Art washing is a process whereby developers and other moneyed interests exploit artists and musicians under the guise of a community-wide artistic experience. This then creates a relationship of trust between those attending and participating in the event and those who extract the labor of the creative class for their own benefit.
The art and music at Art Street was impressive and wildly popular. Almost 32,000 people visited. But how many of those visitors understood that the creative space in which they were frolicking would be turned into luxury housing in just a few months? More importantly, how many of them would even care?
ArtStreet was created by M5Arts, whose mission is to “enrich the downtown community and help define Sacramento’s place in the art world.” While these sound like good and noble goals, the result of this installation was an obfuscation of the capitalist’s end game: development and money.
The building that housed ArtStreet is a warehouse owned by a real estate group selling urban and connected living to Millennials. Visitors to ArtStreet spent hours watching music, waiting in line, eating food and taking in art surrounded by a brand-new housing development in an industrial area of town. This new, hip neighborhood is surrounded by public housing and industrial buildings, an area many of the attendees would never otherwise visit.
It is important to note that participating artists are not at fault for their role in this art wash, but they do encourage a community to trust developers and their vision, and therefore accept gentrification as a necessary evil of progress.
When creative people, like the artists and musicians who participated in ArtStreet, showcase their work in a place like this warehouse, the community implicitly understands that because these creatives are showing their work here, they are endorsing the project and its impacts. And if the creative class is endorsing it, then the community assumes it must be beneficial and in their best interest because artists are often perceived among the most noble and reasoned of our society.
This is simply not true. Most artists do not have the luxury of choosing when and where they can show their art. Many artists struggle, and will take almost any opportunity they are given to show their work.
The capitalist class knows this. They know that marketing and money alone cannot buy a community’s respect, so they enlist these artists to create art that brings the people to their projects under the guise of cultural enrichment.
ArtStreet is not the only case of art washing in Sac. It has become a pattern throughout the city perpetrated by many of the same people. The Portal was a particularly egregious example of trying to convince the community to get onboard with a series of mixed-use projects that will radically transform the area near R and 16th streets. This art installation was designed to be a “temporary installation that serve[d] as a flexible space for community members to visualize the future of the region.” In reality it was a box-shaped mirror with lights, around which developers and their ilk held a street party before breaking ground on their projects.
The Art Hotel was another attempt by M5Arts to take a building and activate it with work from local artists. The 100-plus-year-old hotel was slated for demolition in the name of downtown progress for our illustrious Golden 1 Center, associated chain restaurants and bougie retail stores. This installation was hugely popular, and was likely the impetus for ArtStreet.
This is most definitely not a problem unique to Sacramento. Neighborhoods in bigger cities have been dealing with art-washing swindlers for much longer than we have here. But maybe we can learn something from their experiences. We should limit our participation in the capitalist attempts at usurping the culture and trust of our community for their own personal gain. Artists should create in places where they want to show their work, not where they are forced.
Most importantly, we should call out the bullshit when we see it, whether it’s art washing, sleazy politicians or tone-deaf marketing campaigns. There is a lot to love about Sac’s growth, but let’s make sure we are mindful of how we go about it.