Up to code but caught on the fringe: holding alternative space in emerging cultural economies

I want to reflect for a moment on the tragic fire in Oakland, which among its victims were musicians and visual artists, trans and queer. We have a task today to explore the conditions and resources for creative experimentation in our home state of North Carolina, and also nationally with intricacies of our locales. Among its many lessons, the tragedy of Oakland points to unrelenting drive of artists to create, to make space for their work and their audiences, despite the conditions, despite the resources, and despite their own safety. We are also confronted with how the value we place in artists, or don’t, directly relates to the resources we place in our community infrastructures, housing, businesses, and development.

I see this in what my grandmother left behind, a remainder of 60-years of commerce and consumption, an exhausted small, independent business in a divested and deteriorating historic downtown. After her passing, her store remained filled to the brink with an inventory and treasure trove of things. This three story fire trap, contained an incredible and seemingly infinite archive of 20th C. cultural surplus — an incredible artist resource.

Store left by Sylvia Gray upon her passing, 1998. Photo credit Sidney Gray

Store left by Sylvia Gray upon her passing, 1998. Photo credit Sidney Gray

When we took over the store in 2003, we decided nothing would be for sale or leave the building. We wanted to keep the collection intact, to immerse ourselves inside it, and explore an alternative way of making and imagining in context and among things. We saw a future for this place as a connector for artists around the globe and within our own community. Over the past 15 years Elsewhere persisted and grew. It grew in a place where arts funding was conservative and scarce, in a place where artist residencies aren’t common, where you’re asked if you make paintings, where experimentation isn’t a practice or a goal, and where fine arts or crafts determine what art is — made by skillful hands, and available for sale. Most of our community isn’t concerned with contemporary art and its turn toward social engagement, community investment, and activism. But at the same time, the city, its leaders, foundations, and organizations are all invested in art, adept at gathering resources, and effective in the production of not-for-profit and social justice work. For our part, we were savvy as we articulated our values in art, cultural vitality and placemaking. We tried to be incredibly welcoming at the front door. We were privileged by our whiteness.

For over 10 years we hid in plain sight, obscured the illegality of what we were doing, and played among the complexities of ‘a store where nothing’s for sale that became a living museum.’  In the gray area of a grandfathered old store we were protected by alliances and by getting grants. We celebrated progress, not sustainability. We ended each season with a different end game and strategy for the next year. We built systems and partnerships, internships and a staff, workshops for the residents, a kitchen, a library. We folded fabric and arranged toys, made manuals and g-docs. Putting everything in order was both the Art and the only way we’d survive. Amidst this uncertainty we built a home for artists around the globe, a connective hub, a resource for people with ideas. If people asked where the artists’ lived we’d say, we are a 24 hour studio, a term also used by the residents of GhostShip.

Artist talks by South Elm Artist during the pre-proposal site visits by 15 artists commissioned for projects in the South Elm neighborhood, funded by ArtPlace America, 2015. (pictured, Camp Little Hope).

Artist talks by South Elm Artist during the pre-proposal site visits by 15 artists commissioned for projects in the South Elm neighborhood, funded by ArtPlace America, 2015. (pictured, Camp Little Hope).

In 2011, the Warhol Foundation, which cares for spaces like ours, asked two questions, ‘Do you want to go on? and What do you need to be sustainable?’ Answer: Yes. Fix our leaky roof, production resources for artists, and seed funding to restore the building. We gathered a team of board members and local volunteers serving as consultants to build a campaign. We wrote and received support from local and national foundations. We ran a kickstarter that brought in over 300 individuals. We were championed by a handful of local donors who believed Elsewhere was important for Greensboro and a future for collaborative art. In total we raised $850,000 to restore the building, install life safety, residential coding, heat and air for year round operations. After 14 seasons of precarious operation, proof of concept, and cat and mouse games, we are, as of August, secure in our home.

It is pretty incredible that there are people in Greensboro willing to turn out for their alternative art space, as they did for the historic Carolina Theater and the Woolworths that became the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. Some developers and civic leaders are doing the same for dilapidated buildings throughout downtown — an independent bookstore, a maker space, new ventures by local restaurateurs. Typical of an emerging cultural economy of our scale, the gradual evolution and varied support of new and old ventures are championed for the momentum they bring. But momentum leaves people and things behind, evacuates spaces, folds services, and creates blind spots among the“game changers” and “catalysts.” In Greensboro we are building a Performing Arts Center and raised an unprecedented $70 Million of public and private funds in under 6 months, alongside a new $12 million public park, and $36 million Greenway under construction.

While these accomplishments are tremendous, they are the effect of years of cultural advocacy from organizations that persisted in a less than rich arts ecology. 40+ years of active divestment in downtown makes capital investment expedient, and the rapid flush of infrastructure threatens to cannibalize existing organizations inside and out. The mantra, ‘all boats rise,’ obscures disparities and jeopardizes the organic qualities and sustainability of long standing community organizations. Increasing property values, renovation costs, and entrepreneurial models inevitably displace people and businesses while increasing tax bases rarely return resources to the cultural sector (let alone the people displaced). Instead, reliance is built on private philanthropy to accomplish public good, resilience is expected from artist seeking exposure, and private investors are encouraged to leverage public dollars to build new markets and public services that align with a pro forma. Foundations become policy makers, fund holders become committee leaders, and private philanthropy is tied up for multiple years in capital. Dollars for organizational operation and capacity building become increasingly competitive and scarce. Some criticality and planning could address these issues, but no one wants another plan on the shelf! We could use a little pattern language in our cultural economy.

Consider that Elsewhere’s three year effort to raise just under a million dollars is dwarfed by $200 million invested into our block by private and foundation developers in the last two years. The International Civil Rights Center and Museum,  set in the former Woolworths, took 17 years to open after its building was saved from demolition. Over the last 15 years, 4 or 5 underground music venues appeared and disappeared, closed down by city enforcement. Recently, Bennett College, one of two women’s HBCU in the nation, closed its visual art department. Coffee shops are the only spaces local artists can perform or show work with limited barriers for access. 17 ‘grassroots’ organizations receiving project support from Greensboro’s arts council pull from a tiny pot of just $125,000. Community artist projects like The Artist Bloc, Casa Azul, Greensboro Mural Project, Poetry Basketball, and Cackalac Thunder, remain underfunded because they don’t fit a neat downtown narrative, aren’t savvy non-profits, and present challenging work in their own vernacular. I suspect similar ecologies could be mapped for other cities at their scales.

In affirmation that #blacklivesmatter, BLM: Gate City, Queer People of Color Collective (QPOCC), and Elsewhere occupied the new Lebauer Park with a Read-In. 40 police on bikes arranged against the Read-In, with full surveillance, in light of the recent Charlotte Uprising.

In affirmation that #blacklivesmatter, BLM: Gate City, Queer People of Color Collective (QPOCC), and Elsewhere occupied the new Lebauer Park with a Read-In. 40 police on bikes arranged against the Read-In, with full surveillance, in light of the recent Charlotte Uprising.

Despite their relegation to an order of scarcity, alternative spaces thrive in emerging cultural economies. Their experimentation breaks down rigid thinking in the cultural sector by assembling new audiences, partnerships, and by mobilizing ideas into the public sphere. Elissa Blount Moorhead, Executive Director of Station North Arts and Entertainment District in Baltimore said in response to Oakland and the closing of Baltimore’s Bell Foundry, “You can’t call yourself an arts district or a city that cares about the arts if you only have spaces that people are trying to cobble together. There have to be spaces where people can live in community.” As mid-size cities regenerate themselves around the renewal of their downtowns we should consider the opportunity for new social formations. Art’s oft discussed fascination with accelerated capitalism luridly pictures artists clinging to the fringes of major metropoles. But places outside artworld bubbles where broad cultural shifts are absolutely necessary to protect lives, and are in fact most vulnerable to a critical art-activist incursions, are often invisible to the liberal art “centers.” In a state like North Carolina, where congressional districts were redrawn to remove civil liberties, the municipalities are actually responsive enough to their constituencies and liberal enough in their values, to distribute cultural capital and invest in communities as part of culture–with the right pressure.

We’ve all experienced council leaders, economic development agencies, developers, planning departments, and corporate board members struggling with clunky ideas like Placemaking. Place is something felt, not a strategy. Yet we keep espousing these ideas to inch forward a sliver of understanding about our culture’s potential. We turn critically important values of art and community into poor economic arguments. For example, American’s for the Arts tells us that in Guilford County every dollar spent on the arts leverages $14 dollars in the surrounding economy. But doesn’t that mean for every dollar admission we accept at our door, $14 is spent buying pizza across the street. Why don’t we stop selling their pie and start expanding the pie for our communities and artists? Cultural capital in the arts is just decoration if it doesn’t hold investors and civic leaders responsible to existing communities, doesn’t embrace community design, and leaves artist outside the planning process. We need to stop advocating for more funds and start advocating for communities and artists.

Miami-based artist Pioneer Winter performs ‘A Love to Last 13 Hours’ reflecting on the fragility of queer relationships.

Miami-based artist Pioneer Winter performs ‘A Love to Last 13 Hours’ reflecting on the fragility of queer relationships.

Following the talks, panels, and viewing of the Nasher Southern Accent exhibition, we will build an asset map of our state. Together we will ask: what are artists doing in our towns? Under what conditions are they operating? Why are their values sometimes so different from our arts institutions, patrons, and civic leaders? We will list the resources in place — formal structures like grants, studio and living spaces, program models, schools, peer networks, and leadership trainings. But lets also try to imagine what resources should be in place sustain those more informal creative spaces, spaces where communities are serving themselves, where they work to remain less visible to ensure their own self empowerment.

Considering the history of our state in the Culture War and the current political coup in North Carolina’s state legislature, I challenge us all to ask: in this new Culture War, whose side are we actually on — that of our own institutions or the artists and communities they serve? Are we prepared to use our exhibitions, hiring policies, board structures, and capital investments to divest in traditional leadership and decolonize the white power structures that systematically segregate our culture? Are we prepared to lead our organizations and constituents toward a more honest and holistic conception of community building? When we support artistic experimentation are we prepared to enact the vision of freedom being described to us by our Trans and POC neighbors? Do we know what their vision looks like, what it feels like? Are we ready to build our organizations with a different image of love and growth?

Today, and perhaps over the next 100 days and next four years, I hope we will all be quick to express what we don’t know and to lean into any discomfort. Let’s try not to defend and promote our great work. Instead, let’s think critically, work differently, act collectively, and make more equitably.


This essay is an edited statement delivered at the opening of Elsewhere’s Southern Constellation Convergence, a discussion and mapping of experimental artist resources in North Carolina. Held at the Nasher Museum, December 17th, Durham, NC in correspondence with their Southern Accent exhibition.

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