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.