Faulty Cottages: the Curious Case of Mill Hill’s Fired Community Artists

by Michael Anthony Farley on August 2, 2016 · 1 comment Feature + Newswire

The proposed home of the Mill Hill Community Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Macon Arts Alliance, via The Knight Foundation.

The proposed home of the Mill Hill Community Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Macon Arts Alliance, via The Knight Foundation.

The project sounds too good to be true: a half-vacant historic neighborhood brought back to life through community land trusts, permanently affordable housing stock, and arts integrated every step of the way. This is the vision for The Mill Hill Arts Village in Macon, Georgia, where the Knight Foundation, the county’s Urban Development Authority, the Macon Arts Alliance (MAA), and various community groups secured an NEA “Our Town” grant to restore historic homes for low-income people and provide cultural programming and green space.

So far, though, it’s been a hard recipe to pull off with so many cooks in the kitchen. In March, social practice artists Samantha Hill and Ed Woodham were hired by the MAA to relocate to the neighborhood from Chicago and New York, respectively, and work with their new neighbors on drafting and realizing a vision for the Arts Village. They were promised two restored mill cottages and studio space, beginning in July, and contacts for collaboration and programming. It didn’t work out as any of the parties involved anticipated.

Last Tuesday night, after less than a month into their residency, the MAA board convened to fire the artists, and offered them a severance package which Woodham described as “hush money”. According to the MAA, the dismissal was “due to the artists’ failure to live up to specific items within their contractual agreements.” They won’t elaborate further, which is unusual given how rarely artists are “fired”. (Typically, this occurs for reasons such as cost overruns, not undisclosed disputes.)

Samantha Hill and Ed Woodham at the lake house sanctuary in Georgia. Photo by Samantha Hill.

Samantha Hill and Ed Woodham at the lake house sanctuary in Georgia. Photo by Samantha Hill.

The artists issued their own statement, which spread on social media throughout the week, with the headline “SOCIAL PRACTICE ARTISTS RAN OUT OF TOWN: NEA FUNDED MILL HILL ARTIST RESIDENCY IS ART WASHING.” Hill and Woodham alledge that the MAA is complicit in a gentrification scheme aimed at displacing low-income African Americans from the neighborhood, and that the residency’s real purpose is to mask this ulterior motive. It’s unclear, though, what they believe the MAA is doing to displace residents, or how it stands to hypothetically benefit from gentrification.

Curiously, the two parties’ public complaints about the other are largely lacking in specifics. I contacted both the artists and representatives from the MAA for more details about what led to this public falling-out. From what I gathered, the problems started with the residency’s facilities, lack of communication about the problem, and a resulting loss of trust. Hill and Woodham’s promised cottages and studio were nowhere near being move-in ready when the artists arrived in Macon. The artists were instead put up in a two-bedroom apartment downtown, which the MAA described as being “about a mile away from the community”.

Ed Woodham claims “We were supposed to be living in the community in the cottages. They wouldn’t give us a tour of the cottages and the date was continually pushed back and back for when they would be completed. The first red flags went up with that… when we went to the cottages on our own and realized they wouldn’t be ready… they didn’t arrange for our transportation here or our transportation once we got here.” The studio space was also not completed on schedule, though Jonathan Harwell-Dye, the MAA’s Director of Creative Placemaking, says the MAA was in the process of securing alternate space in vacant storefronts or other artist studio buildings when the decision was made to terminate the residency.

Communication further broke down between the artists and the MAA, a situation that became exacerbated by the suspicions of Macon residents not involved in the organization’s programs. Despite the idealistic mission statement behind Mill Hill’s community land trust, Samantha Hill and Ed Woodham encountered many residents who felt left out—or outright threatened—by the association’s plans for the troubled neighborhood:

“We met an African American artist who isn’t a part of the mainstream art community who drove us around the neighborhood. He pointed out ‘these people here are just trying to survive. These [vacant] houses here were occupied. A month ago, if you meet someone here… today they might not be here tomorrow.’ We were always introduced [by the MAA] to hand-picked members of the African American community. When we met other people who weren’t ‘screened’ they were much more upset about displacement.”

Hill and Woodham believe the MAA introduced them to community members already on-board with the development plans, and resisted the pair working with groups or individuals who were not approved by Jan Beeland, the MAA’s Executive Director. Hill asserts “We were supposed to meet people in the community, but these people weren’t in the community because they had already been displaced. When we met with other community groups and announced plans to collaborate with them, that’s when Jan shutdown the project. We got evasive answers about nearly everything.”

After years of segregation, disastrous urban renewal programs, and land-grabs, many African Americans in Macon erroneously believed the MAA and the Mill Hill community land trust were responsible for evictions and intended to push out existing neighborhood residents. Hill and Woodham cite the example of homes being cleared to make way for soccer fields near the Community Arts Center, when “Macon’s African American community play basketball… they don’t play soccer.”

When I raised these issues with the MAA’s Director of Communications, Lauren K. Lin, she clarified that the MAA had never evicted anyone—according to Lin, the community land trust has exclusively purchased vacant houses. The “homes” that were demolished to make way for a linear park including sports fields were in actuality long-vacant commercial structures, not occupied residential units. When I asked her about the artists’ claims that the MAA was “art washing” a gentrification scheme, she replied “The problems they mentioned in their press release were not issues that were brought up in our discussions with them, this came later… all the houses are owned by the urban housing authority and a local nonprofit. The houses will be part of a community land trust, kept affordable for perpetuity. There’s no profit motive involved.”

Looking for a third perspective, I reached out to artist and Macon native Daniel Eberlein, whose Facebook post about the issue sparked some debate. “My grievances are more with MAA but also I feel like I don’t know their side of the story… How intentionally are developers/art organizations/artists using artistic endeavors as a guise for gentrification?” When I pointed out that the whole purpose of the community land trust was to prevent displacement, Eberlein replied “I’m not quite sure honestly. Which is why people are frustrated with this whole thing I think. It just seems that MAA were unclear/unprepared in their vision and execution of this.” Based on other commentary online, it seems that public relations and clear communication of priorities are a major challenge for the project, one that seems to have been unmet.

But Eberlein also stressed that he didn’t want to speak for Macon’s artist community as a whole: “…frankly. I am just a concerned citizen and artist who wants people to be honest and held accountable… I just feel a bit nervous speaking on behalf of more than myself.”

And really, the desire for individuals to represent a “community” is what might lie at the root of so many strong feelings about Mill Hill. It’s extremely ambitious to plan a neighborhood that’s radically inclusive and consensus-based, and problems with a project of this scope are to be expected. Repeatedly, when speaking to the artists and the MAA, I was told that they “worked with the community” to arrive at a viewpoint. But could the impulse to speak for a “community”—a nebulous term that’s prized in the worlds of urban planning and the arts—be smoothing over individual opinions on both sides of the conflict?

Samantha Hill felt that the groups she was instructed to work with had been “cherry-picked” by the MAA to represent a positive view of the neighborhood. When working with the Macon Roving Listeners, an oral history initiative that hires youth and others to map the area’s cultural assets, she was distressed that their responses to questions felt scripted and rehearsed. “They were a sweet, nice group of people, but when we met them without [a supervisor] present and asked them questions like ‘What do you want to do in the community?’ They all fed us the same script… as a school teacher it made me suspicious, because children don’t answer questions like that… They were stern and rehearsed.” When Hill and Woodham tried to bring other individuals with differing perspectives into the project, they faced resistance from Director Jan Beeland. Now that the artists have been dismissed, they worry that those relationships and trust have been further eroded “Members of the community are upset that we’re leaving. They don’t have a voice in Macon… if you don’t fit into a small little paradigm of pottery or Monet paintings, you don’t get support from the MAA. They want fluffy projects that make everything look nice and sweet over there.”

These statements don’t seem to match the progress that the MAA has apparently made. But if the Mill Hill project had already progressed to this stage after years of cooperation with neighborhood residents who were on board with their plans, what role were these artists from Chicago and New York supposed to play? Clearly their few weeks in Macon were not enough time to be brought up-to-speed on the realities of the organization’s mission or operations.

It seems that the MAA is well-intentioned, but those intentions don’t necessarily satisfy all residents. But realistically, can they? Maybe some of Mill Hill’s African American residents do, in fact, want a soccer field instead of a boarded-up commercial structure. Assuming that everyone plays basketball could be just as wrong as assuming everyone plays soccer. The impression I’ve received from conversations with multiple people is that the Mill Hill project is a positive effort, but is likely spread too thin—yet not transparent enough—to make everybody happy. It’s perhaps too ambitious to launch an artist residency without having the residence actually completed—a pretty big precedent to set in terms of broken promises. And maybe bringing more voices into a project that’s this far along (and already based on a great deal of dialogue with neighborhood residents) can stir a pot that the organizers would like to consider settled. Ed Woodham summed the communication breakdown up best: “Everything we hear is hearsay or conjecture… but whatever we stumbled across hit a nerve.”

Despite each party having seemingly good intentions, as it stands now it’s impossible to understand the full story. MAA’s Executive Director Jan Beeland hasn’t issued any comment on the record or given a full accounting of what lead the organization to terminate the contract. And the artists involved, having reached the conclusion that a nefarious (though somewhat improbable) real estate plot is afoot have set to campaigning against the nonprofit organization. Without some sort of town-hall-style meeting with all parties involved, these communication failures might not be resolved. That’s a shame, because the Mill Hill redevelopment could become a national model for artists, nonprofits, and neighborhood residents to create space for the arts while preempting gentrification’s most negative effects.

Update: The Macon Arts Association has issued a press release concerning the dismissal and has announced an open community forum to discuss the project on Wednesday, August 3 from 5:30-7:00 p.m. in the Green Room of the Family Investment Center at 905 Main Street, Macon, Georgia

[We invite Macon community members, the artists, and the Macon Arts Association, and all Mill Hill stakeholders to continue this discussion in the comments]

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