New paper – 'Digging into the Creative City: A Feminist Critique' by Heather McLean

Heather McLean

Today we’re pleased to present the second featured paper from our June 2014 issue (Antipode 46:3), Heather McLean’s ‘Digging into the creative city: A feminist critique‘…

A sense of frustration sparked ‘Digging into the creative city: A feminist critique’, my forthcoming Antipode article. Based on my doctoral research, the article presents a feminist analysis of the impacts of entrepreneurialized cultural policies on grassroots arts spaces in Toronto. For this project, I engaged in action research at the Toronto Free Gallery, an artist-run centre programming underrepresented women artists, queer and trans artists, artists of colour, and Indigenous artists. Many of the artists working with Toronto Free have been consistently critical about what Toronto writer R.M. Vaughan once referred to as the “invasive” creative city policy species. However, when I delved into the flurry of critical research about the spread of this neoliberal policy trend, I found that the bulk of this scholarship reduced artists into limiting categories: either conscious agents of neoliberal policies or helpless victims. Feminist scholars examining creative city policies through an intersectional lens ask important questions about the gender, race and class dimensions of creative city policies that privilege privatization and consumption (Parker 2008; Leslie and Catungal 2012; Muller Myrdahl 2012; Kern 2013). While this work has been significant, I am troubled by the lack of scholarship incorporating feminist artists and activists, who are increasingly excluded in the competitive neoliberal city (King 2011).

The project of feminist arts activism presents a whole host of questions about intersectionality and the production of space. Even though the gallery helped catalyze the gentrification of the low-income neighbourhood it was based in, Toronto Free programmed politicized work that called attention to the connections between the arts and urban inequalities. This included a workshop about erasing the borders between art and politics led by performance artist, writer and educator Guillermo Gómez-Peña, a cabaret showcasing fierce lesbian-feminist and pro-sex worker writing collective Sister Spit, and an exhibit interrogating the connections between cultural policies and the privatization of urban space titled ‘Strip Mining for Creative Cities’. However, while Toronto Free programmed this critical work, other networks of Bloordale artists partnered with local ratepayers groups and the Business Improvement Association to ‘clean up’ the neighbourhood with participatory arts programming. One ratepayer group-led intervention invited artists and festivalgoers to transform a Bloordale strip club into a family-friendly community arts hub during the all-night Nuit Blanche festival of contemporary art. While city officials celebrated this example of ‘civic engagement,’ gentrification activists critiqued what they understood as a strategy to transform the neighbourhood into a playground for middle class families.

‘Digging into the creative city’ addresses the contradictions that exist within community arts practices staged within a neoliberal urban planning context. I argue that feminist arts interventions can become entangled in exclusionary creative city policies, particularly the production of spaces of white privilege and heteronormativity. But, I also refer to the explicitly feminist programming of Toronto Free, which called attention to the exclusionary dynamics reproduced by contemporary neoliberal cultural planning. Referring to these examples, I argue that neoliberal imperatives are not always over-determining. Used to being pushed to the margins, radical feminist artist-activists are also responding to the conjunctures they find themselves in and are pushing back at the creative city.

My future research will continue this analysis of feminist efforts to contest neoliberal cultural policies. My interests are partially informed by my engagement with Dirty Plötz, a Toronto-based collective that explores the ongoing exclusion of feminist, trans and queer art practices through performance. Toby Sharp, a ‘tool’ for urban change, first made his appearance in a Dirty Plötz cabaret. This satirical take on the gendered performance of urban think tank gurus was featured last year on Over the past year I developed a Toby Sharp Ted Plötz Talk, a presentation that showcases a range of satirical projects meant to reinvent ‘underutilized’ people and ‘underutilized’ spaces into resources for economic development. Future Dirty Plötz plans include performing for the Canadian Association for Theatre Research’s meeting at this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in May 2014.

Heather McLean is currently teaching service learning and community development in the City Studies program at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Her work covers performance theory, urban arts interventions, cultural policy, urban development, and feminist urban geography. As well as Antipode, it has been published in the Cambridge Journal of Economies, Regions, and Society, The Canadian Journal of Urban Research, The Canadian Theatre Review and Progressive Planning.


Kern L (2013) All aboard: Women working the spaces of gentrification in Toronto’s Junction. Gender, Place, and Culture 2(4):510-527

King M (2011) The foster children of Buddies: Queer women at 12 Alexander. In L Levin (ed) Theatre and Performance in Toronto (pp191-202). Toronto: Playwrights Press

Leslie D and Catungal J.P (2012) Social justice and the creative city: Class, gender, and racial inequalities. Geography Compass 6:111-122

Muller Myrdahl T (2012) Queerying creative cities. In P Doan (ed) Queerying Planning: Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice (pp158-169). Burlington: Ashgate

Parker B (2008) Beyond the class act: Gender and race in the ‘creative city’ discourse. In J DeSena (ed) Gender in an Urban World: Research in Urban Sociology, Vol. 9 (pp201-233). Bingley: Emerald