I have to be careful here, because for once I don’t want to offend the people I’m talking about. In this case, it’s the artists who are essentially displaced from the studio space at 400 West Rich in Franklinton. As someone who provides studios for artists, I know the struggle of finding and maintaining a creative sanctuary and then having enough energy to create. But there is a part of this development that has nothing to do with the arts that is extremely important to talk about, so I will try to make as little of it as possible specific to the artists of the 400. Pushing the arts out of an area that is served the capitalist purpose happened throughout this city. This is happening right now outside of Franklinton and will happen again tomorrow.
Some of the tales (since there isn’t much debate) I’ve seen labor on the assumption that the owner of the property (and much of the property in the area) is interested in the arts, or that a long-term investment in the arts was his goal. Most Columbus artists understand that eventually the space where your studio exists will likely disappear. You can ask why an artist or group of artists didn’t move before things got worse, but ultimately only they know the answer to that, and if you cared about them, you wouldn’t ask that question anyway. This moment is about 400, but history is not. 400 is only a chapter in a longer, older book called “Columbus’s Relation to the Arts.” If you’re an artist with studio space somewhere you rent, know that there’s a 90 percent chance that the same thing that happened at 400 — when your rent suddenly tripled — will happen to you.
Most art spaces don’t make money. This applies to galleries, art studios and cooperatives. There is no viable solution to what amounts to ousting a section of over 150 artistes. And let’s be clear: it’s tripling someone’s rent. This is not a proper market correction. You don’t triple someone’s rent because you need the money. You do it because you no longer want to be in the business of renting space to artists. No one behind the scenes at 400 thinks that artists are willing to pay three times their rent regardless of how many paintings they sell. Their new leases are breakup letters.
Columbus is not like other big cities with old and diverse art markets. 400 is perhaps the largest space to house non-university artists. The disappearance of this is a huge blow to the creative flow of the art scene.
Spaces like 400 are never for the arts, not for the long term. That’s not why they were created, that’s not how they’re maintained, and that’s not the business they’re in. It is not because these people are inherently evil, or that they hate art, or that they are poor. (Not all of them, anyway.) That’s because arts are a cheap place for developers, providing a tasty value-add. The arts in Columbus are not a buyer’s or seller’s market. We are not overwhelmed with collectors. We are not pioneering art movements around which to build a cultural infrastructure. We don’t have half the studios and galleries we had 30 years ago, and even that wasn’t enough to have the pretensions we have now.
I’ve written before about what I call the arts industrial complex. I won’t repeat the subject now, except to note that the general idea was that the arts here are largely a function of urban development and not sufficiently supported at the civic level. When this article was published, many people knew exactly what I was talking about. There was very little public disagreement about what I said about the city, its cultural priorities, and how it saw the arts contributing to the fabric of the region. Columbus’s art is a tool, not an end.
Some of the discussion about what’s happening now has called it gentrification, as if it only started after artists started getting crazy rents. This interpretation is so bad that I hesitate to give it oxygen, but clarification may prove useful. The gentrification begins well before the 400 opens its doors. Gentrification was the city’s campaign of neglect and underinvestment, building the 315 right through the neighborhood, displacing citizens and lacking social services. It’s the same book that flipped the Short North and Campus, and it flips Milo Grogan’s area. This is the game they released in King-Lincoln Bronzeville and a game they will soon release in Linden and the South Side. It’s an old game, but the stakes are obviously higher and the engine is much faster.
Displaced artists are likely to do what most artists without spaces do: take their art home and find a way to create in the cracks of their lives outside of art. Most artists work in their homes without renting studios. The 400 artists will be licking their wounds, setting up their easels and cutting boards in the kitchen, basement, second bedroom or garage and doing what we all do: creating.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist, and founder of the nonprofit arts organization Streetlight Guild.