Living, Working, Making Together: how can we avoid "art-washing" communities?


Bristol's Knowle West Media centre has been long lauded (since its founding in 1996) as an example of a community arts centre that constantly tests its relationship with the working-class communities around it. Their mission is:

To provide exciting and relevant ways for people to get involved in community activism, education, employment, and local decision-making... Our activities range from after-school groups for young people and innovative energy-saving projects, to music workshops and art exhibitions. Take a look at the ‘Projects’ section to find out what’s going on at the moment and see our projects live in action. Many of them have been replicated and learnt from elsewhere in the UK and Europe!

What's brought them to our attention today is their call-out for applicants to an artists' residency, titled "Living, Working, Making Together". Here's the blurb (and here's the detailed artists' brief, PDF):

How do artists and communities live, work and make together? How might defunct models of re-generation and ‘art-washing’ be redefined and re-imagined? What could the relationship look like between artists and communities in edge-city and suburban areas like Knowle West?

"Art-washing" is a term new to us. Is it the equivalent of "green-washing" - that is, when polluting corporations cover themselves in a green smoke-screen of sustainability? So, is "art-washing" when art is used to provide cover for pacifying residents in the face of change, or laying the grounds for gentrification? 

Not a bad guess. We found this excellent round-up article on the term from The Conversation UK. Some quotes below:

The value of culture in regenerating cities has long been recognised. Sometimes this happens centrally, whether via the commissioning of high profile public artworks, or the rebranding of city areas as cultural quarters. But in many cities, culture led redevelopment occurs organically.

Artists, generally on relatively low incomes, move to areas of the city where rents are affordable. The presence of the artists make the area interesting, leading to more interest in property in the area, and ultimately, seeing the area develop. Sadly, this process usually ends with the artists having to move on, as rents increase.

Councils and developers are now attempting to emulate these organic, artist-led processes, by purposefully moving artists in to areas of cities which they wish to see developed. The presence of the artists in this new contrived context is conceived, from the start, as an interim measure. In the worst cases, it is intended as a distraction from the dirty business of clearance and demolition.

This has been described as “a cleansing process in which the artists moving into a burgeoning area were treated by developers as a form of regenerative detergent”. Given such language, it is perhaps unsurprising that the artists involved in these schemes are finding their work labelled “artwash”. 

“Artwash” is a relatively new term. It seems to have first been used to critique corporate sponsorship of the arts: large companies establishing a relationship with a cultural venue with the aim of improving their reputation. BP, for example, has long sponsored the Tate galleries in London, something that has prompted much protest. A spokesperson from one such protest group, Liberate Tate, explains: “Artwash is the process whereby a company buys advertising space within a gallery in order to cover up negative public image.”

But now accusations of artwashing are reaching beyond corporate sponsorship to apply to individual artists in local communities. A new practice of naming and shaming artists working within the context of gentrification, particularly in larger cities where large scale development is taking place, has seen some artists working in social contexts accused of being “artwashing gentrifiers”. In extreme cases, galleries and artists are being run out of town.

These recent, predominantly online attacks on artists and arts organisations have seen the artists being named as responsible within the process. At best they are labelled as naive to the developer’s game, and at worst complicit. 

This practice is becoming particularly controversial in London because new development and fast gentrification is reaching an all time high, pushing more and more local populations out of their homes. Questions around who is really to blame for such a damaging form of gentrification are becoming more urgent.

Estate Agency flyer 570_0.jpg

The writer goes on to cite this project, Estate Agency, as an artists'-led attempt to raise exactly these issue in Stoke-on-Trent - but which itself came under attack for its use of irony (setting up "Estate Agents" for artists intending to move into the area). 

We want our Alternative "political laboratories" to deploy the power of local (and non-local) artists and creatives in the empowerment of communities, forging new and better political languages. But the question of "art-washing" is a very good one to address, and one we will be attentive to from now on.