The Artist or the Developer, Which Came First?

Cities change and art changes with them.

I had actually meant to write this post some time ago. I had returned from a trip in Philadelphia in which I took a mural tour with the Mural Arts program for their “A Love Letter for You” train tour, a series of murals done by renown artist Stephen Powers that can be seen from street-level and rooftops. We got on the city metro and would get off at various stops to get a closer look at some of the works. The program prides itself on rallying street artists as part of the anti-graffiti initiative in the 80’s due to the graffiti “crisis” and instead commission them to do artwork and participate in programmatic initiatives throughout the city. See their website for more about what they do.

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I tend to cringe at these sorts of programs as I am well aware of the ways in which street art is co-opted by city and development interests to capitalize on what was once an organic form of artistic expression by local residents that is then sanitized for the purposes of branding and attracting visitors. I intentionally don’t use the term “authentic” in place of “organic,” which has a long tenuous history in regards to cultural heritage, as it is a term often wielded by city officials and developers to accomplish means of revitalization that primarily privileges gentrifiers.

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On Sunday, we were honored to be able to sit among artists, creatives, entrepreneurs and concerned citizens for a Gather On event hosted by Nomad Yard Collectiv at 411 New York Ave NE to discuss these very concepts. The small business incubator is up against the city, and their struggle speaks to a larger one occurring in many cities.

Nomad Yard Collectiv is a homey, vintage shop unlike any other I have frequented housed in the historic Union Arts building, one of the last artist communities of its kind in the city. The site holds space for visual artists, musicians, poets, and entrepreneurs who have all formed a constituency, an ecosystem. It wasn’t until February 1st at city hall when I sat in on a public hearing, that I realized the threat this ecosystem is under to be destroyed. See our open letter to the city here.

The Union Arts building was purchased by developers who intend to transform the space into a “boutique” hotel, along with the other hotels that will occupy New York Avenue in that area. The location is adjacent to Union Market. The area is being carved out to make space for gentrifiers who the city and developers claim want to see art.

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It really is a home of sorts, and I don’t have to say that for the purposes of this post. It’s impossible to spend less than 15 minutes in this shared arts space, whether it’s perusing vintage fashions, finding an archive of history or poetry, or simply chatting with the ladies who are always there to welcome you at the door. And my favorite aspect, the amount of Black girl magic in this space from owner Desiree Venn Frederic (the other DVF). It’s just that rare to find a business of this caliber and magnitude in the city owned by a young black entrepreneur.

My fear is that we, museum professional and other culture workers who capitalize in various respects on the production of artists, don’t realize the severity of what is occurring in our cities that is not just the problem of the artist versus the developers. We are witnessing the dwindling of space and care for those who are easily marginalized, and further pushed into the periphery. This is a housing issue. This is a humanities issue. This is an economic issue. If we really want social justice in museums we must protect the artists, whose craft gives us reason to be curators and educators. We are not naive to the almighty dollar or the inevitability of change but we have a duty to steer change toward a future that we all can aspire.

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It is why we continue to say, “We are here. We’ve always been here.” Being silenced does not mean we are not there.

Please join us tonight at Judiciary Square to hold space and show support. Sign up for the Union Arts DC email listserv.