Art Neighbourhoods: A Guide to the World’s Most Creative Districts

| © Luis Mendo / Culture Trip
Stephen Phelan


Art is forever, they say, but the time and place in which it’s made is always fleeting. Urban art quarters tend to emerge where creative people can afford to work, adding value to that area until it becomes too expensive to stay. Here are five corners of five cities that are flourishing right now. The art might last but the scene surely will move on, so experience it while you can.

Embajadores, Madrid

Madrid’s reputation as a city of art rests mostly on the work of great, dead painters in the permanent collections of its ‘big three’ museums: the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofía. That last treasure house, the third point on that ‘Golden Triangle’, is like a mausoleum for 20th- century masterpieces, most notably Picasso’s Guernica. But just behind the building, almost in its shadow, living, breathing artists and gallerists are making, showing and selling new work along and around a backstreet called Calle del Doctor Fourquet.

Artists were priced out of the chicer districts during Spain’s post-millennial property boom; many were also hurt by cuts to public arts funding after the financial crisis of 2008. Relatively low rents drew creative types to Lavapiés, the city’s oldest barrio, where ageing tenement buildings on steep, narrow streets house a mixed community of working-class families, international students and immigrants from Senegal, China, Bangladesh and Ecuador. (Picasso himself once lived around here as a teenage art student.) This is also where you could still find a certain countercultural element long after La Movida – the punkish, post- Franco art and music movement of the 1980s – had burned out across town in Malasaña.

Marta Cervera, a key figure of La Movida and veteran promoter of emerging talent, moved her gallery over this way in 2013. A few doors down is La Casa Encendida, a Neoclassical bank building converted into a culture centre for installations, gigs and workshops. A few blocks away, the former tobacco factory at La Tabacalera is now given over to visual and performance art, from photography exhibits to rowdy monthly lucha libre tournaments where gaudily masked men and women hit each other with folding chairs and fire extinguishers.

Adjoining lanes and facades are wrapped in eye-popping commissioned murals by artists including Okuda, Suso33 and Jonipunto. All these illustrations of local cultural capital inspired Time Out magazine to list the surrounding district of Embajadores as the coolest neighbourhood in the world in 2018. To some, this marks the beginning of the end, and warning signs have been written in graffiti on those same brightly painted walls: “Your street art raises my rent.”

798 Art Zone, Beijing

It was first built as a military- industrial facility on the edge of post-war Beijing, where thousands of workers made components for weapons and electronics. Later, its abandoned Bauhaus-style buildings became hideouts for avant-garde painters and poets exiled by a hostile Communist Party. Today, it’s a nexus of global art and commerce, where multinational corporations sponsor exhibitions, festivals and fashion shows in galleries still adorned with Maoist slogans.

The sheer immersive irony of the scene provides some compensation for the loss of mystique. A visitor may no longer feel much sense of discovery, arriving at the now renowned 798 Art Zone (or Dashanzi Art District) to find that heavy investment has given rise to boutique hotels and brewpubs. But the art itself, in this environment, can still have otherworldly effects. I will never forget seeing Tatsuo Miyajima’s installation Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art – the darkened central chamber of Factory 798 filled with blinking, glowing, starlike points of digital light, casting Buddhist cosmology into LED numerals to count off every birth, death and rebirth in the universe.

Considered in more worldly terms, it’s impressive that the Art Zone continues to exist. It is well within the domain of Beijing’s ever- expanding property bubble, and developers have raised towers of luxury apartments around it. The government is not exactly friendly to certain creatives, either. Police raids have often targeted the on-site Queer Film Festival, and the artist- activist Ai Weiwei, who designed his own house close by, is almost as well known for his 2011 arrest as for his work. Brother Nut’s Nongfu Spring Market exhibit, featuring 9,000 bottles of polluted groundwater, made worldwide news in 2018 when it was investigated by authorities.

If there’s a frontline in China between the power of art and the power of the state, it might yet run right through this spot.

Kødbyen, Copenhagen

The meatpacking district of the Danish capital is divided into three separate ‘meat cities’, colour-coded white, grey and brown according to the age and style of the buildings. Each of these cities is still partly in the business of butchering and processing, but they’ve all been partially repurposed for culture and leisure: food markets, pubs, exhibition halls.

Art dealer Morten Poulsen had a small gallery in the white city, but the space barely had enough room to hang a fraction of his paintings, and the area became so popular with partygoers that Friday-night openings drew as many drunks as invited guests. In 2017, Gallery Poulsen moved to a much bigger space – a former slaughterhouse in the older, quieter brown city, which has lately become the more “serious” art quarter, as the owner puts it. The old cobblestones and iron-plated windows make it look like New York’s meatpacking district, says Poulsen, which befits his roster of mostly American artists.

“America just produces great painters who appeal to my aesthetics. I like to say that all my shows are too much, with too much on top. Everything gets bigger – the prices, the art fairs. But Denmark is very small, so to keep growing you have to look outside.” Other galleries such as V1 and Bo Bjerggaard also show young Danish and Scandinavian talent, and while the “cool factor” of the brown city doesn’t necessarily bring crowds of buyers, “you never know when someone might walk in, engage with a piece and make a purchase”, says Poulsen.

Unlike gallery owners in other gentrifying post-industrial zones and red-light districts, he and his neighbours don’t have to worry about being bought out by developers. Copenhagen’s city government controls the rent and protects Kødbyen’s heritage architecture. Plus, this ground holds two centuries’ worth of spilled blood and meat-freezing chemicals – now safely sealed off, but their presence makes condos profoundly unlikely.

Bellavista, Valparaíso

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda tends to get much of the credit for the art scene in the Pacific port of Valparaíso, and especially on Cerro Bellavista, the hillside around his home. That house, La Sebastiana, remains a work of art in itself. Designed by Spanish architect Sebastián Collado (who had planned to live in it but died before he could) and coloured with murals, sculptures and stained glass by Neruda’s friend María Martner, it’s now a national monument and public museum.

As an occasional diplomat, unofficial ambassador for his home town and patron of the arts, Neruda invited painters he encountered during his posting in Mexico City in the early 1940s to make and show work in Valparaíso, and encouraged his neighbours to express their political views publicly, creatively, directly onto the walls of the barrio. After the military coup of 1973 –Neruda died a few days later under suspicious circumstances – street art became a popular form of protest, a dangerous act of defiance that often resulted in the ‘disappearance’ of the artist.

The fall of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime presented the city with an opportunity for revival through the 1990s, and murals became a newly (semi) legalised means of restoring colour. The Museo a Cielo Abierto, or open-air museum, is a suite of 20 celebratory pieces by artists including Mario Toral and Roberto Matta. While not all remain in good condition, they abide as near-sacred touchstones for an ongoing tradition that has transformed the neighbourhood into a kind of gallery.

Today’s street artists still employ the signature Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) style pioneered by Leftist activists during the late 1960s, but you’ll also see New York wildstyle graffiti, Fauvist-Impressionist landscapes, mythic-mathematical monsters by Spanish expat Cuellimangui and eco-utopian murals on the sides of tower blocks, painted on commission by the leading local duo Un Kolor Distinto.

Fitzroy/Collingwood, Melbourne

Fitzroy has been so cool for so long that self-conscious locals will tell you it’s not any longer, and fickle hipsters are moving further out of central Melbourne to suburbs such as Footscray, Preston and Reservoir. If the scene has passed, the bars and coffee shops remain, along with a lot of great art. It can be found at spaces like the Sutton Gallery and the Centre for Contemporary Photography, as well as out on Rose Street, Cecil Street, Kerr Street and Brunswick Street, where the corners have been covered by graffiti artists and muralists including Cam Scale and Skream.

Any walking tour of those walls will extend into neighbouring Collingwood, another blue-collar suburb of warehouses and workers’ cottages occupied by indie operators. That process is still in its “honeymoon phase”, reckons Tom Groves, curator of the Backwoods Gallery, an exhibition space founded by local street-art collective Everfresh in 2010. “There’s a dozen other galleries within 500 metres of us,” he says. “And we’re seeing more and more companies with a creative focus moving in – architects, graphic designers and so on. I don’t think this area has quite peaked yet as a culture hub.”

Much of his own gallery’s roster (including Unwell Bunny and Beastman) has since graduated from street level to studio work and major shows across Australia and Europe. Inevitably, says Groves, Melbourne’s ongoing urban art boom has been “commodified”, with the bigger street artists offered major commissions for high-profile murals.

“There’s a lot more opportunity to do large-scale work these days, and I think some artists do struggle to balance that with the smaller, personal, uncommissioned stuff.” There’s also a wariness of corporate owners and civic leaders trading on the city’s rep as a world capital of street art while state laws such as the 2007 Graffiti Prevention Act remain, Groves says. “The penalties are still pretty brutal for even being caught with a can of spray paint.”

This story appears in Issue 4 of Culture Trip magazine: Art in the City.

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