I couldn’t have asked for a more eloquent inaugural interviewee for this series about how the visual arts have impacted communities in North Carolina. Aaron Mandel is a fiction writer, editor of the Clarion Content, translator, artist representative, and overall Renaissance Man.
Aaron has been in Durham since 1998 and is a wealth of information about how the visual arts have been on the forefront of rejuvenating the downtown district. Over the span of twenty years, as artists of all media adopted empty spaces in downtown as studios and hosted events, Aaron posits that “art has verified to the community that these are safe and integral places.” From the Durham Arts Council to The Carrack to Golden Belt, art organizations have pushed the boundaries of what streets are considered to be “safe.” (Well, safe for middle-to-upper class white folk. But we’ll get to that…) Most recently, the Durham Storefront Project has blossomed as an installation series in underutilized downtown business storefronts, providing new vitality to the oft-ignored historic architecture in Durham.
However, for all of Durham’s clout as a “creative economy” leader, its economic disparity is palpable. Crossing a single avenue, East Durham has changed very little in the same twenty years.
Artists are working with the help of art organizations such as Durham Art Guild, Liberty Arts, and the Nasher Museum to draw attention to the economic disparity in East Durham, as exemplified by Dave Alsobrooks’ project “New Neighbors”.
Some programs are providing artistic experiences for low-income and minority students. By introducing kids of all backgrounds to thoughtful artwork, these artists are giving students the space and hope to pursue their personal creative expression.
Aaron beautifully unpacked this process:
Art is one of the first places where we realize our capacity to deconstruct the rules. Art is the space for the powerless to launch protest. Societies where high level elites dominate leave no room at the bottom, no space for the ‘peasants’ to express themselves. That forces people to lash out, use their creativity for things like graffiti. Graffiti can escalate to broken windows. Eventually, as the neighborhoods deteriorates; order and civility are lost, and anger escalates to mob riots. Without creative expression, anger is internalized and comes out as an explosion. Art is a nexus for change, a place for hope.
True to the virtuous circle model, artists have proven that other businesses, restaurants, and developers can move into their areas and flourish. Durham’s artists have both fueled Durham’s urban renewal and actively prevented it from falling into stereotypical Disneyfication. “Dirty Durham” is striving to maintain its grittiness while slowly adding sleek amenities. An onslaught of hotel development deals may signify an incumbent gentrification cycle, but Aaron encourages all of Durham’s creative class to vocalize their devotion to maintaining the self-made communal spirit that has attracted so many artists to Durham.
If the visual arts creates a “nexus for change”, then artists hold a key role as negotiators between cultural preservation and economic development. This is a task that cannot be taken lightly and holds all of us culpable as stewards of our communities.
So, for all you artists out there, do you agree with these assertions? If not, what role do you think that the visual arts play in our communities? If so, and you believe that you are a steward of your community, how does that surface in your artwork? What calls to action are inherent if artists are a “nexus for change”?
If you’d like to put in your two cents on this topic and be formally interviewed, then email firstname.lastname@example.org!