Thursday, May 06, 2010

Wherefore art thou, gentrification?

The story goes that the artists that have been found in the Exchange District west of Main for the last 30 or so years are being pushed out by the more recent surge in new developments and rising rents. (Ironically, this surge was caused by the artist's presence in the first place; since they added to the area's very marketable cool factor.) As a result, artists have been forced to migrate north to Chinatown and Point Douglas in search of studio spaces that offer that same dusty beat character that attracted them to the West Exchange in the good old days of Mondo Trasho and draft night at Wellington's, available at the same low price points.

No doubt, there has been an increase in artists north of City Hall: for years, artists have shared the hallways of the Kou Ming Tang Building with Chinese nationalist societies and Judo clubs. There's the Edge Gallery and studio apartments on Main and Logan. Wanda Koop works out of a building on Henry Avenue, and Jordan van Sewall and others live as self-proclaimed arts colonizers on Curtis Street. Across Higgins, people like Eleanor Bond have worked in the Watkin's Building, and north of the tracks, North Point Douglas has quickly become a commuter suburb for the art scene.

But is this migration caused by gentrification in the Exchange District? Probably not. The commercial upswing in the West Exchange over the past five or six years still hasn't extended higher than the ground floor, and upstairs from the dress shops and hair salons popping up on Albert, McDermot, and Main, there is still a strong concentration of artists living and working, perhaps in greater numbers than ever before.

The feared displacement the West Exchange art scene experiences in the near future won't be caused by push factors (gentrification), but by pull factors (better opportunities elsewhere).

Two longtime anchors of the West Exchange's art scene are poised to take flight. The 38-year-old Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art, which will be moving from the corner of King and McDermot Ave. to their new Post-It note bunker at Portage and Memorial sometime this year. Meanwhile, Cinematheque is rumored to either close their Arthur St. movie house, or relocate to somewhere in St. Boniface. This owing to a Winnipeg Film Group board that is increasingly unhappy with Cinematheque continuing to be a money-losing operation.

Whatever shifts in the geography of the Winnipeg art scene are occurring, the West Exchange seems poised to remain its centre, in spite of a loss of two big institutions, and droves and droves of the neighborhood's new phantom gentry. How this reality fits in the Marxist narrative is yet to be determined.


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