Margaret Lee, artist and member of Art Against Displacement
May 9, 2017
In almost every interview that exists online with Margaret Lee, the one thing that undoubtedly gets brought up is the number of different jobs she holds. A widely exhibited artist in her own right, with past shows at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and MoMA PS1, among many others, Margaret also works part-time managing production for Cindy Sherman. Since 2011, she and her husband Oliver Newton have run the gallery 47 Canal, where they’ve launched the careers of artists and friends like Anicka Yi and Josh Kline. Now at 291 Grand Street, a couple of blocks away from its namesake beginnings, the gallery is located on the upper margins of New York City’s Community District 1 in Lower Manhattan.
Recently, Margaret has taken on one more position, as a founding member of the group Art Against Displacement (AAD). The coalition—made up of art galleries, nonprofits, and artists—works to raise awareness and prevent the displacement of residents and small businesses in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, while also affirming that gentrification is not an inevitable process inherent to urban development. The idea for the group sprung out of the town hall event ‘Chinatown Is Not for Sale’ at Artists Space last fall, which questioned the ways in which galleries are responsible for displacement and accelerate gentrification. Uneasy about being called out as a gentrifier, Margaret vowed publicly to work to change the narrative, using the formation of AAD as a way to thoughtfully address these concerns and galvanize artists and galleries to become active in local politics.
In a phone call last month, she talked about AAD’s conception and its freshly formed mission statement with both frankness and compassion, and a tenacity that feels, in talking to her, like what must be what fuels the many varied facets of her work.
Meg Miller: What is Art Against Displacement (AAD) and how did it start?
Margaret Lee: I guess AAD at the moment isn’t quite anything because like any organization that wants to do good work, we don’t want to rush into things. After being held accountable for our part in the gentrification of Chinatown by the Chinatown Art Brigade at ‘Chinatown Is Not For Sale,’ I and other concerned members of the art community in Chinatown and the Lower East Side knew that we wanted to be part of positive change. I was asked publicly at the talk, ‘Why are you in Chinatown? Do you know who you’ve displaced by being here? Do you know that tenants in your neighborhood are being harassed? Do you know that tenants in your neighborhood are being displaced? Do you know that people are suffering around you?’
I had to quickly come to terms with the fact that I was ignorant to local Chinatown/LES issues. While I think that I am an active part of the community in Chinatown, and that I have the right to be in Chinatown, and that I enjoy being in Chinatown, I did take it to heart that I was not paying as much attention at a local level as I should be as a business owner. So I apologized for not being more active and I asked how I could become more active. After the town hall, I hosted a meeting at my gallery and invited dealers and artists to meet with the Chinatown Art Brigade to discuss their pledge. The pledge has eight tenets that they suggest people in the neighborhood follow so that they minimize their impact on the community.
This is how the group started. Are.na has been really helpful for our group since it is in research mode, so having a website didn’t make sense and there is too much information for a listserv. The first pledge point is “Get to know your neighbors, find out what people are doing in your neighborhood.’ As soon as you scratch the surface of what’s going on in the area, a million things come up.
I was excited to see you using Are.na in this way because I think it’s a good tool for organizing.
Yes and a lot of the research has already been compiled on Are.na. There was a gentrification channel that I already followed and I loved that I could link it to AAD. It’s nice to have these multiple conversations because we live in a world where everything overlaps, especially when it comes to politics. The way people connect things on Are.na mimics the ways I was already organizing relevant subject matter in my head. Like connecting [District 1 City Councilperson] Margaret Chin to affordable housing to Bill De Blasio. Or Margaret Chin to Sheldon Silver. In making these visual connections on Are.na, it takes a lot of the work out of having to write your own notes.
Right, and I think in terms of activism you are always working off of others who have already been working for years. Who are your allies in Chinatown specifically? Who are the people working toward a similar goal as you—and what is your relationship to those groups?
We decided to start by identifying key players within our existing community, which included fellow artists and galleries. In building a strong network between peers within the art world, we are able to discuss what we can offer the community, rather than asking the community to tell us what they need. We did not want to make additional work for existing community organizers who are already strapped for time.
At the beginning we did have to ask so we didn’t overstep or cross any boundaries, but we realized how busy everyone is and that it would really come down to us doing the research and learning on our own. You can ask someone to walk you through 30 years of Chinatown’s history and all the complications that exist within, or you can learn on your own. Most of it is actually online.
The easiest way to participate is to incorporate research time into your daily life. Local websites like the the Lo-Down or DNAinfo are always up to date, or you can follow a local Facebook group, or to sign up for your local representative’s website and get updates. As we get updates, we encourage everyone to upload them to Are.na so that we’re sharing the responsibility of paying attention and doing the research, and then it’s all organized in these channels.
To me that’s a real first sign that you are doing the work. It’s not just going to a protest and holding a sign and never following up. I couldn’t think of a better platform that allows this research to be done so easily and with total transparency, because when you add a block it’s attributed to you. So it’s also tracked, and shows who’s doing the work and who’s not. Not to call anyone out, but I think it’s important to keep a record of that.
In terms of doing the work and being a part of your community, there’s this Angela Davis quote that I wrote down for you about the importance of affected community members being leaders in the ‘movement.’ It is: “Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles, you will always defeat your own purposes if you cannot imagine the people around whom you are struggling as equal partners.” I’m curious how you are thinking about that, in terms of artists being allies for those most vulnerable to being displaced?
This is our challenge and what we discuss at our meetings. Our mission statement states that ‘…Through mobilizing our resources and connections, we seek to amplify the demands of those whose lives and livelihoods are placed at risk by predatory development, and to work in solidarity with grassroots and local community organizations. Art Against Displacement recognizes that the labor of organizing should not fall on the shoulders of those directly affected by development and advocates for mass mobilization against unjust colonialist practices.’ And we continue to discuss how best to offer our resources. Whether that is attending community meetings or hosting and funding poster making events, we try to keep the needs of our neighbors in our minds before acting.
Our group is still in formation so we cannot claim to have done anything as of yet. We do know that we do not want to be separate from the larger community; we do not want to have a separate conversation. We want to listen to what’s being said in our neighborhood and stand by our neighbors. This does not happen overnight and we are aware that we must build trust to ensure sustainability.
Can you talk a bit about the perception of galleries specifically being on the frontlines of gentrification?
Most galleries do not want to be associated with or labeled as gentrifiers. That being said, there is something about what galleries do in terms of adding aesthetic value to neighborhoods, which can be co-opted and used to push the agenda of developers. I try to look at it from a non-art-insider perspective, imagining what someone who isn’t familiar with the contemporary art world sees and feels when they watch a space that used to be a bakery or hardware store or another neighborhood store turn into a gallery. Galleries share an architectural design and aesthetic with the renderings of new high end developments. It’s easy to see how the two are equated and seen as being in collusion.
I don’t think, or I hope, that galleries do not intend to be gentrifiers. I think people who own galleries—and I’m not saying all, but especially the small ones that tend to gravitate to places like the Lower East Side and Chinatown—still believe in the power of art over the ‘market.’ Galleries are free and open to the public, and we believe in what we put on the walls, in the messages we support and transmit, and we believe that it’s educational. We believe that art saves lives.
I come from a very working class background and art saved my life. It broadened my imagination. It supported my belief that things could be better and that I could carve out a life of creativity and freedom, and that there was value in creativity and in the human spirit. I never saw art as a luxury; I saw it as way of life. This way of thinking has stayed with me in terms of how I choose my artists and what I decide to show—to always have that audience in mind. To address a contemporary situation, our culture, and try to change people’s perceptions of what is allowed in countering the establishment.
When I was asked why I was in Chinatown [at the town hall in December] I was like, ‘Because I’m Asian, and I really like being around other Asian people.’ I can identify with the small business owners in Chinatown, since I grew up watching my parents struggle as non-English speakers and small business owners in the Bronx. They owned a corner store for 20 years and I spent many hours at their store. It feels very familiar to me and it comforts me. I couldn’t live with being seen as a gentrifier. I’m willing to do most anything to show that I care and that a lot of people in my community care. I know it seems like ‘art’ doesn’t care because the media has spun a tale about how it’s all about commerce and money. Most of the galleries around the Chinatown and the Lower East Side work to counter that narrative, so it’s also really natural for us to counter the narrative that we are gentrifiers.
Many of us are fledgling galleries. We don’t want Chinatown to be gentrified. We don’t want new condos in the neighborhood, because it entices our landlords to raise our rents. We also see how we will be priced out soon. We might as well stand with the community and fight the good fight knowing full well that this is New York City, and it’s tough to stake and keep a claim.
Gentrification isn’t just about galleries coming in and changing the aesthetic. It’s policy. It is our civic duty, not just as people who don’t want to be gentrifiers, but as citizens, to get involved in politics. To know who represents you and what they stand for. If they’re not transparent about what they stand for, then they have to go. This is something that has really excited me in learning about the neighborhood. To me this is the thing where I have the most hope in terms of any type of protection or change. I’m personally rooting for a candidate, Christopher Marte, who is running on a platform to rezone Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Hopefully he will be elected and pass progressive legislation to protect the neighborhood from overdevelopment, protect low-income housing and create real affordable housing. This is what stops displacement. This is what stops gentrification.
I wouldn’t have come to any of this if I hadn’t been called out for being a gentrifier. I really appreciate being able to see that being held accountable is actually a gift and not a burden.
I like what you’re saying about the intersection of the art world, real estate, and local politics. That there is this weird interplay between the aesthetics of a gallery and commercial redevelopment, which is of course a big factor in gentrification—but the intention behind those galleries, by and large, is that they’re artists and gallery owners who believe in art and are ultimately bringing art into these neighborhoods. But there is sort of still this invisible curtain, right? Do you get a lot of people from the neighborhood, or do you feel there is a division?
There is absolutely a division. At our first meeting we had a tenant organizer come speak with us through a translator and she said things like, ‘I don’t understand what you guys are, what you do, what your purpose is. All I see is emptiness. You guys don’t sell anything that I might want. Your doors are open but it doesn’t seem inviting.’ So one of the pledge points is to have bilingual signage and bilingual press releases so that people at least know that we are an art gallery and that everyone is welcomed. One of the problems is that art galleries and contemporary art are understood by so few. My parents still after all these years do not understand what I do, and why I do it, and why my gallery is in Chinatown. When they imagine a gallery, they think of something grand and fancy like Gagosian. They don’t understand this smaller market that I love to exist within.
One of the things that we’ve been talking about is working with public schools in the area to do outreach to bring kids in on field trips. A school could pick three galleries with shows that might be appropriate to children and easily accessible. We could give them walk-throughs and explain to them what artists do, what galleries are, when we’re open and that we’re free to the public.
Then there’s the recent proposal to develop the Two Bridges waterfront, which has become a real point of contention and a big issue for the neighborhood. Developers have the right to build these giant high rises in front of and on top of NYCHA housing but that doesn’t make it right.’ The developers have been hosting pre-community engagement meetings, and many from our group have been attending to hear what our neighbors’ concerns and fears are.
Right, they have to ask the community, in certain development projects at least, for feedback. But they don’t have to actually take it into consideration.
Exactly. It’s not about demands and having demands met, it’s about due diligence. This is where politics comes into play. Margaret Chin could have passed the Chinatown Working Group’s Rezoning Plan to protect Chinatown, the Lower East Side and the Two Bridges waterfront, which would limit building heights, but she refuses to do so.
I want to touch on the racialized aspect of these things that you’re fighting against. I’m thinking about racial inequity and how it’s rooted in and prodded along by the design of our cities—both in a physical, built environment and also within the way our systems are designed to disadvantage some and benefit others. There was something I was reading from the writer
, for instance, “social engineering” are neglecting the fact that things like redlining and redistricting and other practices that have lead to segregated cities are also by design. In your opinion, what do you think is the importance of art in dismantling some of those systems and reversing that racial inequality?
I am not a housing expert and cannot really speak on these larger subjects without further research. But in my own field of expertise, I would have to agree with [artist and writer] Hannah Black when she said that “contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends.”
As long as I am able, I will continue to support underrecognized and marginalized voices, and help amplify those voices and offer a stable and sustainable platform for those voices, and encourage others to do the same.
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