The Myth of the Artsy Side Of Town

My current home-place, Columbia, South Carolina, like many other cities, has a downtown where many of its arts institutions are concentrated. Off-hand, I can count five museums, a major university, four art studios, four theaters and three concert venues, all within a roughly 1-mile radius.

Since I moved to Columbia as a graduate student, my work and school life has been centered downtown, in the thick of Columbia’s largest arts spaces. As we look to move closer to where my boyfriend works, in northeast Columbia, I’m spending more and more time outside the city’s center—“center,” in this case, being an institutional ideology, not a geographic reality.  Downtown rests at the edge of the city, upwards of a half-hour drive from the opposite side of town, and more than an hour, if accessible at all, by bus.

Having grown up in north Austin, a city famous for music venues and festivals held in or south of downtown, I have a sense of what centralized arts districts can mean to residents of a sprawling and segregated city. The financial and temporal strain of crossing town, finding parking, paying covers, entrance fees, or memberships: all of these barriers meant I had less access to the music and arts scene that people readily laud when they find out where I’m from.

I’ve said before that I didn’t grow up on the “artsy” side of town. I would never say that now (praise growth!) because I did grow up surrounded by musicians, visual artists, dancers, writers, and other creatives. With less financial backing, less access to large, dedicated arts spaces, less media attention, and fewer archival tools, our arts scene looked different than the Austin that outsiders know best. Still, it was always present. We gathered for talent shows, church services, and house parties. We painted murals and filled notebooks. We made and celebrated art.

Last week, I happened upon Alexandra’s Café & Art, a newly opened coffee shop and art gallery about a 20-minute drive from downtown. A Columbia resident of 24 years, the artist and owner Alexandra Parks opened shop because she wanted to bring people together to enjoy art. Lined with local artists’ work—paintings, fiber arts, and jewelry—the coffee shop turns into a classroom every other Wednesday night with workshops in various artistic media.

I was happy to see this shop not because it brought art across town, but because it could become a nurturing space for the artistic work already happening there.

This is much more complicated than it sounds: investments in coffee shops and arts spaces can have a direct relationship with gentrification. This has been the case, historically, in both Columbia and Austin, where Black communities have been pushed out of neighborhoods proximal to downtown. I’m here for navigating that complexity though, envisioning and making demands of arts spaces such that they are situated in and serve historically-excluded communities without displacing them. Such that they offer opportunities to support and broadcast, not supplant or belittle, the artistic expression that predates institutionalized support or attention. 

While some neighborhoods receive more public acknowledgement and investment in their artistic identity and output, no neighborhood is devoid of artists, art-lovers, and art. It’s time we do the work to responsibly invest in decentralized arts opportunities. All communities––including the Black, POC, working class, and immigrant communities often priced out––deserve localized arts spaces in which their creatives can thrive.

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