Arts and the City

By Dinesh Lodha, IFMR Finance Foundation

“Outside is where art should live, amongst us. And rather than street art being a fad, maybe it’s the last 1,000 years or art history that are the blip, when art came inside in service of the church and institutions. But art’s rightful place is on the cave walls of our communities, where it can act as a public service, provoke debate, voice concerns, forge identities. The world we live in today is run, visually at least, by traffic signs, billboards and planning committees. But is that just it? Don’t we want to live in a world made by art, not just decorated by it?”

So signed off Banksy, the elusive street-artist, from his month long residency in New York with this message having Frank Sinatra’s New York New York hauntingly playing in the background. His experiment garnered tremendous attention, almost frenzy, leaving people wondering whether he was a jerk or genius? Mr. Bloomberg though is clearly not a fan.

Graffiti has been in existence since Roman times, however its modern avatar emerged in the 70’s along with hip-hop music. From permanent markers to spray-painting to using stencils and stickers, street art has come of age. The fantastic documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” released in 2010 captures some of the leading street artists at work, and portrays a wonderful account of how the art form has evolved in recent times.

Judgment on Banksy’s work and graffiti as a art-form aside, the point that he makes in the audio message may have an important lesson for urban planners to ponder over.

Each city has a unique soul that obtains from the residents that inhabit it. With increasing gentrification of the urban landscape, and a developer rush to sell you “your dream home” adding to the concrete-metal jamboree, the whole notion of orderly development has caused the sense of “community” to take a backseat. Not to forget the “Smart City” fever that city governments are grappling with.

Artists in the context of cities

This lays out a fundamental question as to what do we actually love about cities? What is it that draws us to one? What is it that makes us connect to the cities or neighborhoods that we grew up in?

Answers to these in no small measure can be attributed to the arts and artists that originate from a city. Carol Becker writes: “Artists have always been central to the allure of cities, from classical Greek sculptors; to Impressionist painters; to the musicians, poets and artists of the Harlem Renaissance; to the Beats of Greenwich Village and North Beach. Artists gravitate to the intensity of cities and to each other. This proximity has created Bohemia — a condition of mind that we associate with cultural innovation and risk.

Citing example of SoHo in New York City, she talks about the role of artists in revitalizing the place and transforming it, only to find them gradually pushed out when it started getting attention from real-estate developers. And this could very well be a tale with a lot of other cities as well.

Artists form an inherent core of our society and more often than not are a reflection of the values and thinking that makes a place unique. For city officials and urban planners nurturing and leveraging artists in city planning and development is both fundamental and necessary, as without an arts scene and the ensuing vibrancy that it brings, cities of the future may become smart for sure but run the risk of being soulless. As Akit Biswas puts it: Smart cities? The truly great have soul.

Creative Placemaking

A recent report by MIT’s department of urban studies and planning (DUSP) called Places in the Making has brought focus on Placemaking as a tool for urban development.

Though it’s been in existence since 1960’s it’s emerging as a light, quick and cheap form of urban planning endeavor. The fundamental premise here is that it allows local residents to participate in and take stewardship of their immediate neighborhood through specific initiatives that are meant to engage and foster a sense of “community”. The focus here is as much on the “making” of a place, as much as on the place itself – with the intent being that residents should have a sense of ownership beyond their private homes and take pride in their immediate neighborhood.

Susan Silberberg, author of the report, writes “Placemaking puts power back in the hands of the people. The most successful placemaking initiatives transcend the ‘place’ to forefront the ‘making,’ and the benefits for community can be substantial and long-lasting.

Creative Placemaking aims to shape the social, physical and economic character of a local community by utilizing arts. The integration of arts in urban planning is both fundamental and necessary, and creative placemaking allows an opportunity to integrate arts in an urban setting in a manner that engages and in some ways creates a sense of community as well as being simple to execute.

Shreveport, Louisiana is an example of creative placemaking where the local mayor put the revitalization of the once neglected downtown neighborhood into the hands of Shreveport Regional Arts Council (SRAC). The council set up a local team to create a vision plan that at its heart had arts as a means to revitalize the area’s historic and cultural assets. Few years on, the area now is dotted with public art and businesses have started opening shops in the long-abandoned storefronts. The council is promoting local artists through tax-breaks, mentorship and various other initiatives like hosting exhibitions and festivals.

On Texas Ave, Downtown Shreveport.

While Shreveport is an example of a long-drawn process, creative placemaking is also about temporary projects that leave a lasting impact on the neighborhood. Take for example Bristol’s “See No Evil” event that had the city council invite 72 street artists from across the world to transform Nelson Street over a couple of days. Another instance could be the Open Walls Baltimore initiative where the city had invited street artists to create murals, over a few weeks, on twenty walls of a particular neighborhood that they were trying to revitalize.

In India Street art is not a new phenomenon and has largely taken the form of social awareness, advertising, mythology or political nature. However off late there has been a growing trend of artists using public spaces to showcase their creativity beyond the typical confines. Also civic authorities are warming up to utilizing arts not just to protect walls from being defaced but also to bring them alive through mosaic of colors with a cultural backdrop.

The Wall Project in Mumbai, which had the support of the local city council, is a great example of how local artists had used the five-kilometer long wall along Tulsi Pipe Road as their canvas. Once just dirt laden with paan stains, the stretch is now an attraction in its own right. In Bangalore the city council commissioned street artists to paint 7.5 lakh square feet of wall on 63 main city roads. In Chennai, a few years earlier the city corporation had engaged local artisans to paint walls depicting local culture, cave temples, Tamil icons like Tiruvalluvar and village life; the future of these murals though is uncertain.

Slideshow below of some street art in India:

Previous Image
Next Image

Photos: AFP, The Wall Project, Anisha Oommen, mckaysavage & unlistedsightings

Banksy’s work may or may not have the art critics singing to his tunes, but one cannot help but appreciate the fact that he has brought spotlight on public arts and provoked a conversation on this subject; leaving city officials and urban planners with a Ronald McDonald size food for thought.

  • Anand

    Very interesting post Dinesh. Enjoyed reading it.