mill house
My neighborhood in Ft. Inn, an old mill village. A city that has been changed for the better because of the arts, and the same people still live here.

No one in the arts field wants gentrification.

[Correction, almost no one wants gentrification. I once was in a meeting where someone said, “This area will be great once it gets gentrified.” I was floored. That guy is the exception.]

Gentrification is an easy concept to understand, but it’s hard to admit when it’s happening. And it’s even harder to admit it when we’re a part of the process when we didn’t mean to be.

The belief that the arts can help lift a community start with one common belief – the arts are for everyone. Not just the privileged, not just the few, but literally every person. That’s why we all dedicate our lives to exposing as many people as possible to its positive effects – physical, spiritual, emotional, and communal.

But when does gentrification set in? When does it sneak its way into the “up and coming” community?

I don’t have an exact answer, but recently I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, specifically as it relates to nonprofit arts organizations, and I may have a starting point for a discussion.  And it’s surprisingly just one simple question:

Are you making this for the people that live here, or the people that will move here?

If you’re making a program / project for the people that live in the community, then you’re working on true community development. You’re trying to lift the people in the community. You’re trying to grow the general arts audience. You’re reaching new people and introducing them to not just your artwork, but the artwork of an entire industry. You’re opening the door to talent and possibility for a child who would never buy a paint brush or enter a terrifyingly elitist-looking theater. You’re instilling the root of innovation, creativity, into a teenager who always thought engineering had no creative elements to it. You’re showing an adult how to make a living off of their own artwork. And you find yourself turning this bond with the community into something attractive to others, creating an even wider audience. You’re focus is driven by those who live in the community, just the way they are. You’re mission becomes to change the world around you.

If you’re making this program / project for people who will move to this “up and coming area”, you’re focus is different. You’re putting your $300 class online, in a community that can’t afford a $300 art class, let alone a reliable internet connection to register or a credit card to pay for it. You’re putting a $1,400 painting in a storefront that the neighbor will never enter because a price tag is just another barrier. You won’t be cultivating a new audience, you’ll be distancing them. You will be attracting the same people who maybe haven’t seen your work, but have seen work just like it and are familiar with it. You will, unknowingly maybe, contribute to the gentrification of this community.

There will always be flux in a neighborhood or community that gets new attention from the arts community. Some people will leave, some will stay. Some will move in, some will build new things. That’s natural. But what isn’t natural is tricking oneself into thinking that to empower a community, you just simply replace them with people who are already empowered.

If our common belief as nonprofit arts organizations is to expose the public to the arts, and I like to think that it is, then we have to be cautious not to accidentally turn our focus on true community development into gentrification. If we are constantly saying we want to “bring in new audiences” or help the “underserved”, then how about we actually do that. Let’s not trick ourselves into a pat on the back for helping a community grow when everyone who lived there will be gone in ten years.

If we choose to put our programs in the “other side of town”, let’s at least make sure our primary focus is on the people there, not the people on their way there.

There’s a session coming up at the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention on whether or not gentrification is a natural byproduct of creative placemaking. Before I go to the conference later this week, I wanted to get my thoughts written out somewhere on this very topic because it’s been on my mind.