This week Bow Arts hosted an event on behalf of Battle of Ideas, titled Cultural Regeneration or Gentrification? The debate was to discuss the role of cultural policy in the development of London. The fact that Bow Arts, was open and willing to host such a debate is a testament to the bravery of the charity and shows that the organisation is not afraid to have difficult conversations about the role of art and artists in the development or detriment (depending on your stance) of the east end of London.
I’m new to the Bow Arts team, my official title being Business Development Administrator, and it was really exciting to be able to support such an event. As a graduate from an arts college, who also works in the arts, that happened to be born in East London (Plaistow to be specific, so not the trendy part!) I think it is so important that we have these, at times, difficult conversations about the development of this area. Through conversation we can better understand both sides of the argument and hopefully build bridges that work for a better community.
Having read Feargus O’Sullivan’s article about art washing and gentrification, as he was one of the panellists, I could tell the event was sure to be lively. Also on the panel were Alan Miller co-founder of Vibe Bar on Brick Lane, James Stevens, Strategic Planner at Home Builders Federation, Emma Dent-Coad, Ward Councillor in Kensington and Chelsea and moderator David Bowen, Coordinator at the Institute of Ideas.
With such a diverse panel the range of opinions of this layered and complex issue varied greatly. Alan thought that hipsters were being blamed for a housing problem that is surely down to the government, while Emma said that that unless developments improve the lives of people already living there, then it is indeed gentrification. Feargus believed that capitalism thrives on growth and will use art as a tool, whereas James stated that the reality of the times was that artists had choose to either develop their practise or to be a part of the property owning classes, a controversial opinion that divided many.
Also discussed were ideas around whether artists are being exploited by housing developers or whether they were the cause of the problem. One attendee noted that artists play a very important role in London’s housing problems, as they often utilise buildings that would be otherwise left derelict and neglected. And more importantly not all artists are rich and privileged, an unfair assumption as many artists are often struggling to pay bills much like many people up and down the country.
While no one can discredit the excitement and creativity that art projects may bring to previously deprived areas, considerations do have to be made about how local residents are affected by recent creative boosts. On the night everyone agreed that art (and planning) from the bottom-up is instrumental, and it should be for local residents to decide what they need and want in regards to culture and art. The fact that Bow Arts champions art from the bottom-up is definitely a reason I am proud to work here, as we work hard to ensure that local people from the surrounding boroughs are integrated into all that we do.
I think Alan’s closing point on the night is a fitting one for this article also: “we must let artists be artists and stop imposing an instrumentalism”. Moreover art should be used to reflect society and while it is often used to help change it, surely current housing and social problems cannot be blamed on artists who are often struggling themselves.