Later that year, Gates orchestrated dinners at the Archive House as part of the Smart Museum exhibition, “Feast.” For the events, he invited a mix of celebrities, city officials, and philanthropists to dine with locals, chosen by lottery, who lived in Grand Crossing and South Shore. “The dinner table became a new kind of cultural capital during ‘Feast,’” he says. “What would happen if Mayor Emanuel, Penny Pritzker, or Harry J. Lennox were eating dinner with my neighbors? Would they talk about where you bought your tie? The changes we want to see in the city? Dinner became this equalizing space where folk could come together and just be.” In 2015, Rebuild opened Stony Island Arts Bank, its most ambitious project to date. The building, a former community savings and loan bank at 68th street and Stony Island Avenue closed since the 1980s, is now home to site-specific exhibitions, archives and historical collections including the late Frankie Knuckles’s vinyl record collection and the personal books and magazines of John H. Johnson, Founder of Ebony and Jet magazines. To help fund the renovation, Gates sold “Bank Bonds” at Art Basel in 2013. The “bonds,” hand-carved rectangles made from the building’s salvaged marble, sold for $5,000 each and were inscribed with the phrase “In ART We Trust.” For Gates and Rebuild, that sense of community ownership and person-to-person connection is important. His desire to instigate small actions that build community can become a critical component of innovation led by artists.

Artists living and working in low income communities is nothing new. Chicago’s long tradition of alternative spaces includes Experimental Station, a nonprofit started by artist Dan Peterman to build and support independent cultural infrastructure on the city’s south side. In New York, commercial galleries like Canada, Regina Rex, and Soloway are providing more equitable structures for entering the market, and organizations like Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (Pittsburgh) and The Laundromat Project (NYC) continue to provide high quality arts experiences for marginalized communities. These kind of efforts aren’t without controversy, however. The Heidelberg Project, founded by artist Tyree Guyton and his grandfather Sam Mackey on Detroit’s east side in 1986, was initially met with opposition from residents who worried the visual displays would lower their property values, as well as housing activists who argued that the project made a spectacle of urban decay. During the past two years, arsonists have set fire to Heidelberg projects twelve times, destroying some houses completely.

Despite the challenges, artists giving shape to theories of change and offering people multiple ways of seeing the world matters, if only for raising a problem that requires deeper examination. Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Gramsci Monument” was assembled with collaboration from the residents of Forest Houses, the public housing project in the South Bronx where it lived during the summer of 2013. The structure, designed in honor of the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, was installed for 10 weeks and aimed to encourage interaction. The monument became a site for discussion, performances, workshops, a media center, and lounge for residents. Glenn Ligon, an artist and former Forest Houses resident, questioned the value of a temporary monument for the community in the November 2013 issue Artforum magazine. “What if instead of building the ‘Gramsci Monument’, Hirschhorn had proposed building the ‘Gramsci Charter School’? . . .”

Detail view, Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument at the Forest Homes, Bronx, NY, 2013
Detail view, Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument at the Forest Homes, Bronx, NY, 2013

Ligon’s question highlights the fact that artists can shape the character of gentrification and who benefits from it. Rebuild Foundation has made a point of engaging volunteers and recruiting staff from the south side neighborhoods where its programs are based. Alongside that social mission, the organization also works to support entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency, such as the Dorchester Community Garden, which provides a source of fresh fruits and vegetables in a community that is virtually a food desert. “When I first moved to the neighborhood, it was very different. My car and house were broken into, my friends wouldn’t come visit me, but I always thought about it this way: neighborhoods become bad because the nice people leave,” volunteer Eric Williams said.

Not everyone benefits from gentrification, and those who do, don’t always benefit equally. While we might think of artists as interlopers who create a bridge to gentrification, it’s important to acknowledge that the process of neighborhood change is far from black and white. Even when they don’t have access to the capital that allows them to own the potential they help reveal, artists can use the resources they do have to help shape the character of redevelopment in their cities. Rather than being a signal for gentrification, the presence of artists should serve as a bridge between the community’s reality and its potential.

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