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Preview: Jenie Gao Studio is now located in Vancouver, BC, Canada, on ancestral, traditional, and contemporary lands of the Səlil̓wətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam).

Farewell for now, Wisconsin, our next adventure begins

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First published in Wisconsin Visual Artists‘ Members Magazine, my final letter as board president written August 1, 2021.

My dear colleagues and friends,

As many of you may already know, I have moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, this fall. I accepted an offer to pursue a Master’s of Fine Arts at Emily Carr University Art + Design, to expand my research on arts-based gentrification, and methods to disrupt this cycle.

On August 29, 2021, I will celebrate seven years since quitting my career in the corporate world to start my own business as an artist. I set out to prove that despite the starving artist myth and other leading misinformation in the arts, it is possible to succeed as a full-time artist, and furthermore, it is possible to succeed without relying on the exploitative practices in our field.

I now run a six-figure, anti-gentrification arts business that has empowered me to hire 24 paid interns and apprentices and many creative professionals as independent contractors, in the last several years. I have prioritized hiring BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, women, and people at the intersection of these identities. In the last few years, I expanded into a 1,700 square foot commercial studio that claimed space for artists in a gentrifying part of Madison, which another artist is now taking over. I am proud and humbled by what I’ve been able to achieve in Wisconsin, in spite of the difficulty of building an art career here, especially for a woman of color from a working class background. Wisconsin has been my home for eleven years. Besides my career, my husband is here. My chosen family is here. I am comfortable and rooted.

Jenie Gao Studio BEFORE, spring 2021, fully furnished production studio.

It would be easy to focus on just the good things in a farewell for now letter, especially when I’m departing and feeling quite sentimental. And it is this very goodness and worthiness that I love in people that now compels me to expand my roots, research, and practice.

It is predicted that two thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050, and even smaller towns and rural areas have begun to mimic the development tactics of metropolises. Terms like “placemaking,” the “creative class,” and the “creative industry” are all the rage right now. Meanwhile, arts-led gentrification disguised as “urban renewal” displaces up to 70% of BIPOC, as well as senior citizens, the working class, and anyone likely to be marginalized. The arts get used as a wedge—“poor starving artists” volunteer their time to revitalize their struggling neighborhoods, and receive just enough attention to make it seem worth it. Our cities invite artists to paint diverse people in murals, while neglecting actual policymaking that could make it possible for diverse people to build their lives in the same city districts. Wages have stagnated. We are in a recession, on the cusp of hyperinflation.

All of this is driving me to expand my research on how the arts are weaponized for gentrification, and why we must disrupt the pattern. Economic development is not bad, but when it prioritizes property instead of people, it eradicates the wellbeing of the very people who make our communities so special. I have used my practice thus far to make labor visible, to challenge existing frameworks of intellectual and physical property. I have consulted organizations to create equitable best practices for the arts industry to follow. And—while I have received both praise and pushback at a level where even the opponents of artists’ equity cannot dismiss this work’s impact, it does not feel like enough. I am not satisfied with doing outsized labor for incremental change, within the microcosm of my own business, or in the leadership positions I’ve held on boards, committees, and nonprofits throughout Wisconsin.

Jenie Gao artist studio
Jenie Gao Studio, July 30, 2021, after clean-out, empty and mostly unfurnished.

So I depart to do this research on arts-based gentrification, to name and make its components identifiable. I trust that others will step up into the advocacy that I’ve contributed to, organized, and led. As more people speak up and claim leadership roles, a movement will build. This movement will become large enough to carry what artists and marginalized people have long whispered to each other into mainstream knowledge. By our efforts combined, the culture and society at large will be poised for an overhaul.

We need more artists who lack support systems to be able to pursue an arts career long-term, to become leaders who redefine the field. We need more equitable policies in public and private sectors. We need to strengthen cultural rootedness and disrupt cultural appropriation and other forms of stolen wealth. We need to build healthy ecosystems for everyone—because it isn’t good enough for someone like me to succeed “in spite of” the system. If the majority of people have to struggle to build their life here, that is a systemic failing, not an individual one. If the field requires exceptionalism to achieve a modest, middle-class lifestyle that’s becoming harder to come by, we should reject that system and build a better one.

Jenie Gao Studio, BEFORE, spring 2021. Fully furnished gallery and lounge area.

Maybe you recognize these issues, but you don’t quite know how to verbalize them, or you’re not quite ready to speak up. Maybe you’re wondering how you get to a place where you can even charge money for what you do, and beyond that, maybe even get treated with respect. If this is you, know this. It is utterly simple even if it’s difficult to commit to. You must value yourself. You must value yourself today, not some day when you’re “better” or “worthier,” but the person doing the work today.

When you value yourself, you will upset people. You will lose “opportunities.” You will get anxious when you see other artists doing “all the things.” And you will finally build the foundation that tomorrow you needs. Even in an unfair system, you can set boundaries and expectations for how you want to be treated, and you will find people who will meet you there. Critique is crucial in changing systems, and we must also be careful not to accept living in unfairness just because we know it’s hard to beat. We must strive to live like the future we want is already here.

There is a bigger question here, beyond our livelihoods and our localities: how is what we do in the present affecting the future? Will artists, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and the working class continue to be displaced by their own labor, or finally thrive in the places they help revitalize? For each of you reading this, how can you start living like the future you want is already here? How can you do it in such a way that expands wellbeing for others, too?

If there is anything I have learned living in the Midwest, it’s that we are a place of wholehearted people who are capable and ready to lead. I look forward to keeping in touch with you in our broader, local-global community.

Jenie Gao Studio, AFTER, July 30, 2021. Gallery / lounge area, emptied.

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