Developing Artist-Driven Spaces in Marginalized Communities: Reflections and Implications for the Field
Urban Institute: Maria Rosario Jackson
This essay explores the hypothesis that the lines between 501(c)3, commercial, and Do-It-Yourself development efforts are beginning to blur and inform one another. To underscore the emerging and entrepreneurial nature of this type of development, the essay includes an analysis of the macro-level implications of blended development strategies for artists’ training and professional development, nonprofit community development practice, and commercial development practice.
Without question, affordability of space is a feature that attracts many artists to live and/or work in moderate- and low-income communities. But there are other important factors that draw artists to marginalized neighborhoods. Some reasons are pragmatic; others are philosophical. The overriding theme, however, is that where many people see only blight and deficiency, artists can see assets, opportunity, possibility, and potential for transformation. Artists often recognize and are inspired by both the assets and challenges of marginalized communities, and many are eager to participate in problem-solving using arts and creativity. They passionately believe in the power of the creative process.
For artists, it is important to consider the following questions in deciding on the most appropriate organizational structure to pursue:
Is the structure suitable for the artist or artists’ mission, philosophy, and style of work? What is the best structure for attracting contributed resources and generating earned revenue, given the nature of the work and the characteristics and circumstances of the community? What structure is most suitable to the temperament(s) of the artist or artists?
For stakeholders in the project who are not artists, the questions might differ somewhat. While there may be interest in and concern for the artist or artists’ mission, work style, and temperament, there are likely to be other factors in play. These may include overlapping concerns about community circumstances as well as interests related to monetary profit or other kinds of outcomes—such as economic development and revitalization, and increased public safety and civic engagement, among others.
Site selection is a crucial aspect of developing artist-driven spaces. Among artists and developers alike, there was concern that in the face of the urgent need for affordable space and the possible desire to serve a community, artists often do not sufficiently consider important questions when selecting a site.
Artists and developers interviewed stressed the necessity of being as clear as possible about the purpose and the length of time that the space will be needed. Given trends towards cross-disciplinary, multimedia, and socially engaged work, they noted that adaptable, flexible space is often desirable. However, it can be difficult to meet the needs of multiple and diverse users. Artists must ask: Is it the kind of place that the artwork demands? Will it support the kinds of relationships that artists seek to have with the public? For example, if a key element of the work involved is attracting people to it (as audiences or active participants), is it accessible by public transportation? Is parking adequate? Is it reasonably safe?
Another set of questions to consider involves land use ordinances, regulations, and the politics of place. For example, if the art form involves higher noise levels than those permitted by regulations, is mitigation possible given existing physical conditions and the budget? Or if an artist requires industrial-grade equipment to make art, is it permissible within existing zoning and land use designations? Are there, or have there been, competing interests for the use of the site? Given the history of the site, will people in the surrounding community and other stakeholders in the neighborhood support or oppose the space? For all artists, especially those without pre-existing ties to the community, it is essential to do the homework of learning the lay of the land, as previously noted, before any commitments are made.