By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
The arts are inevitable victims of recession, and local arts communities have not been immune. But there’s still plenty to make them destinations. Arts festivals, public artwork, classes and galleries have all helped sustain the tone and tenor of San Diego neighborhoods. And economic recovery is evident in the survival of new arts businesses.
One of the Uptown area’s recently launched art spaces, Art on 30th, is fêting the success of its first year in operation, and the public is invited to join the celebration at an exhibit opening on Saturday, March 26, from 6 — 8 p.m. Art on 30th is located at 4434 30th St., on the border of University Heights and North Park.
The exhibit “30 on 30” — showing the work of 30 predominantly abstract artists — is the culmination of owner Kate Ashton’s quest to start a business that serves both the community and serious art consumers. She offers studio rentals, art classes, weekly critiques for artists she mentors, and the Ashton Gallery, 200 linear feet of exhibit space.
Of particular importance to artists, Ashton also teaches marketing workshops.
“Most artists who are good artists have no idea how to get their art to market,” Ashton said in an interview with San Diego Uptown News. “In other words, get it into a place where they can sell it. They have no idea how to price it. They’re riddled with self-doubt. And I have a real passion, a calling, to help them. I’m an artist myself. I mentor these people from beginner to professional artist.”
Of the 30 artists in the upcoming exhibit, about half are Ashton’s mentees. The rest were culled from the region, local artists who submitted their work for consideration. To help market their paintings, Ashton is publishing a full-color book that will be distributed to interior designers. It will also be on sale at the gallery.
“Most of the people in the book are abstract artists,” Ashton said. “Years ago, realism was the thing. But what’s happened over the years is, large retailers publish images of rooms, and they almost always have abstract art in them. People look at the Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel catalogues, and they see abstract art and say that’s what I want in my house — I want that. Thank God for Crate & Barrel — it’s been great for abstract art!”
Sheila Daube, one of the exhibiting artists with whom Ashton has worked, has high praise for her mentor.
“She just makes you believe that you can be an artist,” Daube said. “Artists are insecure. You’re tentative. Do I have any right to put my stuff on canvas and put it out there for the public? And after a while you start to become secure, you become braver. She has a sort of artist whisperer demeanor. She’s very empowering.”
Ashton might have the magical touch of an “artist whisperer,” but she also gives artists practical advice.
“Get on social media and start talking,” she recommended. “Get your website up. Get your prices on there. Learn how to price your art, how to write an artist’s statement, how to get into a gallery, into artists fairs. Most artists are clueless about those things. I’ve read that if you make $10,000 annually as an artist, you’re in the top 10 percent in the country. I don’t know if it’s true, but of the people in our book, a few of them are significantly over $10,000.”
One of Ashton’s goals is to help artists reach customers who can afford to spend a few thousand dollars on a single work of art.
“I work with them to create a body of work. They’re not ready to go to market until they have a body of work — 20 pieces you can look at and say the same artist painted these. Then I’m going to make sure people see their work. I’m going to invite all the designers to come to the gallery to see their work.”
But Ashton also caters to the casual collector. Neighborhood residents have happened by and purchased more affordable pieces that caught their eyes through the window, and the gallery hosts an annual show of paintings costing under $500. Sometimes, though, abstract art can be challenging for the uninitiated.
“People come in off the street and say, ‘I haven’t seen art like this in San Diego,’” Daube said. “I’m far more confident in saying I’m an artist — although mother still doesn’t like my art.” She laughed. “Abstract art, either you get it or you don’t.”
“What happens,” Ashton explained, “is people from the neighborhood come in and they go ‘I don’t get it. And I say, ‘Here’s how you get it: Do you like looking at it?’ That’s the answer. Artists influence each other and artists influence the community.”
If a neighborhood is lucky, that influence will be long lasting.
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt writes commentary and essays on her blog, “Excuse Me, I’m Writing,” and has been published by Ms. Magazine blog and Trivia: Voice of Feminism, among others. She formerly wrote for the North County Times. She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read Authors series and open mic, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.