This mind map explores the artist Jackson Pollock from the perspective of the criticism his paintings attracted (source: Mind Map Inspiration)

Arts writer Ben Davis is concerned rising rents are dooming New York’s art scene by forcing artists to shift to Detroit or, horror, even to the suburbs.

He’s one of many who worry that being an artist may no longer “be synonymous with being urban”. Here’re some other reports of worries about change: a famous art gallery in Fitzroy imperilled by sky-rocketing land values; the death of bohemianism in Kings Cross; and the “eccentric personality” of St Kilda sedated by an influx of yuppies.

The common element is gentrification; new well-heeled residents who originally visit for the magic but end up staying for the “lifestyle”:

Many distinguishing features of crazy, old red-light St Kilda have been wiped out, simply because the mad, the poor and the artists – groups that overlap – can’t afford the rent, their places taken by the well-heeled who lack a pre-corporate memory of their adopted suburb.

Gentrifiers don’t just raise rents and price out artists. According to Ben Davis, they also bring suburbia to the inner city, “recreating its bucolic aura via bike lanes and urban gardening”. Soon it too will have “all those stereotypical negative characteristics of suburbia: lack of human diversity, and commercial life crushed under chain stores”.

It’s implicitly assumed in these sorts of discussions that gentrification imposes serious social costs by reducing the quality of art that’s produced. Artists can’t afford the high housing costs of the inner city, the argument goes, so they can’t draw creative inspiration from the buzz of living cheek by jowl with non-conformists and others in the same industry. They’re worse off and so are we.

Not surprisingly there’re often calls to somehow protect bohemian areas and art districts from gentrification. I’ve discussed that issue before; the key message is it’s extraordinarily hard to define and then protect intangible attributes from change (e.g. see Can (traditional) Kings Cross be saved?)

What I’m interested in discussing this time is the idea of the suburbs as an alternative location to the inner city for the production of art. (1)

I don’t have any reliable numbers, but I expect most Australian artists don’t actually live in the inner city today; after all, housing and studio space costs more in such a premium location. The inner city was never the only place where artists lived and worked, anyway. There’ve always been artists with families who preferred quieter places and there’ve always been non-urban artistic enclaves and communities. There are many today that exist independently of what’s happening in the inner city e.g. Blue Mountains. (2)

Many artists live in the suburbs and are happy to do so. Perhaps they lived in the inner city when they were younger or single, but artists don’t all fit the Jackson Pollock stereotype. Some are young and some are old, some are single and some have families; some are women and some are men.

That diversity is in part because the definition of what makes an artist is broader now; many more activities qualify as art than in past (e.g. think computers, film, conceptualism). There are consequently both more artists and a wider range of skills, personalities and mindsets. That means there’s a wider range of tastes and preferences in everything from wine to location.

A recent study of outer suburban artists in Melbourne and Brisbane carried out by QUT researchers found that for some the inner city provides an exciting way of life but isn’t relevant to their creative process. For some the inner city art scene is intolerant and promotes conformity. For others it would provide lifestyle benefits but not creative benefits; indeed living there would be a distraction from their work.

According to this paper from the study by Dr Emma Felton and Dr Christy Collis:

For many creative industries workers, the very aspects of the inner city extolled by creative city planners and visionaries—density, buzz, old industrial architecture, bohemianism, modern “creative precincts”, galleries, and European-style café districts—are seen as anathema to creative work.

The key attraction of the suburbs for artists is comparatively cheap and spacious accommodation; the same imperative that drove the first wave of artists who settled in the inner city. Those who don’t want a rural or outer suburban location can increasingly find middle ring suburbs like Preston or Marrickville where they can potentially live close to others in their industry and to like-minded neighbours, while having ready access to inner city galleries. This of course is what’s already happening.

The suburbs have other appealing characteristics. They are now more diverse places along a number of dimensions – e.g. ethnicity, education, and income – than the inner city; they’re more “edgy”. There’re many industrial estates and traditional strip shopping centres that could potentially provide lower-cost accommodation for artists e.g. Dandenong. Perhaps some older suburban malls that’re losing their competitiveness in the modern real estate environment will find a new life as specialised production places for artists, (some) galleries and associated institutions.

It might be argued that the suburbs are a poor substitute for the inner city because density is lower. The example of suburban Silicon Valley – one of the most innovative districts in the world – indicates that’s not necessarily the case. In any event, Paul Mees pointed out that population density in Melbourne’s inner city isn’t much different from that of even the outer suburbs.

As for the inner city, it’s now increasingly a zone of art consumption; meaning it’s becoming a specialised place where art gets displayed and sold because it’s an attractive location for consumers, but it’s becoming less important as a place where art gets made (or inspired). It’s not as critical for artists to live there as perhaps it once was. (3)

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  1. In accord with conventional practice, I define the inner city as the 5 km ring around the CBD.
  2. I’ve looked at ABS employment numbers which show that 55% of jobs in Libraries, Museums and the Arts in Melbourne are in the suburbs. That’s more centralised than most other industries and reflects the centralisation of public institutions in the CBD. The vast majority of these jobs aren’t filled by artists.
  3. One test of the effect of gentrification would be to look at how the quality of art has changed (at state level, say) and whether any movement could be plausibly attributed to changes in the geography of the “art scene”. That seems like an awfully subjective judgement and one I couldn’t presume to answer; perhaps no one can.