Against Art-Washing

Artists have often been accused of contributing to gentrification. In Glasgow's Govanhill, they are trying to chart a different course.

(Credit: Rabiya Choudhry)

Recently on the streets of Govanhill, a working-class district south of the River Clyde in Glasgow, I overheard someone say ‘sweetheart; we’re fresh out of quinoa.’ Govanhill is changing.

Glasgow is responsible for a disproportionate amount of Turner Prize winners, and graduates of Glasgow School of Art often choose to remain mainly because rents­—while rising—are affordable, there are studios to work in, and excellent galleries. South of the city, Govanhill is a diverse community that has a history of protest—most recently, in the transformation of the closed Govanhill Baths into a Community Trust—and local artists frequently create innovative work related to these political and social issues. But how can an area increasingly full of artists and new chichi cafes avoid ‘Hoxtonification’, and the process of artists coming in, making the place safe for the affluent and unaffordable for locals?

Artists in Govanhill are keenly aware of the problem of art-washing fuelling gentrification. In 2015, Ailie Rutherford started a residency at activist and art hub Govanhill Baths, mapping the local economy and instigating ‘The People’s Bank of Govanhill’. What started as a series of currency experiments and on-the-street discussions has become a long-term collaborative project, mapping the local economy, expanding ideas of community currency, and re-defining ideas of value, worth, and distribution.

In 2017, The People’s Bank of Govanhill became a constituted community group, run collectively by a committee with a growing membership of local residents. Rutherford’s ‘Swap Market’ opened in September 2018. It’s a tongue-in-cheek take on stock markets, a space for sharing resources without money, a skills and knowledge exchange, with a ‘Swaps and Shares index’ charting the growth of sharing locally. It’s also used as an art space. 

Rutherford tells me: ‘It is worrying how frequently artists’ projects and interventions on high streets have contributed to gentrification, and we’ve seen it happen too many times now for artists to claim ignorance when their work has that impact. What’s really exciting to see is a new wave of work that has a much more long-term embedded approach, trying to work in a way that is beneficial to the people already living in a place, working with what exists rather than trying to import culture.’

Elsewhere, galleries have sprung up in unusual spots, including the Gallery Celine in an artist’s home. I have shown work at Queens Park Railway Club, a gallery sited in a former social space for railway workers. Patrick Jameson of QPRC explained his love of Govanhill, an area where 53 languages are spoken, stressing that local station staff often attend the exhibition. Jameson says: ‘I would say that we try to make sure everyone is welcome, we advertise our openings and preview times publicly and we maintain a non-elitist attitude.’

Govanhill is also home to Alex Wilde of Open Jar Collective, a group of socially engaged artists and designers operating within co-operative principles, who believe that artistic practices can contribute to the development of new perspectives on culture and the environment. Through active and creative community engagement, they’re striving to empower people to take part in the debate about the future of our local and global food systems. Open Jar host communal meals and stage impromptu workshops and exhibitions, using food both as a vehicle for bringing people together, and as a common language to understand the global economic system.

Alex Wilde explains: ‘Govanhill is a diverse and dynamic community and had been long before artists started migrating to the area. It is home to artists with all sorts of different interests and motivations and host to a broad spectrum of arts practices. I don’t see this necessarily as an omen of gentrification, though movement of artists into an area can precede it. The arts can be utilised in the promotion of and the resistance to gentrification. In Govanhill I think they have made a valuable contribution to discussions about regeneration, cultural identity and community.’

Artists usually move to Govanhill because it’s cheap. They can be oblivious to their impact, and fail to engage with their diverse neighbours. But most earn very little. Is it fair to blame them for processes like gentrification? They were certainly blamed when Dennistoun, another working-class neighbourhood in Glasgow’s East End was gentrified and art-washed, with rents and house prices to match. But gentrification is a consequence of financialised capitalism and landlordism, not of art as such. Artists need to be more aware of their own role within it, and Govanhill shows how they might use their skills to help communities fight back.