By Sabina Mollot
Ed Woodham, the founder of the Art in Odd Places festival, an event that takes over the length of 14th Street each October with visual and performance art pieces, has been kicked out of a community arts program that he now believes was aimed at promoting gentrification.
Woodham and another artist he partnered with on an artist-in-residence project, Samantha Hill, said that last Tuesday they were given the boot from this program — and their temporary home — when they failed to do publicity for it. This was after just 21 days of what was supposed to be a three to four-month residency in Macon, Georgia.
The problem, explained Woodham, is that when he agreed to the job, it was touted as a way to engage local residents in Macon and cultivate arts programs in an attempt to revitalize the area. However, as he and Hill began to speak with the residents in the neighborhood where they were staying, they began to wonder if their real function was to “art wash” or push the area as an arts hub at the expense of the existing residents. One reason they suspected this, said Woodham, was that Macon’s black residents were telling them they felt they hadn’t been included by the Macon Arts Alliance, the organization spearheading the Mill Hill program.
In a written statement, Hill explained, “As we interviewed people from the neighborhood and talked to members of Macon’s African American community, it became very clear that Ed and I had been bamboozled and were part of a gentrification ‘art washing’ scenario. As we began to ask for genuine responses off script of the MAA’s selected voices, we learned that many people in Macon’s art community felt marginalized by the narrow vision of the Macon Arts Alliance.”
Woodham added, “Specifically, the black artists are saying they’re being disenfranchised by this organization. I feel disenfranchised. I’m from here (Georgia) and I’ve been run out of town.”
He admitted he had no proof of any ties of the MAA to developers or development projects. However, another issue that Woodham felt was a red flag was that originally he and Hill had been told they’d be staying in new cottages through the residency. But when they arrived, the cottages were still under construction. Instead, they stayed in an apartment. While the apartment itself wasn’t a problem, he said, he felt their hosts weren’t being communicative about what was going on.
Woodham and Hill were informed via letter that they were being kicked out of the program due to “failing to participate in public relations and interviews” and feedback from the MAA’s partners.
The MAA, meanwhile, when asked for comment by Town & Village on the pair’s ouster and accusations, denied that there was any exclusion of the area’s residents in Mill Hill or that there was any gentrification going on.
“From the very beginning, the Mill Hill East Macon Arts Village has been about inclusion, equity, and engagement,” the organization said in a written statement. “The goal is to reduce blight and increase economic opportunity for existing residents in this neighborhood and to reconnect the economic drivers to the community.”
Additionally, according to Jonathan Harwell-Dye, the organization’s director of creative place making, any development going on in the area is being conducted through a land trust, which is aimed at preserving affordability.
“We’re not displacing people. There’s no private developer making a profit,” Harwell-Dye said. “This is a government/nonprofit partnership.”
He and Jan Beeland, MAA’s executive director, added that they didn’t even hear of the artists’ “art washing” concerns until after they’d been terminated from the program. “They did not (tell us),” said Beeland. The organization and the artists had a meeting on July 15, but, said Beeland, “This never came out.”
As for the cottage situation, Harwell-Dye said Hill and Woodham were made aware about the construction delays prior to their arrival.
Additionally, according to Beeland, the program, which has been in the works for two years, will continue.
“We have included neighbors from the very get-go,” she said. “They were supportive and they were very excited about it.”
On its website, the project “Mill Hill: East Macon Arts Village” is described as a “neighborhood revitalization effort that seeks to develop approximately four blocks of the historic Fort Hawkins neighborhood in East Macon into an arts village in order to address blight and foster economic opportunity.” The site adds that the neighborhood currently consists of “a variety of low-priced, architecturally significant housing stock that is largely in need of renovation and restoration.” It cites Urban Development Authority data that 46 percent of the parcels in the neighborhood are vacant.