Scott Woods: The 400 West Rich Saga Exposes Columbus’ Broken Relationship with the Arts

The displacement of artists occurs when a city sees culture as an additive.

Scott Woods
Columbus Monthly
Crabby Jack of the Wasteland (a.k.a. Roger Kent Grosswiler), left, and Feral "Bad Dog" Bueller (a.k.a. Jay Mueller), right, compete in a 10-minute bout as members of the Artists Wrestling League during the Urban Scrawl event at 400 West Rich in 2015.

I need to be careful here because, for once, I don’t want to offend the people that I'm talking about. In this case, it’s the artists who are essentially being displaced out of studio space at 400 West Rich in Franklinton. As someone who provides studios for artists, I know the struggle of having to find and sustain a creative sanctum, and then having enough energy left to actually create. But there is a part of this development that has nothing to do with the arts that's extremely important to talk about, so I will endeavor to make as little of this specific to the artists at 400. Driving arts out of an area that has served its capitalist purpose has happened all over this city. It's happening right now outside of Franklinton, and it will happen again tomorrow. 

Some of the talk (as there isn’t much debate) I’ve seen labors under the assumption that the owner of the property (and much of the property in the area) cares about 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 is probably going to go away. You can question why an artist or group of artists didn't move before things got bad, but ultimately only they know the answer to that, and if you care about them, you still won’t ask that question. This moment is about 400, but the story isn’t. 400 is just a chapter in a longer, older book called “Columbus' Relationship to the Arts.” If you are an artist with studio space somewhere that you're renting, know there's a 90 percent chance that the same thing that happened at 400—where your rent gets tripled out of the blue—is going to happen to you.

Most art spaces don't make money. That's true for galleries, art studios and cooperatives. There isn't a viable solution to what amounts to an eviction of some portion of 150+ artists. And let's be clear: That's what tripling someone’s rent is. This isn't a right correction of the market. You don’t triple someone's rent because you need the money. You do it because you no longer desire to be in the business of renting space to artists. No one who works behind the scenes at 400 thinks that artists are willing to pay three times their rent no matter how many paintings they sell. Their new leases are breakup letters. 

Columbus isn't like other large cities with old and diverse art markets. 400 is perhaps the single largest space housing artists outside of a university. For that to go away is an enormous blow to the creative stream of the art scene. 

Spaces like 400 are never really about the arts, not long term. That's not why they're created, that's not how they’re sustained, and that's not the business they’re in. It isn't because these people are inherently evil or that they hate art or they’re slumlords. (Not all of them, anyway.) It's because the arts are a cheap placeholder for developers, providing a tasty value-add. The arts in Columbus are not a buyer’s or seller's market. We are not overrun with collectors. We are not pioneering art movements around which to build cultural infrastructure. We do not have half of the studios and galleries that we had 30 years ago, and even that was not enough to make the kind of claims we make now.

I have written before about what I refer to as the arts industrial complex. I won't rehash the subject now except to point out that the general idea was that the arts here are largely a function of urban development and not supported nearly enough at the civic level. When that article was published, a great many people knew exactly what I was referring to. There was very little public dissent about what I said about the city, its cultural priorities, and how it sees the arts contributing to the fabric of the region. Columbus art is a tool, not a goal. 

Some of the discussion about what's happening now has called this gentrification, as if it only started once artists started receiving wack leases. This interpretation is so bad, I hesitate to give it oxygen, but the clarification may prove worthwhile. The gentrification began well before 400 opened its doors. The gentrification was the city’s campaign of neglect and underinvestment, the building of 315 straight through the neighborhood, the displacement of citizens, and the lack of social services. It’s the same playbook that flipped the Short North and Campus, and that’s changing the Milo Grogan area. It’s the game they’ve been running in King-Lincoln Bronzeville, and one they’ll fire up before too long in Linden and the South Side. It’s an old game, but the stakes are demonstrably higher and the engine is much faster.

Scott Woods

The displaced artists will probably do what most artists without spaces do: take their art home and find a way to create in the crevices of their non-art life. Most artists create in their homes, never renting studios. The artists at 400 will lick their wounds, set their easels and cutting boards up in the kitchen or the basement or the  second bedroom or the garage, and they will do what we all do: create.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.