Cultural Commentary: Artwashing — Aiding Derelict Neighborhoods or Abetting Social Inequity?

For the anti-gentrification critics, urban deterioration should be left the way it is rather than reverse it through the introduction of art galleries, performance spaces, work/live lofts, and museums.

Fort Point Channel Buildings. Photo: Mark Favermann

Fort Point Channel Buildings in Boston. Photo: Mark Favermann.

By Mark Favermann

Political correctness (PC) can range from a demand to be polite to full blown liberal fascism. At times the requirement to ‘do the right thing’ turns ideological, to the point of fostering cultural squabbles. PC has now come up with terms that frame urbanization and community building in resolutely critical ways. One particularly fashionable label is artwashing.

Artwashing could be described as snarky. It is also paradoxical. The term is a pejorative coined by rabid anti-gentrification activists out to undercut the use of artists, galleries, performance spaces, and cultural institution satellites to rejuvenate a derelict or deteriorated neighborhood or community.

It is well-known that, working with very little, artists can serve as creative urban pioneers. To most rational-thinking individuals it seems to be a rather good idea to bring them into degraded urban areas. But there are those who condemn artwashing as community–destroying. To the mind of these critics, cultural infusion exacerbates class differences, encourages unwanted neighborhood changes, and even takes advantage of undervalued artists.

Artwashing has also come to mean a strategy that corporations, through the financial support of cultural activity, use to take care of image problems. For example, the sometimes environmentally bad-behaving (2010 American Gulf Coast Oil Spill) BP sponsors the Tate Modern programming at the Tate Modern in London. In this way, public relations and marketing fuse with high profile cultural generosity to assuage corporate guilt. Or at least to airbrush public perceptions of villainy. This diversionary tactic of the powerful dates back to at least the Renaissance.

In both of its senses, the term is used as a negative but, and it is a very big but, there is also a cultural good being done by bringing the arts into urban communities. To skeptical neighborhood activists and self-righteous academics, the social/economic health of a community is abused if its original residents and businesses are changed, displaced, or somehow marginalized. Any attempts at progress or financial evolution are equated with the sin of gentrification.

Naysayers resent what they see as the patronizing cultural overlay, arguing that the community will be radically transformed, housing prices will go up, the poorest in the neighborhood will be displaced, etc. They brush aside the hope that the community will be revitalized, becoming more diverse, safer and, if done right, experience an improvement in its quality of life. In an urban design and planning sense, a cultural blanket is a very warm way to generate progress of all kinds.

Critics’ often specious argument is that artwashing turns artists and members of the larger creative economy into co-conspirators, part of an insidious and treacherous scheme to infiltrate the community. Instead of viewing the arts economy as part of a beneficial urban planning tool, they see artwashing as no more than a feel-good expedient, a pretty but thin curtain that dresses up a formerly neglected area in order to rebrand it as highly desirable for the upwardly mobile — think what has happened in several neighborhoods of Brooklyn, NY.

Activists in deteriorated neighborhoods in both the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights and in the East London neighborhood of Shoreditch have recently strongly pushed back on community art and cultural enhancement.

The counterargument to this is powerful. For those who discount the impact of cultural planning as a tool for revitalization, just look at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Tate Modern on London’s South Bank area. Both projects placed vital institutions in derelict sites — they are now powerful magnets for social and cultural activities. Each institution has enriched its environment far beyond the bottom line introduction of art or the creative economy.

In terms of Boston, the once mostly derelict South End of Boston was slowly revitalized, over a 40 year period, into a prime residential neighborhood. The Boston Center for the Arts, the Boston Ballet, and the Calderwood Pavilion theatre complex have added to a vital economic mix.

A few blocks away, a planned visual arts sub-neighborhood, SOWA (South of Washington Street) has taken about 20 or so years to develop into an arts district with galleries, artist studios, interesting shops, condos, and restaurants. ‘First Friday’ is a monthly open studio and gallery openings celebration. Open Market, an open-air craft show, a flea market, and farmers’ market are held on Sundays.


Image designed by Naconico for an anti-gentrification t-shirt by Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement. Photo: Espacio 1839.

For several decades, Fort Point Channel has been an artist community on the edge of the Seaport District of Boston. Pioneering artist living/working spaces have been maintained as a vital part of the neighborhood. Now the area is a destination for visitors taking in a plethora of cultural events.

Related terms to artwashing are pinkwashing and greenwashing. Pinkwashing is a term for when gays move into a derelict area and restore and revitalize the community’s housing and businesses. Eventually, these renovated properties are resold to gentrified heterosexual couples and families. The South End of Boston is an example of pinkwashing, as well as parts of the Roslindale and Dorchester neighborhoods.

Greenwashing is when corporations move into a marginalized community in order to develop buildings and facilities for its staff and offices that accent sustainable energy strategies. A strong public relations tool, this form of environmentalism sets the standard for future urban development and retrofitting.

For the anti-gentrification critics, urban deterioration should be left the way it is rather than reverse it through the introduction of art galleries, performance spaces, work/live lofts, and museums. Looked at reasonably, their ideologically-driven objection — that the introduction of the arts into a previously deteriorated neighborhood masks (even encourages) inequality — is total rubbish. The most dynamic parts of cities throughout the world are those that are diverse, culturally vibrant, and safe.

These anti-gentrification activists are rejecting a major piece of the urban fabric and clearly misunderstand the civic puzzle-solving process. This type of development must include strategically enforceable rules and regulations that a municipality can use to protect existing residents as well as small businesses. These strictures must give the existing community opportunities and options to upgrade, to become an active part of the regenerative process. Artwashing is about making a place vital and safer for everybody, not just for elites (the affluent). The reality is that this is progress, a way of moving forward that improves the quality of life for everyone.

An urban designer, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Mark created the Looks of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches in Brookline, MA, and the 2000 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he has been a design consultant to the Red Sox since 2002. He has previously written for The Phoenix, Art New England, American Craft Magazine, Boston Herald, Blueprint (UK), Design (UK), and Leonardo.


  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on July 27, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    I agree with some of the sentiments in this line of attack. I hate ideological lockstep, whether it is marching on orders from either side of the spectrum. But the ‘rules’ you talk about that must be set up to protect the vulnerable groups in the community are often either nonexistent or weaken over time. (Ask some of the artists at Fort Point in Boston.) Right now in Somerville there are plans for big time renovations of Union Square, and the battle is on to include some low income housing. Of course, big money resists anything that lowers profits — and the developers exert enormous influence over the politicians. The poor and marginal have little leverage. Ideally, the creation of rules to protect the vulnerable is good and necessary. In reality, they are toothless. The desire for profits and political advantage wins — small businesses, the poor, and the creative are shoved out. They are already leaving Somerville … the self-proclaimed ‘Arts City’ — as housing values rise and there is no place for lower income people to live.

    As for the ballyhooed benefits of the creative economy, even the snake oil salesman Richard Florida, who oversold the benefits of anchoring neighborhoods in the arts, has backtracked, to the point of recanting. (I remember when arts organizations treated this huckster like a rock star.) Coffeehouse and galleries are fine for tourists and the well-heeled, but they don’t generate the kind of well-paying jobs that will nurture a community made up of workers and families together. Where are the schools? The supermarkets? Industries that pays fair wages?

    Artwashing by all means — but it has to go beyond branding, tourism, profiteering by the affluent, and catering to the aesthetic comforts of the well-heeled. How admirable that BP is spending money on the Tate Modern — take a moment to check out news stories that prove the mega-company continues to stiff the people destroyed by its oil spill. The David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center sums up the hypocritical price paid for raking in the dough and doling out respectabilty. Take money from anybody for the sake of the arts — including a right-wing mega-millionaire who is hellbent on using his millions to buy disbelief in climate change. Enjoy your arts now — in the long run we will be washed away by the rising tides of the lifeless ocean.

    • Mark Favermann on July 27, 2016 at 7:58 pm

      I agree with much of what you are saying, but the problem is on the front end as well as the back end. I think you would agree that adding an art and culture component adds to the civilizing effect of a deteriorated community. However, the oversight of the municipality has to be strengthened by the community involvement from the start of the process. Unfortunately, this is urban design by more magic touch than community review process. Because it seems easier and quicker than other planning tools, artwashing has to be part of a process to strengthen communities, jobs and institutions, not the only tool being used to enhance a neighborhood or area. However, we do have to consider the potential consequence of displacing low income people when we upgrade their neighborhood. This is an extremely challenging problem that needs to be sensitively addressed. Art is a strategically good community aspect that needs to be integrated into the urban fabric, not just a heavy spool of disconnected threads.

      • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on July 27, 2016 at 8:07 pm

        The problem is that artwashing is a top down rather than a bottom up solution. The ‘elites’ dictate the terms of “renovation” on a broken community that hasn’t much influence on the political process. The fact is that is one of the reasons the community was chosen (I almost wrote targeted) in the first place — because it doesn’t have the means of resistance.

        • Mark Favermann on July 27, 2016 at 9:43 pm

          But Bill, where are examples of bottom up solutions without “elites” involvement, either political leadership or funding sources interventions? Elites means exactly what? Educated, professional urban designers and planners, politically-connected, wealthy, foundations, socially-conscious developers, etc.? Your argument is a rather soft, ’60s approach of “power to the people.” There was an awful lot of talk then, but not much real action. Certainly, the community needs to be heard as well as being able to enlist resources and political will to make something positive really happen. Means of resistance? If a community is broken, why should it be resistant to being changed for the better? Progress is a word that seems to be left out of your equation. Artwashing is not a perfect answer. It can come in a variety of formats. The argument that rejecting “elites,” the broken community should just stay broken is not much of an argument.

          • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on July 28, 2016 at 6:51 am

            Examples of bottom up rather than top down — they are easy. Just not big moneymakers, which is what the elites/power players tend to like.

            Regarding the arts, it is whenever a community builds a theater/performance space or an art galley that generates the start-up of restaurants and other pieces of a renovated community. Modest is good. Enough of the mega-arts-circuses-tourist-condo-complexes. How about some supermarkets? Maybe a renovated school? No big returns – no rich donors hanging about, etc.

            One component you neglect is the presence of the police, the civic investment of the city in the environment of the location, so that people feel safe to visit a rundown neighborhood. To me, it is not a matter of ‘power to the people’ — though Obama spoke eloquently about that last night at the Democratic convention — but a real emphasis on investing in the local. Do we really need more South Bank/Tate/BP homogenized take-overs of communities? How many of these Koch-financed monsters do we need? Especially when the rules that are supposed to protect the more vulnerable people in the community are negotiated away. Or ignored … progress, yes. But at what price? And who gets a piece of the pie? It is a complex issue, not just a matter of enlightened capitalists fighting against the left-wing dogmatists.

            • Mark Favermann on July 28, 2016 at 12:02 pm

              I agree that it is a complex issue.

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