By Christy Scannell
When Stuart Burton opened the Art Academy of San Diego in downtown’s East Village 10 years ago, he was eager to help a burgeoning group of gallerists and artists revive a fallen-away neighborhood.
And then the Padres moved in.
“We thought we were helping to develop the East Village,” he said, “but once the ballpark was built it became more and more impossible to do because of parking.” The Academy’s class registration dropped 50 percent as car lots began charging up to $20 on game days. Similarly impacted, most of the Village’s art studios and galleries quietly dispersed. Burton said he saw the disappearing community and knew it was time for him to join them. But where?
“When we started looking I knew I wanted to be east of the 5, north of the 94 and south of the 8,” he said. “And in a more user-friendly area.” A friend mentioned the empty building just south of The Linkery on 30th Street in North Park. No stranger to the area—Burton owned a gallery and commercial framing business at the corner of Ray Street and North Park Way from 1980-1992—he saw a possibility. “North Park is arts friendly,” he said. “Plus parking is not an issue. And the students and I like the space.”
In a tenuous economy, Burton said he didn’t mind downsizing from his 15,000-square-foot downtown location to 2,500 square feet in North Park. “We cut our overhead by 75 percent,” he said.
Downtown, the Academy drew 250 students, whereas the North Park location has enrolled 115-120 students since its January opening.
The adults-only classes include drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, stained glass, jewelry and mosaic. Courses are offered in seven- and 14-week segments and begin at $230 plus lab fees. There are no prerequisites—enrollees range from beginners to accomplished artists—and classes top out at 14 students but can enroll as few as five, providing a chance for students to bond with their teachers.
“I have students who have worked with me in painting for years,” Burton said. The school’s typical students are in their 40s and 50s, he said, who majored in art in college but went into other fields for careers and now want to re-explore their artistic side. “The arts really attract from any profession,” he said. “We have attorneys, architects—the difference between those who [excel] and those who don’t is passion.”
Jennifer Hirsch, a city planner, said she enjoys the Saturday morning printmaking class because it offers her a creative outlet. “I used to do more art and it’s a way to get back into doing it,” she said. “But I’m mostly doing it for fun. I’ve been interested in printmaking and this is one of the only places in San Diego that teaches it.”
Jaimie Morse, another printmaking student, said the class interested her because it is unlike her day job in public health. “It’s fun to come here and do something totally different than what I do in ‘real life.’ It’s therapeutic and relaxing,” she said.
Burton spurs that enthusiasm by only hiring instructors who approach him with their ideas for classes. “I always tell them if they are looking for a ‘job’ they are in the wrong place. It’s about an opportunity. They need to leave their ego at the door,” he said. “That way I know all our instructors love what they’re doing and love the school and what we’re trying to do here.”
The Academy is self-sustaining through tuition. Burton and his part-time assistant are the only employees—the instructors are all independent contractors. As the city’s only urban art school, the Academy fulfills a need that keeps it financially solvent, Burton said.
“We can’t have too many art venues in a city like San Diego,” he said, explaining that the region’s favorable weather detracts attention from the arts. “We look forward to expanding and will look at more spaces. We want to add metal sculpture but we’re going to need more space. And I’d like another place for our life drawing classes.”
For now, though, Burton said he is pleased with his new location. “I’ve always just wanted to provide a place where artists can get together, and this is a fun place—it really is. You’re going to learn here.”
New classes start every seven weeks. For more information, visit the Art Academy of San Diego at 3784 30th St., on the Web at www.artacademyofsandiego.com or call (619) 231-3900.