It’s more than “street art.”

On September 25, 2016

It’s more than “street art.”

Written by Bridget O’Reilly.

A little over a year ago in September 2015, I sat on a panel about retaining young talent at Wunderkammer Company’s EMERGE Conference in our hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana and said something to the effect of, “Our city needs more street art so people can post pictures of their experiences on social media. Then, more people outside of the city will come and see what Fort Wayne is all about.” While I still stand by my very “millennial” statement, numerous art advisory trips over the past year have shown me the complications that come with revitalizing a city through the arts, and the roles that artists and developers play in it all.

Emerge Conference 2015-98

EMERGE Conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana. September 2015.

At the end of last year, Jennifer and I traveled to Miami for Art Basel. As a former Miami resident, Jennifer easily lead our group to the best fairs, private collections, and most relevant to this blog post— Wynwood Walls.  If you’ve never heard of the South Florida graffiti and street art mecca, don’t worry, it’s relatively new in the art world. In 2009, real estate developer Tony Goldman bought the warehouse district with a goal to make Wynwood the next major arts district in America.

It happened fast.

Developers quickly transformed the block of old warehouses into hip galleries, artist studios, restaurants, and retail spaces by bringing in international and national artists like Os Gemeos, Invader, Kenny Scharf, FUTURA 2000, Dearraindrop, FAILE, BÄST, Shepard Fairey, Aiko, Sego, Saner, Liqen, Nunca, Ben Jones, HOW & NOSM, Ryan McGinness….the list goes on.


Jennifer Ford, Dan Swartz, and myself in front of a mural in process at Wynwood Walls. December 2015.

However, not everyone was thrilled with the high paced gentrification that began to take place; most existing Wynwood residents have since been forced out of their homes. In the mini documentary Right to Wynwood, developer David Lombardi amusedly recounts a story of evicting tenants from one of the  properties he owned in the neighborhood: “I had a building on 29th street, there were drug dealers, there were prostitutes. I bought it because it was part of an assemblage of what I needed to buy. I decided I’m going to tear this building down, it’s cheaper to have it as a lot… I walked into the building one day and told the tenants ‘I’m tearing this building down and you’re all going to have to get out.’” The morning Lombardi received the permit, he had neighborhood policeman knock on every door and told residents they only had one hour to get out before the building was torn down.

Not only were existing dwellers physically forced out of their homes, but they were blatantly unwelcome to events held at the new venues in their neighborhood. In the documentary, a Wynwood art gallery security guard recalls a time that he was specifically instructed to not allow locals to come in, which in itself is an absurd task. I mean, how do you distinguish locals from artists?


Our group at a VIP reception at Wynwood Walls. December 2015.

Although I arrived to Wynwood six years after all of this started, the colorful and diverse neighborhood felt as though it had been there for decades– almost like SoHo, Manhattan. Unlike Wynwood, SoHo’s large population of artists transformed the dying manufacturing neighborhood into live-work artist studios starting in the 1970’s. Due to the overwhelming population of artists, the city changed the zoning from commercial to residential and implemented rent control. Since then, artists that have lived there for decades haven’t been priced out despite the high-end galleries that eventually moved in.

In Right to Wynwood, most of the street artists didn’t seem to think much about the issues stemming from gentrification; they simply want walls to paint. This raises the question: are developers and investors a necessary catalyst for rapid artistic growth in a city?

Artist and community activist Theaster Gates recently said at IDEAS CITY in Detroit, MI (read Jennifer’s post about our trip to Detroit here) that artists can learn the skills that real estate developers use to quickly transform cities:

“If you have the tools, plus an aesthetic sensibility and consciousness, you can make beautiful things happen.”

As the founder of Rebuild Foundation, Gates is living proof of this; he has renovated unused spaces and community service activities through his art practice since 2005. Jennifer Ford Art had the sincere honor of meeting Gates in one of his Dorchester Projects homes this past winter. Although I am pretty sure I blacked out from pure fandom during our meeting, I’ll never forget his simple advice: “Know what your city is good at and make it better.”

Dorchester Projects, Archive House. Courtesy of Theaster Gates.

Dorchester Projects, Archive House. Courtesy of Theaster Gates.

A more unified arts community in our hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana is beginning to take form. Jerrod Tobias, one of our artists who just had his work on exhibition, is a huge proponent in this movement and will soon work on Fort Wayne’s largest mural to date. His artistic contribution is the first installment of the city’s 10-year Front Door Fort Wayne plan that intends to aesthetically and practically improve an east-side entrance to our downtown arts district. The funding for the mural and various other improvements to the downtown gateway comes from city Legacy funds.

Jerrod Tobias' North Anthony Corridor Mural. Courtesy of Jerrod Tobias.

Jerrod Tobias’ North Anthony Corridor Mural. Courtesy of Jerrod Tobias.

This is fantastic news. But I wonder what would happen if more artists took on Tobias’ determination and Gates’ approach to rebuild neighborhoods in Fort Wayne ourselves. What is Fort Wayne good at and how can we use that to better our city? I’d like to know your thoughts.


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