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Lost South

Rather than begin, we surrender. We surrender to Richard Florida, promoter of creative gentrification. Our small, southern city has been intoxicated by the idea that the “creative class” can save a city. While our existing cultural institutions struggle, enormous amounts of money have been spent betting that “creative entrepreneurs” will immigrate here if only there are enough art parties. Art + martini = Artini! Importing a “Creative Class®” is intended to raise property values. No mention is made of what will happen to the uncreative class that currently populates the target neighborhoods.

We did not come from the South, we washed up on the shore. We tried to make a life and form a community. As artists, we understand that most of us are trying to make a life, wherever we wash up. We moved nomadically across the South from childhood on: Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, D.C., and Maryland. We are not “from here”, but with so many years down here, we could write about the South and our struggle to make art here but. . .

We are in a space where everything is in question: art practice and education, intellectual and cultural arrogance, community and the place of art in community, and most vitally, the unfortunate practice of culturally invading a place already occupied by real people.

We are retreating. We are retreating from the constant barrage of flyers, postcards, tweets and Facebook updates promoting more empty art events that can only serve as the centerpiece for another party. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were flooded into a marketing campaign, instantly creating a local base of credibility and power. What we have now is a 24/7 branding machine promoting Chattanooga as a place to create. Unfortunately, there remains little reason to create here. What Chattanooga lacks, what we tried to build from 2005 to 2009 as a collective of artists under the name SEED, cannot be purchased or imported: an interdependent creative community.

We accept responsibility for helping to spark the current marketing machine but we never intended to use art to raise the rent. It is a common problem. When artists need cheap space, they move to low rent neighborhoods. Their presence attracts others. Art events lure upscale, potential real estate clients to the neighborhood. Eventually the rents go up and the neighborhood “improves”. What we now face is an active attempt to use this effect for profit to the detriment of those with the least power to counteract it. This is not limited to our city, of course. Cities around the country are employing various strategies, several similar to or based on Richard Florida’s Creative Class®, to lure artists to the city and to specific neighborhoods.

If the end result of our creative activity can so easily be channeled into empty marketing for the purposes of gentrification, we have to admit that we were on the wrong track. We are retreating locally and connecting with outside artists and collectives concerned with social practice. We now question our old initiatives as driven by public relations and publicity. We are in a space where everything is in question: art practice and education, intellectual and cultural arrogance, community and the place of art in community, and most vitally, the unfortunate practice of culturally invading a place already occupied by real people. Culture-based invasion and art-based gentrification did not begin here, it was exported from urban centers. In experiencing it on a small scale, we have been lucky to see our own approach turned into a ridiculous, profit-driven parody. We surrender that approach. Where we go from here is uncertain but we will proceed much more thoughtfully. Where we are now is lost, perhaps a useful place to be.

4 Comments on “Lost South”

  1. 1 Kelly Pope said at 7:57 am on January 25th, 2010:

    I hear you. I am a second-year student at SAIC, and I’m from Jacksonville, Florida–a place rife with its own intentional historical/cultural amnesia. A place that suffers from creative exodus by not providing incentive (challenging higher education, specifically an MFA program, as well as studio and gallery spaces) for creative-types to stay. Jacksonville has the full art magnet school thing going–two elementary, one middle, one high school for the visual and performing arts. Reading this post made me remember I am a product of the magnet program (middle and high school), and that magnet schools, regardless of intellectual focus, are always reconstructed from a failing school, in a dilapidated neighborhood (of which Jacksonville has a surplus). The intent is to bring attention to those neighborhoods, I guess, but I can testify that nothing off school property has ever been “improved”–that those neighborhoods stay dilapidated. Starting the gentrification when the artists are young, eh? Or priming us for living in underserved communities?
    I’ll be honest. I have lived in the same house all of my life (when I am not at school). Twenty-one years ago, the house was surrounded by only a few other small neighborhoods, and more farmland. Now, that side of town is known as a suburban hell, which it sort of is. And I could move out, and almost want to move out, and start making art about “what I really want to make art about”–but right now I really want to make art about sprawl, neglected space, reclaiming lost knowledge, etc. As development projects lose funding, as people stop buying McMansions, what will be left of that land? Will rent prices go down as the bubble deflates? Seems sometimes the suburbs of today become the ramshackle hoods of tomorrow.

  2. 2 lupe said at 6:29 pm on February 15th, 2010:

    I started my retreat from the “art world” about 8 years ago. I thought through art I would find a great exchange of ideas but like you write, a lot of empty feelings, esp. the art parties & openings. At the time I was, unfortunately, self-conscious about my critical stances. Friends thought me too critical – unable to have gratitude for the artistic opportunities I did have or they dismissed my concerns and reflections about artmaking & art institutions as auto talk about commercialism, capitalism, etc. I thought about it deeply & frequently but never found anyone to discuss it with seriously or willing to reflect on their own artmaking & reasons for it. I fell into a funk & pretty much stopped making art even though those around me kept telling me “you just have to keep doing it”. Their mode of showing support I suppose. Or else it was, “well maybe you just don’t have any ideas” or “if someone really wants to do something they just do it” (isn’t that a nike slogan?)
    Pure frustration either way.
    So I write this long comment to say I appreciate your words and reflections. And congratulations on finding people whom share your concern with social practice and whom you can work with.

  3. 3 Denise said at 7:51 am on February 20th, 2010:

    Everytime I’m in Chattanooga I drive down Main Street to see if Estate of Confusion is open so I can prowl for cool junk. The 1st attempt a few years ago at an art district there seemed OK, though not very inhabited. This month, I must admit, I was turned off. There was a corporate feel about the renovations. It felt uncomfortably expensive. The public art lining the street wasn’t so much incorporated as “evenly placed”.
    Coming from Knoxville, where we haven’t had the tax and city incentives to create a district, what we have ended up with has been very artist originated/controlled DIY. It feels sincere because it is. We do have the Gay Street 100 block arts “anchor”, but all the random other locations have all been created by local, not “artificially imported” artists. Other locations are in pre-existing businesses. The University’s art dept. and grad students run wild with these places-visiting artists from the sister school in Poland always have a place to show. There are no martinis, but seeing a cool exhibit from an emergent artist in a hairdressing salon with PBR’s on ice in the hairwashing sinks, or other progressive art in small galleries in odd studio and warehouse spaces scattered thoughout downtown is sustainable, and will continue to be because we don’t have any government support. We collectively made a pact a few years back: Tax incentives and grants are artificial, and if you depend on them, you will be doomed if they are suddenly withdrawn. Just DIY in the dirt and on a shoestring and you will survive. I do love Chattanooga-the Hunter is a wonderful museum and Ruth Grover is doing a kick-ass job at UTC bringing in amazing exhibits, but the chrome and steel renovation of Main Street is like putting Valentino on an old ho-it don’t look right and it ain’t gonna feed the hooker.

  4. 4 Adam Trowbridge said at 1:31 pm on April 15th, 2010:


    The Ruse of the Creative Class

    Cities that shelled out big bucks to learn Richard Florida’s prescription for vibrant urbanism are now hearing they may be beyond help.

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