If you ride the Metro Expo line toward Santa Monica from USC, you’ll pass nearly a dozen of new art galleries protruding along the working-class neighborhoods flanking the route. Bold, shiny and avant-garde industrial, they’re staggeringly out of place as heralds of gentrification. Los Angeles, a global art center characterized by economic disparities, has long been at the center of the escalating battle between artists and activists.
We in South Central L.A., and within the most financially privileged institution in the area — are no strangers (though we have the luxury of blissful passivity) to the city’s current housing crisis. It has uprooted thousands of families and accelerated homelessness by an astonishing 75 percent in the last six years. The art world has emerged as a prime battleground for the gentrification of vulnerable communities — in fact, arts districts have become practically synonymous with the idea of displacement and the process of affluent artists encroaching local residents.
In the East L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights, newly arrived artists and deeply rooted communities live in dense proximity at the intersection of establishment and redevelopment. Predominantly Latinx residents fear that the influx of gallery spaces will lead to the erasure of their culture and have formed groups that demand the galleries relocate to other parts of the city. Meanwhile, developers are intent on reaping the profits of building cultural destinations in up-and-coming neighborhoods as part of a broader plan to minimize the damages of gentrification through “artwashing.”
For residents, the opening of new galleries are some of the first harbingers of impending dislocation as they indicate property values will soon skyrocket and invite more affluent investors and neighbors. But for artists — pioneers of artwashing, if you will — the opening of new galleries represent the birth of artistic communities where they get to lay the groundwork for cultural richness to blossom (as if pre-existing cultures in these neighborhoods are not already rich).
At least four Boyle Heights galleries have shut down since 2016, following years of protests by local residents and public fights with activist groups. But moving your unwelcome business to a glossier part of town is nothing compared to the trauma of being evicted from a home your family has lived in for many generations.
The messages from longtime residents in Boyle Heights that they don’t want art galleries in their neighborhoods are not a refusal of all art; they are a refusal of the dangers artists represent because they are not inclusive of residents’ narratives. Art should be something that everyone, regardless of age, race or creed, can enjoy because it is so inherent to the human experience. I lament the fact that art becomes an alienating force when certain powerful entities operate with indignance, blindly unaware of their own roles as structures of oppression.
We are at a pivotal moment when art and gentrification are inextricably intertwined, yet both sides of the debate vilify the other. It’s time for artists to reexamine and reinvent their roles in the displacement of the populations they impose their galleries on. It’s time for galleries and museums to recognize their complicity in the finance capital responsible for gentrification. It’s time they start considering how they might learn from sociopolitical clashes rather than simply throwing their hands up in defeat and moving away.
Artists must listen and educate themselves on the struggles low-income residents face and acknowledge their own privilege in comparison. If they are going to move to disadvantaged areas and drastically alter, they must understand that they are contributing to the first wave of gentrification and take steps to ameliorate their impact. Whether by rallying for housing justice, donating time and money to causes that will better the community or refraining from criminalizing people of color by calling the cops on protestors, artists need to make a change and realize that they are not the victims in these confrontations.
It’s also important for artists to reconsider the gallery spaces in which they choose to participate. They must ask themselves whether it’s worth patronizing an art space that doubles as an investment project that could cause someone to lose their home; artists’ careers should never be upheld above the needs of the gentrified. In creating art, artists must remember that their work is a powerful indicator as to who is included in popular discourse in the first place. Apportioning minority groups temporary visibility by tokenizing their cultures is not going to cut it — artists must reckon with their power as part of institutions and create works that exhibit, comment on and empathize with minority experiences rather than co-opting them. Even better, galleries cropping up in gentrified areas should make it a point to showcase locally-sourced art that encapsulates rather than stifles the longstanding spirits of such communities.
The art world is at a crossroads when it comes to artists intruding on spaces and cultural histories that are not theirs. It will take time to foster an environment wherein art and expression within certain communities are not inevitably linked to the displacement of its core residents. For now, the most important thing we can do is continue the dialogue and be proactively respectful and inclusive.
Whether artists like it or not, they are entangled in the onslaught of gentrification their industry brings — the least they can do is listen and learn.
Catherine Yang is a junior majoring in communication. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” runs every other Tuesday.