By Jess Winans
Rising costs push galleries out of local neighborhoods
All seems quiet on the western front for local artists and galleries.
Just this month, The Studio Door in North Park, Helmuth in Bankers Hill and Blue Dolphin in the College Area all announced their closure or relocation.
“It’s just a continuing story for arts and culture in San Diego — that the artists get pushed around like a shell game,” said Patric Stillman, owner of The Studio Door. “There’s no real organized effort by the community or by the government to support a permanent arts district or even figure out how to support commercial activities for the art.”
The city of San Diego does have a Commission for Arts and Culture, but only nonprofit organizations qualify for an award. Organizations eligible for an award or grant from the commission must file taxes as a nonprofit, have a three-year history of operating with its own independent governing board, be based in San Diego, and align with the purposes of the commission, as stated in their official guidelines document.
The purposes of the commission are to enhance the economy, to contribute to San Diego’s national and international reputation as a cultural destination, to provide access to excellence in culture for residents and visitors, to enrich the lives of the people of San Diego, and to build healthy and vital neighborhoods.
If an organization believes they fulfill those requirements, they can fill out an application available in the fall on the city’s website. However, for artists who rely on their artwork to put food on the table, it may not be possible to fit into that criteria.
Local artist Helena Espinoza is president of the Broker’s Building Art Gallery board, a grassroots organization that manages the gallery and studio place in the Gaslamp building. According to Broker’s Building Art Gallery’s Facebook page, the group is a decades-old, authentic arts institute in the Gaslamp Quarter that aims to “preserve the tradition of the arts for the people and by the people.”
Because many artists can’t receive money from the city, Espinoza said some rely on real estate investors.
“Often, real estate investors acquire a building and let artists and counter-culturalists create some form of popularity there until the area’s value increases,” she said. “Then finally when there’s enough attention on a location’s potential, they drive up the rent and drive out the loyal, unique customers [such as the artists who use the gallery].”
Espinoza said this strategy benefits market capitalists but harms artists.
“You must ask investors who shun the steady lower income of self-made professionals like artists, musicians, start-ups and mom-and-pop shops,” she continued. “Sure, throwing away one penny isn’t much. But do it a thousand times? A million times? A billion? A trillion? It eventually adds up.”
North Park reflects the trend of San Diego’s colossal commercial rent prices. Formerly an old hub for the arts, the Uptown neighborhood has been taken over by bars, restaurants, thrift shops and craft breweries. In the past three years, the average median listing price for North Park real estate increased from $495,000 to $699,000, according to realtor.com.
Although North Park does have commercial space available for rent, many artists and gallery owners simply cannot afford the high prices. The area has commercial space pricing ranging from around $21–$40 per square foot, per year.
For example, if a retail space on University Avenue is 3,539 square feet and priced at $24 per square foot, the building would cost $84,936 to lease for a year with a rent of $7,078 per month.
“Nobody can afford to be here,” local artist Crisinda Lyons said. “When prices are higher in San Diego than even in downtown LA, there’s a problem. And there’s no help for arts people. There are no avenues for assistance to stay in [North Park]. It used to be when you look at Ray Street, it was full of studios and art and that’s all gone. One by one, we’re all leaving 30th Street so the whole area is losing the art and that’s very sad to me.”
So what’s causing the rising rent prices?
“I think the biggest culprit for gallery futures is the pattern of gentrification,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza knows the effects of the gentrification all too well. Back in the early 2000s, she said someone tried to purchase the Broker’s Building where her gallery currently resides. At the time, local artists, community members and historians looked into the matter and the sale was halted on the premise the building was historical.
However, Civic San Diego approved a Process Two Gaslamp Quarter Development Permit/Neighborhood Use Permit on Aug. 1 for the construction of 4,807 square feet of new development and a 510-square-foot sidewalk cafe for the Broker’s Building.
An appeal for the project (Project File Number: GQDP /NUP No. 2018-14) was filed but a decision has not yet been made. Civic San Diego declined to comment on what building ownership plans to do with the approved permit.
Local artists believe another influencing factor in the landscape overhaul is hyper-consumerism and cultural change.
“There’s nothing here in North Park now for people to come and see,” said Christina Ilene Thomas, who uses The Studio Door gallery space. “Now you go and you have beer or you have pizza and then you leave to go somewhere else, where before you could walk around. There’s a couple of shops but the only thing to do here is to come and eat and drink.”
In fact, a 2017 report published by California State San Marcos, San Diego ranked as the top county in the nation with 150 craft breweries as of Aug. 31, 2017. North Park currently houses approximately six art galleries and 12 breweries, according to Google Maps.
“The sleek, manufactured, outsourced obsession [our culture has] gotten much too used to is certainly leaving its mark. Every wildfire, market crash or social crisis leaves us to pick up the pieces,” Espinoza said. “But in a city with a booming craft beer industry and young people aware of their looming emptiness, we hope we can stick around as a place that creates meaningful objects as well as experiences for when your Apple becomes outdated or you must pawn something for a quick buck.”
For this story, San Diego Uptown News reached out to Blue Dolphin and Helmuth for statements. Blue Dolphin declined to comment; Helmuth did not respond prior to publication deadline.
[Editor’s note: This is part of ongoing coverage of gentrification’s effects on local art galleries, artists and patrons. The Studio Door’s final North Park exhibit closes on Sunday, Aug. 25. To read our previous coverage about The Studio Door and news of its closure, visit bit.ly/a-door-closes. ]
—Reach Jess Winans at firstname.lastname@example.org.