Is San Diego losing its underground art scene?

While many major metropolitan regions have thrown money at trying to retain their cultural and artistic communities, elected officials in San Diego have largely ignored the issue.


From painters to sculptors to dancers to those in punk bands or creating experimental film, creative types scraping by in San Diego have in recent months increasingly expressed a growing anxiety:

Is the region’s underground art scene dying?

Similar concerns have rippled across the nation following the now-infamous fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland that killed dozens — and set off a wave of municipal crackdowns on unpermitted living and event spaces.

While many major metropolitan regions have thrown money at trying to retain their cultural and artistic communities, elected officials in San Diego have largely ignored the issue.

“There isn’t a scene right now,” said Craig Oliver, 37-year-old founder of independent record label Volar Records. “There’s little pockets, but I’m seeing everything get pushed out more and more.”

He’s not alone. Many people have voiced concerns, especially since Mayor Kevin Faulconer slashed funding for the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture early this year.

Faulconer’s office — which partially rolled back proposed cuts to the commission following protests — said that the city has no plans to address affordable housing and working space exclusively for artists.

“Whether you’re an artist, teacher or police officer, we need to build more housing that people can actually afford,” said spokeswoman Christina Di Leva Chadwick.

In September, the city shutdown Glashaus, one of only a handful of affordable artist studio spaces in the city. The illegally constructed venue inside a building on Main Street in Barrio Logan was a “fire trap,” according to officials.

Shortly after, a similar facility, Union Barrio Logan, voluntarily closed up shop before code-compliance officers could issue violations. In the same neighborhood, La Bodega Gallery was forced to scale back its shows for emerging artists until expensive upgrades can be made to the warehouse-turned gallery.

In response to concerns, some of San Diego’s most prominent underground artists and venue operators gathered at the Bread & Salt arts center on Wednesday for an event to discuss “vanishing art spaces” in San Diego.

While many in attendance expressed frustration that the city wasn’t providing more support for emerging artists, others bemoaned the community’s lack of political organization.

Alan Ziter, steering committee co-chair for the advocacy group San Diego Regional Arts & Culture Coalition, urged those at the event to become more active in local politics.

“There are no artists involved in the activities of the coalition,” he told the crowd. “It’s primarily the nonprofit arts organizations. If there were more artists actually involved in that, you could maybe work ... through the government agencies at the county and city level to try to get some of these space challenges higher up on the agenda.”

Meanwhile, the existence of vibrant industrial buildings transformed by young artists and musicians have faced another threat — rising rents.

Where underground parties and art shows once thrived, condominiums now tower over landscapes.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Space 4 Art in downtown San Diego, where one of the region’s most active arts communities has been forced to dramatically scale back amid the noisy construction of luxury high-rises.

“Yes, we have The (Old) Globe theatre. Yes, we have the Balboa Theatre. But what are we doing to for the young artists, the emerging artists?” said Robert Leathers, an architect and artist who co-founded the live, work and event space in the East Village.

The hip 76-year-old with his white hair and beard exudes a youthful optimism, despite having seen about two-thirds of the people working at Space 4 Art leave for other cities since the facility opened in 2010.

“Our mission is to provide affordable spaces for artists,” he said. “Cutting edge art is the future of art. Without good cutting edge art, you don’t have a future.”

This fall, the World Cities Culture Forum released a report documenting efforts by cities around the world to preserve affordable spaces for artists amid spiking real estate costs.

Efforts range from Hong Kong, where officials facilitated a conversion of a factory into below-market-rent studio space, to London, where the city has made it a priority to help struggling music venues, including requiring new development to use soundproofing to avoid noise complaints.

Beset by mind-numbingly expensive rents, San Francisco in partnership with the Kenneth Rainin Foundation set up the Community Arts Stabilization Trust to buy and lease property to nonprofit arts groups. In November, the organization announced it was providing $3 million in funding to acquire 100,000 square feet of space for artists in Oakland by the end of next year.

That’s roughly how much money Leathers of Space 4 Art and his nonprofit need to complete an ambitious program to relocate and dramatically expand their live-work artist community.

The previous owner of the building where the nonprofit operates at 16th and J streets died unexpectedly in 2011, and the family eventually sold the property in 2016 to a real estate developer.

The nonprofit went from renting about 18,000 square feet for about $11,000 a month to about 10,000 square feet for $10,000 a month. It lost two artist galleries, an outdoor performing stage and a classroom.

Today, the nonprofit provides studio space to about 30 artists, at roughly a $1 a square foot. It also offers about half a dozen live-work spaces, as well as a wood and metal shop.

With only a four-year lease, Space 4 Art is quickly trying to raise funding to build a facility. The nonprofit bought a half-acre parcel at 2529 Market St. in Sherman Heights and has identified sources for about $7 million of a roughly $10 million needed to start construction.

If completed, the new building would be like nothing the city has ever seen, with 35 affordably priced live-work apartments and 20 studio spaces. It would also feature galleries to showcase art, performance spaces and classrooms.

Long-time Space 4 Art resident Curtis Bracher said believes in Leathers’ vision, but said that the nonprofit cannot save the underground community by itself.

“To be honest with you, I don’t blame the city. I blame the artists. We don’t take responsibility,” said the 53-year-old visual artist and university teacher. “If we took it a little more seriously, I think, everybody else that doesn’t realize why this should be serious would start to.”

One group that Bracher and others said is providing a potential model for the future is Ship in the Woods — a residential and event space on two acres next to Felicita County Park in Escondido.

The owners have turned the two-story, 3,000-square-foot home into a vibrant artist collective that regularly hosts a wide variety of shows. The walls of the mid-century house are covered in provocative paintings and fascinating art installations.

“It’s not cheap, so that’s always an issue with the arts, but any city is like that,” said co-founder RJ Brooks, 39. “You learn to adapt to whatever the situation is, right? You find a way.”

Ship in the Woods became a nonprofit in 2013 and has since attracted grants from the city and county of San Diego, according to the collective’s members.

Unlike many others in the region, those involved with the North County project expressed genuine excitement about the future of San Diego’s underground art scene.

“I feel that people in San Diego are authentic and genuine,” said Lianne Mueller, co-executive director. “I feel that talent here is raw. People are open-minded.

“There are a lot of places that people don’t know about that are starting to spring up,” she added.

Twitter: @jemersmith

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