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Artists As Gentrifiers: A Process Of Urban Renewal

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From TriBeCa to SoHo to Dumbo, artists tend to agglomerate in well-publicized art centers rich in loft space. However, the paradox of artistic agglomeration is that artists are eventually priced out of the region of agglomeration as their presence attracts bourgeois residents and capital-rich businesses that together bid up rents. Art centers thus possess a dynamism that other regions of agglomeration, like Silicon Valley or Route 128, do not share. While the dynamic quality of art centers is well-known, artists' crucial role in gentrification is not. Often, artists are considered victims of gentrification since they are often the ones being priced out of a region by more affluent businessmen. However, artists play a crucial role in the gentrifying process as they help revitalize areas of past stagnation and crime. That artists are eventually priced out of the regions they helped to revive is not necessarily inefficient as they move on to improve the next low-rent industrial area leaving the old art center with increased land value and more businesses.

To understand how artists act as gentrifiers and fit into capitalist plans to raise land value, we must first establish a working definition of gentrification as:

"A process by which dilapidated subdivided dwellings or slum neighborhoods are taken over by the wealthy or their agents through purchase, the non-renewal of leases or occasionally, the harassment of tenants, and then converted to expensive single-family housing. Gentrification is a reversal of the normal filtering process, for it involves old substantial dwellings that usually filter down the social hierarchy but in this case are recolonised and filtered back up." (Yardley 3-4)

Since identifying artists' role in the gentrification process is the subject of this paper and since the process relies on the establishment of an arts center, we must first ascertain artists' reasons for agglomerating.

Artists agglomerate for four primary reasons: to efficiently coordinate complex and ordinary inputs, to facilitate training, to aid in gatekeeper filtering, and to gain the public exposure necessary to effect sales (Caves 26). Artists living in art centers enjoy low-cost access to specialized auxiliary service providers, like low-cost, high-variety suppliers of the art's raw material, whether it consist of frames, paints, musical instruments, etc. While this cost advantage might play a small role in agglomeration, an art center's ability to employ critical writers and important industry publications, which are necessary to legitimize and popularize the artists, provides increasing returns to an art market's scale. The more artists in an area, the more critics and publications, with significant art centers likely having the most important publications. These publications will be bought by purchasers of art who would otherwise face high information costs in investigating an industry marked by infinite variety; thus, these publications aid artists in the selling of their works (30).

Art centers also facilitate artistic training since artists must see the work of other artists to improve their own art and must engage in artistic dialog over philosophies, techniques, and materials to produce cutting-edge work. Trade publications are an indirect and often delayed source of information and thus can not substitute for actual artistic interaction (Caves 26). As Caves notes, "One must be plugged into the latest ideas about what is valid and important, even before this dialogue is embodied in new works of art on view in the galleries and glossy magazines" (26). For this reason, most serious artists pay New York's high rents once they accumulate a reasonable body of skills in a lower rent region (29).

Also important, agglomeration aids in gatekeeper filtering. Dealers and agents often serve as intermediaries between artist and buyer. Local dealers can visit lofts and discuss the art with the artist. Since artistic interpretation normally requires a body of work, "the evidence from personal contact with the artist by default grows more important" (Caves 27). Modern information and entertainment media, the sources of which are typically only located in artistic agglomerations of a certain critical mass, play a large role in public perception of the artist's persona, which crucially affects interpretation and criticism (27).

Perhaps nothing drives art center formation more than an artist's need for public exposure since the artist's ultimate goal is exhibition of his work in a respected gallery. As Caves notes, "a large city is (other things equal) better suited for an art center than a small one, and both the number of artists and the number of exhibition spaces apparently increase more than proportionally with US cities' populations" (32). Artists will thus tend to locate in larger cities with over two-thirds of America's better-known artists living in New York (32). With a chance to display their work, artists face the prospect that dealers or collectors will purchase their art. We might expect a concentrated region of artists to induce competition that would at least partially offset these four factors favoring agglomeration. However, because buyers of art consider art a major purchase, they will likely shop for art only rarely and thus would like the largest selection possible. If artists were randomly distributed around the world, rich patrons would face prohibitive shopping costs. In addition, art is highly differentiated, and thus one piece of art is not a substitute for another. These two factors together militate against the dispersal of artists' locations (30).

However, the locations of art centers are in constant flux. Unlike Route 128 and Silicon Valley which have been the United States' centers of high-tech industry for many decades and Wall Street which has been the world's center of finance for centuries, art centers are in a constant state of flux. Unlike relatively successful businesses, relatively successful artists are priced out of their gallery and loft spaces as rents rise.

Newsweek alleges that SoHo is becoming "about as cutting-edge as Rodeo Drive" as Urban Outfitters and Starbucks replace galleries and artists' lofts (Plagens). SoHo began as an art district thirty years ago as artists began renting studio space in factory buildings and living in them illegally. As rents began to rise with the 1980's art-market boom, some galleries were forced to move to lower-rent locations. A six-story building consisting of 12 lofts in SoHo in 1968 sold for $12,000 while in 1980 the market value of just one of the lofts reached $180,000 (Zukin 132). Even Mary Boone, dealer to Julian

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