Perhaps nothing demonstrates San Diego’s perpetual inferiority complex as clearly as the neverending discussion of its art scene.

San Diego’s visual art scene sucks – I’ve heard variations of that statement over and over during the 12 years I’ve covered arts and culture in the region.

People get fired up about the topic. Panel discussions are regularly organized. We art scenesters convene often to talk about problems and try to come up with possible solutions. I’ve moderated two of these discussions in the last two years alone (here’s audio of the most recent one).

The fact that the biggest local arts conversation is not forward-looking or even about art itself – but instead about San Diego and its failings – says a lot. Even at the talks that are supposed to be solutions-oriented, the kvetching always creeps in. I often leave feeling like the city will never get itself unstuck – that San Diego’s visual art scene is the perpetual self-hating teenager who won’t realize how beautiful she is until she isn’t anymore. It’s exhausting.

For years, folks who’ve been having this conversation that won’t die try to accurately diagnose the biggest problems when it comes to the health of the art scene. Here are the 10 biggest issues that continuously resurface.

Artists Can’t Afford San Diego

One of the first things that always comes up is San Diego’s cost of living.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Housing costs are too high, so artists say they can’t afford places to live or studios in which to work. Galleries, too, have a hard time keeping their doors open in San Diego, and the city is far from immune to the gentrification that often chases artists out of developing neighborhoods, replacing their affordable live/work spaces with high-priced condos – just look at what’s happening right now in East Village and Barrio Logan.

It is expensive to live in San Diego, that’s true, but I’m not convinced that’s the main thing behind what’s holding the visual art scene back. It’s certainly possible to have a thriving art scene in expensive places; just look at New York City, the art capital of the world.

Counterintuitively, a high cost of living can also benefit artists. The thing about pricey places is that people with money live in them, and many of those people buy art and consume culture.

There is, however, certainly a need for some leadership when it comes to carving out or protecting affordable space for the city’s creatives (but that’s part of another problem I’ll get into later).

There Aren’t Any Art Collectors

So where are San Diego’s monied art collectors who can afford the city’s high-priced real estate?

At the most recent talk I moderated, one of the panelists asked people in the crowd to raise their hand if they’d ever purchased art, and almost everyone did. He then asked those who’d paid more than $1,000, and only about a third did. Lots of people buy local art here, but not many spend a lot on it. Serious art collectors do live in San Diego, however. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego staged an entire exhibition in 2015 featuring 52 pieces of high-value artwork from the private collections of 20 local families. There’s an annual art fair here that wouldn’t exist unless people bought art, plus galleries like Quint and art dealers like Alexander Salazar have stayed afloat selling art that isn’t cheap.

The real issue, it seems, is that most serious art collectors in San Diego are buying work by bigger-named artists outside the city.

When the collector problem gets brought up, it almost always leads to people pointing fingers at the city’s lack of serious art galleries that know how to market, price and sell work, cultivating a loyal stock of collectors in the process. Eventually, though, the talk then turns toward blaming artists themselves. Artists here get accused of being too casual in their art-making practices. I’ve heard time and again that if local artists got more serious about their art, worked harder at making connections with collectors and marketed themselves better, there’d be no problem.

But there are all kinds of visual art – like conceptual art and installation art – that aren’t as commercially viable as a nice painting you hang on your wall. And that whole “just work harder” line of reasoning discounts a lot of individual struggles and very real obstacles artists face. I was stoked to recently learn about a new effort to cultivate more art collectors who buy local work in San Diego.

Arts Groups Aren’t Collaborating

San Diego’s theater scene is thriving. In fact, lots of people outside of San Diego think of us as a theater town.

So why can’t San Diego’s visual artists find similar success?

It helps that outfits like the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse have reputations that extend well beyond local boundaries. But many local theater companies are also part of the San Diego Performing Arts League, a nonprofit that promotes the city’s performing arts groups and sells tickets to shows online and at an outpost downtown.

The lack of similar types of collaboration between San Diego arts groups is often cited as one of the scene’s biggest problems. Outside of the San Diego Visual Arts Network and the growing North County Arts Network, there isn’t much communication and collaboration happening between the various arts groups and institutions.

No One Knows About All the Art Events

There’s been many attempts over the years to build one central calendar where San Diegans can go to find out about all the arts and culture events happening in town. But no one’s ever pulled it off.

Don’t get me wrong, weekly print publications like CityBeat and the Reader are still great ways to find out what’s going on. There’s Art Guide San Diego, KPBS has a good arts calendar, the San Diego Visual Arts Network has an arts event app and online listings and Eventbrite has a lot of San Diego events listed.

I’ll admit it, though: I find out about events through email newsletters and my Facebook events page.

Solving this festering problem will take someone techy who can figure out how to cull all of the city’s fragmented event data.

San Diego Needs an Art Critic

Since Robert L. Pincus was laid off from the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2010, the arts community has longed for another art critic.

I write about art and artists, but I’m no critic. Others, like CityBeat’s Seth Combs, have thrown their hat in the art criticism ring over the years, but no matter how many people are writing about art at any given time, it never seems to be enough. The people who complain about this problem are really saying they want another art critic at the U-T – the paper that still reaches the largest number of people.

I’ve talked to the U-T’s art and entertainment editor Michael James Rocha, though, and he’s more than willing to assign more stories about visual art. Y’all just have to email him.

San Diego Is Known Internationally for Shamu and Pandas, Not Art

Places like New York City, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Oakland and Santa Fe – those are the U.S. cities that come to mind when most folks think about visual art. Most people look to San Diego for pandas, orcas and beaches. Balboa Park is a big draw, but even it has nothing on Shamu.

The city’s Commission for Arts and Culture and the San Diego Tourism Authority have collaborated in the past, but there will need to be a lot bigger, bolder efforts to really move the needle, especially when it comes to telling tourists around the world about the city’s more underground and grassroots art scene.

Lots of folks I’ve talked to over the years think border art, or more large-scale collaborations with Tijuana artists, could be the local art scene’s ticket to gaining international acclaim.

Proximity Is a Problem

San Diego is sandwiched between Los Angeles and Tijuana, two cities where art and culture are king.

Our proximity to them is often thought of as a problem, because those cities overshadow any cool art and events happening here. Also, L.A. often siphons off some of San Diego’s best artists who end up moving to be closer to the galleries that sell their work.

But here’s the flipside: I’ve also heard from those who feel like there’s less competition among artists in San Diego than there is in places like L.A. and TJ. Some of the city’s most active movers and shakers in the art scene are out doing things that have been done dozens of times in other art cities, but they’re new, fresh and exciting here.

San Diego’s Colleges and Universities Operate in Bubbles

For the most part, all the arts and culture happening on San Diego’s college and university campuses come across as inaccessible to the general public.

Finding parking on a university campus and then trying to figure out where the art thing is happening is intimidating to most folks, and that’s too bad because some of the city’s most innovative and interesting visual art is (and has always been) happening on our campuses.

San Diego State has a downtown gallery and UC San Diego is working toward building a downtown outpost, but until schools figure out how to better engage a broader swath of the San Diego community, this will continue to be viewed as one of the art scene’s biggest problems.

Someone Needs to Show San Diego Artists the Money

Outside of the San Diego Foundation’s Creative Catalyst program, there aren’t a lot of funding opportunities for artists in the city.

The lack of grant funding for individual artists is not unique to San Diego, but other cities have done a much better job of fixing the problem.

City Leaders Should Help

Both the city and the county provide significant funding for arts nonprofits, and many of the arts organizations in Balboa Park enjoy subsidized rent.

Still, many official efforts tend to support established arts organizations and leave out the city’s fleet of struggling artists.

In just about every conversation I’ve ever had about San Diego’s floundering art scene, the city and county’s general lack of support for the arts is always a hot topic.

The county, for example, could fund an arts council like it did in the past.

And the city could, but so far hasn’t, open up its funding program to individual artists and creative entrepreneurs who aren’t part of nonprofits, like other cities have, or it could build on its public art program by offering new opportunities specifically for local artists.

Aiding artists in finding affordable spaces to live and work, though, might be the most important role elected leaders could play. City leaders could adopt an ordinance that sets aside live/work specifically units for artists, artisans and other creatives.

If local city leaders don’t do it on their own, a state bill working its way through the system could eventually require it.

    This article relates to: Arts/Culture, Must Reads

    Written by Kinsee Morlan

    Kinsee Morlan is the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture Report. She works to expand our reach and helps community members write op-eds. She also manages VOSD’s podcasts and covers the arts, culture, land use and entrepreneurs. Contact her directly at Follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Subscribe to her podcast.

    Mario Torero
    Mario Torero


    That's what our SD Arts writer asked the local 'arts experts' panel two weeks ago and the respond was that the arts does not thrive locally because there's no art market and artists can't afford the standard of living, therefore artists are forced to leave the city to other cities and spread throughout the county, even go in exile across the border. What's a sin is that the system doesn't not support local artists and even avoids them, preferring artists from outside of the city.

    That's why the conclusion was that artists hate the local arts environment that seems to place all sorts of obstacles to their thriving. This gathering of the 'arts experts' happens in SD every few years, always with the same results, complaints and no follow up actions. Solutions and recommendations to help the arts are plenty and concise with no help in site. This only accents the reasons why artists need the experts because artists can't do it themselves, we are not capable to do the market business but because these experts only vent and critic, the situation never betters. It's a glooming future reflecting the past and present. Kinda of a love/hate and defeatist attitude prevails. That's why artists are saying 'f... the 'arts!" Because the system looks at the product but disregards the artists, as they are avoided from the full  participation in the subject. That has been the systems acts when it comes to the 'arts', 'cut their funding!' Keep the artists at a starving level, perhaps they'll die and thats good cause the system has a few clones in the universities that will satisfy an elite minority society who practice 'private art cannibalism' while the public robotizes into pure commercialism and decorative 'safe selective art'. 

    What has become clear its that at least locally there are two worlds here, the dominant non-thriving 'White Art' and the thriving ChicanoArt.

    Chicanos have endured 500 years of repression, racism and isolation, while thriving in culture, the essence of art. Chicano Culture&Art is what has kept our freedom of the soul intact in the face of seedling hopeless systems lack of compassion and help.
    We have been left on our own in a foundation of indigenous cultural genocide. Yet we have always thrive in our communal family traditions of self love and unity in the face of persecution of 'minorities'. Chicanos are today the majority in population but are still treated in the traditional white supremacist population control. The student populations are a growing majority that's overruning all horizons and barriers.
    Today Mexican food and culture are king in the streets and labor force. No matter how much racism and genocide is thrown at brown raza, Chicano Art thrives.

    It had an explosion of expression when MexicanAmericans revolted and launched their cultural revolution with their Chicano Movement and the arts at the forfront of their liberation. It was Chicanos who after liberating their barrio, exported their arts revolution and united all artists of San Diego when we opened the first art gallery downtown and transformed it into the first ever MultiCultural Arts Center in 1977. That became the first arts district, the Gaslamp Arts District created by a diverse group of local artists, led by Chicano artists with mostly white artists involvement, all in a collaborative and positive banner of a 'universal art form'.

    The arts thrived in a new cultural arts movement driven by local artists and a federal new funding CEDA Program for the arts created by President Carter in the late 70's. That lasted till 1980 when Reagan began the assault on the middle class with the attempt of destroying popular arts in the system and artists were chased out of the Gaslamp. By 1990 when Clinton was elected there was a hopeful look for the arts and artists again reorganized and created the EastVillage Arts District with the partnership of Chicano Park artist Mario Torero and the visionary collaboration of architect Wayne Buss. The arts were thriving then again at our new ReIncarnation Arts Center, throughout the nineties. Then once again artists were shaded out by corporate gentrification of the downtown ballpark.

    This time artists were kicked out of downtown. Most scattered throughout the region and to BarrioLogan, the source of this contemporary arts movement in our city, which became refuge to the concept of the creation of an arts district in San Diego because we have proven that the arts can thrive when artists live and worked together in a defined space. We had seen what our creative power was when we had a culturalArts Center that supported artists living, producing and sharing their creations in an arts district.

    So after the destruction of the ReIncarnation Arts Center with San Dieogo's 'artists Icon' mural of the 'Eyes of Picasso', in 2004, the artivists veterans again for the third time in 2005 regroup to resist and plot to reestablish our downtown arts district but this time we decided to combine and unite the two neighboring urban communities of the barrios with downtown as the new, "BarioLogan/EastVillage Arts District"' the BL/EV or what we called the 'BELIEVE' Project.

    Our goal was to establish an arts district that was downtown but that it incorporated the BarrioLogan district with its epic center of ChicanoPark.
    We would again reconstruct a multi-cultural arts center downtown that would not only serve all San Diego but also serve the artists of the barrios east and south of downtown. That project was a ten year program 2005-2015, where we would create a sanctuary of artists district and a new arts center downtown.

    That effort showed a victorious result with the creation of the Space4Arts in the East Village and the ongoing thriving BarrioLogan Arts District. We took a following stride plan for the next five years 2015- 2020' Vision 2020, to complete the reunion of the barrio with downtown under one art banner. So now in 2017, as we are thriving as Chicano Artists with other new white artists moving into our barrio arts district, we have been energized and made stronger in our vision to hold on to our roots culture and neighborhood. While Chicanos have drawn the 'line in the hood' and have determined to hold on and 'save the Barrio' from the continuous gentrification threat. We have just felt empowered further with the national and regional recognition that Chicano Park is a jewel that will be preserved and lifted in San Diego. So with great pride and efforts we used then power of our arte to successfully beat down a Goliath threat upon the barrio with the defeated downtown stadium proposal. CHICANO ART CONTINUES TO THRIVE AND WE DONT NEED YOUR STINKING MONEY!!

    michael-leonard subscriber

    Ms. Morlan:

    Several of these points include actual action suggestions. That's a great thing! Now, as Ms. Martin notes, all it takes is for some of the kvetchers to quit bitchin' and do something about their plight. You are definitely doing what you can! Your weekly arts calenar is the most complete of ANY in town, and pretty entertaining, too. (This has been an unsolicited testimonial ;-)

    As Ms. Cook mentions, to one degree or another, many artists in many other places have similar complaints, so San Diego ain't unique in this. 

    I'll go that one further: it's been this way for artists FOREVER. And all over the world. Look at the arts and musical history in Europe. 

    So, people who make a living in Arts are doing what we love to do, and sometimes that means not making a fortune off the art in order to live in San Diego. It's a choice and choices are what makes us free.

    Kenneth Gardner
    Kenneth Gardner

    Excellent article, Kinsee. It reads like a lawsuit, and convicts the art scene convincingly. I see the problem from the demand end. You mention lack of collectors, but there is really a lack of just regular people buying art. I see that as a lack of socializing in the community.  People simply don't invite one another over for dinner anymore, like they used to to do in previous decades. Mostly young couples who come here can barely afford the rent, let alone the money to buy something to hang on their wall. And then they have no one to show it off to. No one wants to buy a white elephant. The old philosophical college question, "What is art?" Followed by, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Well, there are simply not enough beholders. Art is at a crossroads, as you mention. The electronic society has taken emphasis off of permanent beauty, and the social get togethers that would encourage the creation of such.

    The few galleries around town seem oriented to tourists, with a bunch of weird kitch and no real theme. Perhaps if the city made a combination museum/gallery downtown, it would encourage people to buy important pieces that they can see and learn about first-hand.  Then maybe some of the serious collectors who are holding some real whoppers would agree to putting their works on consignment at this museum gallery, and maybe be persuaded to sell. It could have an auction component. Most of the auction houses are in LA and New York. Get a bit of excitement and competition going to bring in the young couples. Start a spark.

    Don Atenow
    Don Atenow

    Molly pretty much sums it up.

    SD does take a fair swing at the arts (Jazz 88.3 is a good deal, La Jolla Playhouse, too). But it seems SD is more about the "... Sparkling waters of Mission Bay to the warm tortillas of Old Town".

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    I'm relatively new to the SD art scene but I've worked in the arts for years and I'm already aware of some limitations here. 

    San Diego prides itself on being unique among America's cities and it is - in both wonderful and not so great ways. (I've lived in several of America's cities.)  Portland, Oregon and Seattle are considered "writers" cities though both have excellent galleries.  Little Portland, Maine (population about 70,000 on a good day) is an artist's city with a major art college, a beautiful and easily accessible art museum designed by I.M. Pei and little galleries all over the place.  We all know about New York and Boston.  San Diego is known for sunshine, surfing and laid back life with galleries scattered here and there so a monthly "Art Walk" becomes an Art Drive instead.  No judgment - that's just the way it is.

    Two things that would help San Diego's artists are more local shows instead of shows with calls that are open to anybody anywhere and an easier way for artists to show and sell their work in pop-up galleries or even on the sidewalk (think Paris and New York).  Sidewalk art is colorful, appeals to tourists as well as locals and gives a different flavor to any city. 

    San Diego hasn't quite decided what it wants to be when it comes to any of the arts.  Yes, the theatre scene is strong, there's good jazz here and there, the symphony and opera companies are fine but not stellar.  My guess is that most of the people who live here are not here for the arts scene.  They came or grew up here with different things in mind which takes us back to the sunshine and surfing.  Or as I like to call them - the four basic food groups:  Sea, sand, sun and sex.  Viva San Diego!


    bgetzel subscriber

    Thanks for this article, Kinsee. Your points are accurate. However, one point missing is San Diego's geographic sprawl. That characteristic, coupled with the economic burdens of running a visual arts venue (as noted in the article), make the visual arts less accessible to many of us. The economics have dibursed or driven many galleries out of business. We used to have an Art walk where one could actually walk from one gallery to another without a problem. Now, we have a handful of galleries disbursed in Barrio Logan, East Village, Gaslamp and La Jolla (Is there one in Little Italy any more?). So, let's say someone wants to gallery hop on a day off  of work. Are they likely to drive across town to see an exhibition that takes 20 minutes to observe and then get back in their car and drive in another direction to do the same? Aside from the museums in Balboa Park, we do not have an arts district! The now defunct redevelopment agency (CCDC) should have facilitated the creation of such when property was cheap.

    Kathryn Martin
    Kathryn Martin

    Kinsee, your article and excellent observations and summary have compelled me to respond! 

    Over the past 30 years working in San Diego’s arts and culture community, I too have attended many convening’s that aimed to both identify and address issues that create barriers to San Diego artists (visual and performing) thriving.In many cases the discussions turn to blame, or what others (those usually not in the room) “should” be doing.And over these years those same discussions have also led to incredible leaders taking action and inspiring others to do the same.

    When reading your list of the 10 biggest issues, I found myself both frustrated and enthusiastic as I thought “but wait! - there are examples of the completely opposite being true!”

    There are some very, very good things occurring in the arts in San Diego – right now.AND, there are incredible possibilities that exist… if only we will presence what be believe is working.I’m not talking about viewing the situation with naiveté or “positive thinking” – rather using a strategy that I know from first-hand experience works.The way to create momentum – indeed a movement – is to begin acknowledging and communicating all that IS good.Start where we ARE.Talk about the impact.Find what is working and who the champions are.Celebrate the success.Enroll others.Inspire others. Take time to find the words. And to celebrate milestones.Create a movement so exciting with what already exists that the stakeholders of San Diego will want to be a part of supporting something even more exhilarating.

    Riffing off of your excellent visual of a “perpetual self-hating teenager who won’t realize how beautiful she is until she isn’t anymore,” – let’s start SEEing her unique beauty, talents and gifts.Let’s build her up. Let’s help her not compare herself to her peers, or magazines.Let’s shout from the roof-tops like proud parents.And is there much work to be done, and complex issues to address along the way?Yes.But let’s do so with self-love, and as a family.

    Jennifer Spencer
    Jennifer Spencer subscriber

    Good article.  Nothing new though.  These are the same concerns/complaints made about the visual art community for the past 20-30 years.  There is no one solution to the problems that plague artists in San Diego.  The same problems exist for artists everywhere, i.e, lack of sales, visibility, affordable live/work space, etc.  Whereas some cities do well for their visual art community...others do not.  What's missing? 

    One of the missing elements in San Diego that could provide a bridge or ladder to exposure and acceptance into serious galleries, would be a municipal gallery.  "As in every respectable capital city in the world, a municipal gallery...main task is to bring the motley public closer to art and to initiate and develop relationships with professional organizations in the arts, across the country and around the world". This is what's missing in San Diego. (

    The closest example of a municipal gallery in San Diego County is the Escondido Municipal Gallery.  A municipal gallery can act as an incubator for artists, helping to fledge artists into the art scene inside and outside of San Diego. The Oceanside Museum, though not a municipal gallery, does behave in many ways like a municipal gallery, showcasing  local talent from young artists to mid career artists along with talent from outside of San Diego County.  The mix has proven to enliven the City of Oceanside and has become a focal point of activity and tourism. 

    There is no lack of wonderful talent in San Diego.  The creative spirit persists.  Unfortunately, the rest of San Diego still appears not to know that talented artists exists here. A connection is missing.  Having a focal point for the visual art community, a municipal gallery, may help provide that visibility and at the same time "bring the motley public closer to art and to initiate and develop relationships with professional organizations in the arts", and well respected galleries.

    Richard ChauDavis
    Richard ChauDavis

    Hi Kinsee,

    Nice article and for me it accurately describes the collection of usual scapegoats.  As a once regular attendee of SDAI's (former) Gathering (for a couple of decades) I have seen that when financially successful artists move to San Diego their business dies.  I also saw on a monthly basis an incredible number of different seasoned artists each presenting their work in 5 and 10 minute segments and taking comments.  

    I believe we have a huge world class artist population in San Diego that has chosen to live here, do their art, and be supported by other means.  I believe that very few of the galleries and museums have come up with ways to show case or help this population.  Most of the solutions I have seen are short term, help only a few, and only those that have some other means of support.  

    Many of the local institutions have learned to feed off this population through c-note sales, auctions, and pay to maybe play shows, for a chance to 'sell,' and 'be exposed.'  The result is slow death for artists and institutions.  The shows generally attract friends and family of artists, give a very poor return on investment to the artists (fees, framing costs, time wasted).  The institutions come to rely on artists making a bad investment year after year.  Some artists fall into the trap of trying to make their art sell-able or twisting their vision to fit a theme wasting their precious time (put aside from family, friends.  

    That is the situation now.  Fixing the usual scapegoats won't help.  San Diego has become different, it's long time artists do their art and live their lives outside the art scene which has been costly and unhelpful for years.

    Immediate Solutions:

    1.  Programs targeted to help hundreds of artists instead of 1 or 2 (ArtGymSD at SDAI  showed this is possible) providing good value for money spent.

    2   Fund group shows through ticket sales and pay artists to show.   I did a performance piece at Art of Pride where I sat in a booth without any of my art showing, begging, hat in front of me.  I made minimum wage, much better return than many of the artist that were actually showing something but not asking to be paid for it.  I asked people if they would pay to see art in a gallery (or a booth).  They generally said yes.  I asked why they didn't.  One guy kinda summed it up " I don't want to insult them.'

    3. We are the collectors (remember the hands).  San Diego artists collect San Diego art, cater to them because the town is full of them and they know the value of the work they see and are horrible at pricing their own.  The San Diego art market is such a deal right now.

    Thanks for your continued work on this, 

    Richard ChauDavis