Gentrification and Cultural Capital

Gordon Matta Clark, Bronx Floors: Threshole, 1972
Gordon Matta Clark, Bronx Floors: Threshole, 1972

Luhring Augustine is moving to Bushwick and will be investing in a limited public program. This news has sparked an interesting conversation over at AFC about the artist’s dual role as gentrifier and gentrified. Paddy, interestingly, is arguing that galleries in Bushwick are bad for artists-that the rents are too damn high already.

gallery positioned as the big bad gentrifying wolf encroaching on an artist enclave? What an interesting moment! It kinda makes sense. Artists do wind up having to move out further and further along the L train in an effort to hold on to life in the city. Artists are consistently a force bringing people and resources into previously avoided neighborhoods, but their income levels don’t tend to rise along with the rents, and they do tend to get squeezed out. Artists are going to have to leave the city if we don’t figure something out. This is all true.

But galleries sell art. Aren’t they raising the income levels of artists? All this cognitive dissonance is making me swoon! Perhaps it’s best to leave Luhring Augustine out of it and refocus on what kind of city we live in, and what kind of city we want to live in.

New York City has a serious reputation to defend as a cultural capital, and the bulk of our fair city’s cultural work happened during a forty-ish year long decline. As the post-war years brought the worst of Robert Moses and general trends of suburbanization, race rioting and general depopulation to New York City, the city responded by belching out a series of movements in modern and contemporary art that would define an increasingly global vision, starting with Abstract Expressionism. Andy Warhol set up his Factory at a time when real factories were relocating to the suburbs. Ford was telling New York to “drop dead” when Richard Serra was throwing lead*. As the landlords in the Bronx and Bushwick burned their worthless holdings, Gordon Matta Clark was making art out of abandoned buildings.

Sure, finance knew exactly what to do with all that culture. It made cultural products! The galleries became bigger and bigger business as the garrets became gallery districts, and then shopping malls. Art is huge and expansive business, even in this endless recession. This is not a bad thing, but I can’t help but wonder: does this marriage between finance and art know how to preserve the resource it’s mining? Can New York City be a cultural capital if all the artists move to Berlin?

A Blade of Grass gives grants to artists in New York City, and this decision is about the stewardship of a local resource. It’s a tiny first step. We would love to see a world in which every player in the arts community sees that New York only thrives as a cultural capital when all the players can afford to live and work here.

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