Financial and Monetary Systems

Artists and the future of our cities

Carol Becker
Dean of Faculty, Columbia School of the Arts
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It is common knowledge that one sure way to develop urban real estate is to “Follow the Drips of Paint,” as a 2012 New York Times article on Bushwick, Brooklyn, mused. Follow the artists, who move to affordable but marginal neighbourhoods, as they transform them in positive ways, and then watch property values increase and expensive condos emerge. The group that Richard Florida calls the “Creative Class,” drawn to the aura that accompanies artists, will then pay top prices for these renovated lofts and apartments that will displace the artists who actually made the area desirable to them in the first place. But as such groups move in and artists are pushed further and further from urban centres, cities lose some of their much-valued diversity of age, class and race, as well as their cultural vitality, often all at once.

SoHo in New York City, for example, originally a site of small industry, became a haven for artistic production when manufacturing left the city. It was then transformed into a gallery district, but not for long. Once artists began to live in these spaces, they negotiated with the city to rezone the buildings as live/work spaces. When this was accomplished, it was easy for developers to come in and renovate these properties. Now, few artists can afford SoHo. No longer about production, it has become a site of high-end consumption.

This type of dynamic has been replicated in many European cities as well. Kuntshaus Tacheles in Berlin is a familiar example. The work to protect this enormous building – once a department store in a Jewish neighbourhood, then a prison in World War II, and now a historic site – was spearheaded by artists. Still, after the neighbourhood picked up, artists were pushed out.

In order to understand the implications of this problem and why it urgently needs to be addressed, we should ask, what do we actually love about cities? Why are they so culturally important? One answer is the diversity of the populations that often define cities, bringing multiple cultures, ideas and languages to the urban environment. This mix makes cities exciting and represents one of the great human achievements – a location where, for the most part, we relish difference.

Cities are also significant because of the cultural importance of public spaces. In urban parks, museums, theatres, nightclubs, concert halls and plazas, groups come together to define and enjoy the city. Urban tourism is dependent on the wealth of a city’s public cultural life, past and present – how well it has been preserved and how much this complexity is imagined for the future. Tourism based on artists’ projects also has increased immensely. Digital media allows people to plan their trips around great exhibitions, theatre events and art, such as Olafur Eliasson’s Hudson River Waterfalls and James Turrell’s installation at the Guggenheim Museum.

Artists have always been central to the allure of cities, from classical Greek sculptors; to Impressionist painters; to the musicians, poets and artists of the Harlem Renaissance; to the Beats of Greenwich Village and North Beach. Artists gravitate to the intensity of cities and to each other. This proximity has created Bohemia – a condition of mind that we associate with cultural innovation and risk.

To preserve the diversity and cultural richness that artists bring, cities of the future need to learn how to stop “using up” artists. To do this, they first must ensure that artists can be guaranteed affordable live/work spaces into the future. Some cities, recognizing that artists help build communities through initiatives such as communal gardens, architectural and historic preservation, inner city youth programmes, free art classes, concerts, dance performances, children’s theatre, mobile libraries and so forth, have started to designate buildings specifically for artists’ use, and some projects also recognize the need to encourage transgenerational housing. They must also ensure that these spaces will be permanent and not taken away when the local real estate market booms.

The oldest such community is Westbeth in New York City. Established in 1970 in a former Bell Telephone Lab building, it now houses 364 artists. PS109, a similar project in East Harlem, New York, will provide 90 live/work spaces. In Chicago, there is the Logan Square Hairpin Project – housing and studios for artists partnered with street-level retail. Artist Theaster Gates initiated his Dorchester Artist Residency project, also in Chicago, by repurposing abandoned low-rise public housing for affordable multigenerational living, studio space and an artist-run educational facility for children. And the US-based ArtPlace, recognizing that artists can bring new ideas to urban planning, attempts to integrate artists into transportation, housing, community development and job creation efforts.

The homogenization and eventual suburbanization of urban space signifies a loss of diversity essential to the transgenerational, multiclass, multiracial global cities we envision. Artists know how to help protect, augment and sustain such complexity. Their place in these future cities must be secured.

Author: Carol Becker is a writer, the Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts, and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Role of the Arts in Society.

Image: A photographer inside the art piece “Poetic Cosmos of the Breath” by Tomas Saraceno in Hong Kong. REUTERS/Bobby Yip 



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