Art Galleries: Stop the Gentrification of Boyle Heights and other Working Class Areas!
We, the undersigned, stand united in struggle with the residents of Boyle Heights in their resistance to the gentrification of their area. Since summer, 2016 they have staged a number of public protests against contemporary art galleries that have moved into their locality.
While it may be true that a number of these galleries did not take up residence in the area with the intent to facilitate its gentrification, their failure to take action in response to the residents demands make them complicit with this process. Boyle Heights has been home to Latina/o migrants and other migrant and working class communities since the start of the 19th Century. In recent years, the movement of contemporary art galleries into their area has symbolised the incursion of a hegemonic art world coded as white, middle and upper class. This, as in many other neighbourhoods around the world, has signalled to developers that this is an area ripe for development resulting in rocketed rent prices, and housing projects aimed at high earners and the ultimate displacement of Boyle Heights residents.
This process is by now so common that it is often portrayed as manifest destiny.
The narrative of manifest destiny echoes the violence of colonial expansion: violent both in its waging of war against and displacement of indigenous and poor communities, and in consistently erasing their rights, voices and cultures. What the Boyle Heights residents are shouting is that this process is not inevitable, that local groups can and do fight to take back ownership over their area.
We extend our solidarity and support to them.
While everyone knows the arts and artists are catalysts in the process of gentrification, the arts community is often seen to be an innocent bystander or victim of this process. While this can certainly be the case (artists are sometimes among those displaced), the arts are not innocent. It is often through the arts that the cultures of existing resident communities are undermined legitimising the violence of their forced departure. It is common to hear, as we have in much of the reporting on the Boyle Heights situation (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2016/jul/18/artwashing-new-watchword-for-anti-gentrification-protesters), that art galleries and good coffee bring ‘culture’ to an area, as though the years of local residents’ production of their own culture, their own businesses, their own fabric of sociability and support is of no value unless it can be re-packaged and re-branded for more affluent communities.
Increasingly it is not only the presence of galleries but the involvement of artists in all manner of ‘engagement’ in the development process that signals it as the ‘better option’ than existing culture. Artists, often young, hungry and naive to such processes, are asked to help citizens to ‘vision’ (https://southwarknotes.wordpress.com/art-and-regeneration/empowerment-for-surrender-peoples-bureau-engaged-art-the-elephant/) futures that developers and governments have no intention in realising with them. They are asked to document, ’celebrate’ and memorialise local cultures before they have even left and as though their disappearance were inevitable and not the site of an existing and very current struggle (http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/pyramid-dead-artangel-history). They are also asked to work with the police and government agencies to ‘solve’ social problems (begging, sex work etc) that are articulated by those who support the gentrification process rather than by residents themselves.
The arts organisations in Boyle Heights have said that they are there to support the residents, that they are on their side. But the residents have expressly indicated on a number of occasions how they would like this support to manifest itself: in the departure of art galleries from the area. Uninterested in showing this kind of support, the galleries are aligning themselves with the police (who claim to be mediators) and other forces to protect their interests and those of the property developers and would be residents that are indeed their patrons – exposing exactly the network of interests in which they are a part.
This is not to say that artists cannot play a role in local communities. Indeed many within the resident groups demanding the departure of galleries in Boyle Heights are artists. They are artists and residents with a stake in their local area, willing to listen and work in solidarity with their neighbours.
They join a growing group of artists and cultural workers fed up with the role of the arts in the gentrification process. These artists quit when they see that their work is being instrumentalised by the forces of displacement and development, get involved locally, hand their galleries and organisations over to direct governance by local communities who generate uses and aesthetics that challenge those of the visual and cultural hegemony of the marketised contemporary art world. They make work with residents in support of local struggles to be used by those struggles rather than conceived purely as material for circulation on the international art market.
These artists and galleries take a strong stand against the violent war waged on victims of the gentrification process.
We implore the galleries in Boyle Heights to join them and depart from the area.
Southwark Notes (London)
Precarious Workers Brigade (London)
no.w.here (Artist run project space, London)
Design Action Research Hub, London College of Communications
56a Infoshop, (London)
Concrete Heart Land (London)