The Arts Organization’s Role in Addressing Gentrification

This post is the third in a three-part Blogging Fellows series on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Read the full series.

Candy Chang's public art piece, "Before I Die," installed in a New Orleans neighborhood.
Candy Chang’s public art piece, “Before I Die,” installed in the Marigny Fauborg in New Orleans, is an example of when artists connect deeply with community members in shifting landscapes.

The role of the artist and arts organization in gentrification

Gentrification is an uncomfortable word for artists. The beginning of rapid development in a neighborhood can often be tracked down to when a large group of artists (usually young, energetic transplant artists with good intentions and empty pockets) move in. The influx of new creative energy stirs up city governance and private sector interests, which then rouses a line of incentives for development, a shift in racial and class demographics, and the departure of long-time residents and homeowners who can no longer afford heightened rent or property taxes.

A quick reaction for many is to point fingers at artists for starting a process of gentrification in a neighborhood (and sometimes, artists harbor the most resentment and nostalgia for blighted buildings and abandoned lots). But are artists willing to consider shared responsibility for rapid and unsettling change? What are the roles of artists and arts organizations in addressing gentrification?

Arts organizations in particular play a huge part in this social process. While arts organizations who receive more from the top of the power and resources pyramid might have the privilege to ignore the complicated dynamics of gentrification, I believe an arts organization’s choice to ignore their civic impact makes it irrelevant. Instead, arts and culture organizations should embrace their unique role as placemakers and cultural agents to foster creative thinking and reflection towards more equitable development. With collective intentionality, arts organizations can shift the thinking around the relationships between artists and evolving neighborhoods, and build networks to create opportunities for talking about that shift.

Power in collective intentionality

The Talks series at the recent National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture created an environment for arts organizations to address issues of diversity, equity, intentionality and relationship building in the communities where we work. Executive Director of Alternate Roots, Carlton Turner, gave an especially profound talk on the theme of Taking Collective Action. In it, he said:

It shouldn’t be hard for us to agree that there is power in what we [arts and culture organizations] do. The question is, what do we do with that power? It’s important to… be intentional in our thinking about how we are using tools to shape the way we collectively think about the world.

Intentionality in process, systems, and artistic product are essential in creating artistic work that is relevant and transformative. There is no right way for an arts organization to do this—it depends on the group and their audience—but the collected effort of diverse organizations can alleviate the recurrent inequitable patterns of development.

Theatre for reflection, community discussion, and transformation

Arts organizations interested in sustaining their community relevance must recognize their part in the social process of gentrification and neighborhood transition before they can shift the perspective of their audience or larger society. My theatre ensemble, Cripple Creek Theatre Company, is committed to making socially relevant work and we understand that true social change starts from within our organization. We have focused conversations as an ensemble (made up of northern transplants, southerners, and New Orleanians) on what our responsibility is to both our audience and our place. This has allowed us to be more intentional about how we operate and present work, and think more deeply about our relationship as an organization to the city. (I wrote about our most recent piece, “Possum Kingdom,” in my blog post on HowlRound.)

To read a more in-depth analysis of art and its intersection with gentrification within the context of New Orleans, I encourage you to read Catherine Michna’s “How NOT to be a Gentrifier with your Theatre: A Starter List.”

Dance Alliance of New Orleans (DANO)

One example of an arts organization that already intentionally focuses on issues of gentrification, class, and diversity is the Dance Alliance of New Orleans (DANO), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the New Orleans dance community and increase the visibility of dance in all its forms.

Dance is integral to the culture and history of New Orleans, and the city offers a wide range of dance, from afro-Caribbean to modern experimental. However, many of these local dance ensembles rarely connect with one another, and instead operate as small islands that present work to a niche audience. Dancers in the city recognized this lack of connectedness and began organizing community conversations that invited dancers from all over the city to speak to their concerns and needs, particularly with relation to the landscape of New Orleans neighborhoods. From these conversations, DANO was created.

Though still in its early stages, DANO intends to be a support system for all dance in New Orleans, with a desire to be a membership-driven organization with voting rights that hosts community events, professional development, and offers information about all dance work happening in the city. This sort of creative placemaking is slow and intentional, making sure decisions are equitable and representative of the diverse dance ensembles that make up the New Orleans dance community. DANO creates an artistic network that intentionally connects its members across local communities and neighborhoods, and builds an identity for their collective impact as actively engaged, conscious, artists with a commitment to social practice.

Art as a tool for positive transformation

Institutions that aim to preserve and cultivate arts and culture practices have power to shape perspectives and practices within complex social processes like gentrification. Those of us within these arts and culture organizations have a responsibility to consider our work as an intentional tool for learning, dialogue, and shaping the way people think and act.

What organizations in your local community are intentionally creating space for addressing art’s role in transitioning urban neighborhoods? What practices are they using to connect their work to issues of gentrification, class, and race in their immediate area?

Francesca McKenzie is a theater maker, educator, yoga teacher, and community organizer based in New Orleans. She is a company member of Cripple Creek Theater, an ensemble that produces socially and politically relevant plays to spark positive social action. She has worked with numerous theater companies in New Orleans such as Goat in the Road Productions, Southern Rep, and The NOLA Project. She is also a theater arts integration teacher through Kid SmART at several New Orleans Charter Public Schools. Follow her on Twitter @CheskaMcKenzie.