A view of Franco Fasoli's "Cultural exchange on a European tour" Basildon (2021) (all photographs by the author unless otherwise noted)

In September 2021, a peaceful protest was held at a street art festival in the town of Basildon, United Kingdom. The festival included the launch of a series of murals and a live painting event. It was organized as part of BasildON Creative People and Places (CPP), a £1.7 million Arts Council England (ACE) funded project to increase cultural participation in places identified as below the national average. The protestors were members of the local community including creatives and activists. Their primary issue raised was artwashing — after all, Basildon has been in socioeconomic decline for decades.

Artwashing, and the linked concept that “where the artists go, the money follows,” are nothing new. As local activist Holly F puts it, “Street art is definitely not the answer to Basildon’s long-standing social and economic problems.”

Image of the flyer by Basildon against Artwashing and Gentrification (2021) (photo by Steve Waters/Basildon against Artwashing and Gentrification)

There are further problematics: local artists took part in the live painting event, but their works were on temporary fixtures which were dismantled later. The murals placed on buildings as a permanent fixture were created by commissioned artists who are not locals.

Local artist Ben Stewart, who participated in the live painting, said, “The street art festival had an exponential opportunity to showcase local artists, some themselves are internationally acclaimed.”

What does this discrepancy suggest about how artists are utilized in cultural regeneration schemes? A starting point is the now-painted buildings themselves. As said by local activist Jacob Hogg who participated in the protest: “Why paint a building which will be demolished?”

Basildon is undergoing a masterplan, which includes proposals for several multi-story apartment blocks (initially 12 were proposed, the tallest being 28 stories). While some of the planning permissions are under appeal, the masterplan presents a huge environmental upheaval. Going by the designs and target prices, the apartments are not for the benefit of existing residents. And at least two of the mural-adorned buildings had been set for demolition.

The agencies involved in the masterplan are Basildon Borough Council, and multiple public and private bodies. Future City, a placemaking agency, was enlisted to develop a cultural strategy in tandem with the masterplan. This is already difficult ground: Future City has projects worldwide. Such a scope suggests homogenization.

Future City then engaged Things Made Public. The initial role of TMP was to apply for the ACE CPP fund — which Future City and the council couldn’t apply for directly. For the application, TMP began reaching out to the local creative community. Local artist Maxine Newell says, “I completed a few questionnaires, worked on a small writing project with TMP as a way of gaining information from some of us creatives.”

A view of an untitled mural by Erin Holly in Basildon (2021)

In 2019, TMP announced they had won the fund and began assembling a body of local creatives, businesses, and masterplan agencies for a consortium. Membership involved attending TMP presentations and occasional input on selection panels for commissions — proposals for which came primarily from non-local creatives. The consortium held only a small outer role within a wider governance structure developed by Future City.

TMP’s profession of “making the most of the assets already existing in the borough” falls short when they have operated extractively. Local creative Laura Whiting felt there was little sensitivity to the existing arts ecosystem. “When the big machinery of the CPP project got set in action there was a massive power imbalance, siphoning off time, energy, ideas, networks, knowledge, and contacts as it operates more on the basis of a contractual arrangement than organic reciprocity.”

As TMP’s communications played out, some stated they had been shut out of dialogues. Newell advises, “I had tried to contact them on a few occasions for information, I heard nothing back. As a local creative, they have given me no support.” 

Considering the size of their funding and their partnership with council bodies, arguably this limits the opportunities for the existing community’s own creative initiatives. When local creatives were able to put on their own events, TMP were contacted to ensure dates did not clash and invited to attend. TMP did not respond.

A lack of organic reciprocity does not lend itself to co-existence. The danger is that TMP operate as the sole framework of cultural output in the town.

As Newell adds, “I personally do not think that Things Made Public have been open about the fact they were brought into Basildon by Future City. Surely it should be mentioned on their website.” Perhaps if TMP had operated with real transparency, their failure to engage effectively would have made more sense.

A view of INSA’s “Untitled,” Basildon (2021)

TMP are not solely to blame. Having received match funding and recovery grants while in Basildon, they are now also partners in regeneration elsewhere. In a troubling precedent, ACE has cited TMP in a report that creativity can improve high streets. There is a demand for what they do.

The CPP was not an artist development fund, and local creatives could have applied to deliver the CPP project themselves — although with TMP’s agential backing, arguably their chances were limited. Nonetheless, if there is already culture happening in the town, why not grant this community agency?

The aim of the CPP fund, to raise cultural engagement in “low-level” areas, appeals to the holistic capacities of the arts. As ACE state, “We believe that everyone has the right to experience and be inspired by art …” But this is linked to a classist ideology: as though access to arts and culture enables civic betterment. Additionally, a clause of the CPP fund — to facilitate events which had not happened in that area before — suggests a framework by which the existing culture is insufficient.

So, Basildon’s new murals act as an analogy for how artists are utilized in regeneration schemes the world over: a socioeconomic cover-up under the guise of opportunity. Street art is an act of reclamation. But when performed by redevelopment schemes, it becomes cultural repossession.

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Rose Cleary

Rose Cleary is a writer from Essex, UK. You can find more of her writing at rosecleary.com.