When I share with my new neighbors in New York that I’ve just moved here from San Diego, they invariably respond with various degrees of incredulity. “Why on earth would you move here from San Diego?” When I respond that I’m an artist and I’m here for my career, they all nod their heads knowingly and encourage me with some version of how New York City is the place to be.

Yes, after 25 years of living in and around San Diego, from North County to North Park and Normal Heights to Logan Heights, I’ve decided it’s time for me to make a bolder move. It’s not that I don’t love our fine city on the bay. We all know what makes San Diego a special city, but, unfortunately, when it comes to the visual arts, it’s a bit of a desert. There’s really little opportunity for ambitious artists to grow artistically and succeed financially.

Commentary - in-story logoBefore I’m admonished up and down about how there is actually art being created in San Diego, I didn’t say that there is no art here. After all, there is life in a desert – just not that much. Contemporary artists can’t flourish in San Diego just like polar bears can’t survive in the Mojave: There just doesn’t exist the ecosystem to support them. It’s not any one thing; it’s everything together and individually.

Though it may sound obvious, artists need to sell art to succeed. In San Diego, there’s only a handful of galleries (not including tourist-focused shops) that actually sell contemporary art and fewer still that sell it at sustainable prices. Many, if not most, galleries don’t even bother to attempt to sell the work they exhibit – they’re primarily interested in the foot traffic and using art shows to increase their visibility in the community. This promotional win for the gallery, however, offers little benefit to the artist seeking to be financially rewarded for his or her efforts.

At a recent show of my work in a prime exhibition space in San Diego, the only effort to sell the work was the owner attempting to persuade me to price pieces so low that I wouldn’t even recoup my costs. (I didn’t. Nothing sold.) Another popular gallery regularly prices work in the $100 to $200 range, which helps to explain why one of the exhibiting artists there had to regularly ask his girlfriend for bus fare.

It’s not just a pricing issue; there’s little to no attempt by these galleries to create a base of collectors who will purchase art on an ongoing basis. Without galleries actively engaged in creating a network of people willing to buy art, no work is sold and artists make no money. The real work of galleries lies not in exhibiting art on the walls, it lies in the power of the gallerists and their agents to get on the phone, connect with buyers and sell art every day of the week.


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

Between the unsustainably low prices, the lack of any attempt to sell the work and endless opportunities to work for free, there’s little hope for an emerging artist to succeed on any sort of financial level in San Diego. It’s not just a money thing, either. The dearth of local galleries makes it difficult for artists to build the track record of exhibitions necessary to advance their status in the art world.

The other side to this equation is, of course, the community. We love our surfing and our beer, but frankly, we don’t know nor really care much about art. There’s no spirit nor tradition of engaging with art in the community like people do in New York or even Mexico City. Supporting the visual arts isn’t just about showing up to drink free wine or beer at an opening; it’s taking time to understand the landscape of contemporary art, engaging with artists and, yes, actually purchasing art from time to time.

Change is possible, however, and it can start with the prominent cultural institutions in town. Museums and nonprofits generally loathe anything to do with commercial activities relating to art – i.e., the buying and selling of it – but there is definitely a role for them to play if they can look at visual art from the point of view of an ecosystem that must be nourished in its entirety for it to succeed. They can start by engaging with emerging and working artists in the form of workshops, talks and community forums to help nurture the local scene. A handful of lucrative grants or residencies is good and even necessary, but they do little to help the artist community at large make the jump from coffee shop walls to museum retrospectives.

Educating patrons and visitors alike on how and why to buy art would be helpful as well. This city has quickly given rise to countless beer connoisseurs. Imagine if the same could be done with contemporary art? Also, given that most gallery owners are untrained and unskilled at selling work, some education in the nuts and bolts of art dealing would go a long way. Teaching gallery owners how to sell art may be a tougher grant-writing pitch than teaching high school kids photography, but it’s arguably more necessary for a vibrant contemporary arts culture.

Meanwhile, artists would do well not to succumb to the pressure of underpricing one’s work and working for free in the hopes of exposure. Some money is not better than no money if you’re attempting to make a career in the arts. Artists should also avoid providing free art to businesses, be it through hanging work to sell at shops that have no hope at selling it or participating in calls for work that require the artist to create work upfront in the hopes that it will be selected. (A special shame-on-you goes to the San Diego Airport for asking artists to do major installations and only offering to cover for the cost of installation and transportation rather than paying the artists a meaningful stipend.) By all means, local artists should engage with the burgeoning Tijuana art scene and regularly visit the rapidly expanding universe of Los Angeles galleries to see what’s possible both creatively and financially.

Until change comes, creating art in San Diego is much like the proverbial tree falling in the forest – it’s of little consequence. When I hear that galleries like Planet Rooth and JDC Fine Art have recently departed for other cities, I’m not surprised. One can only wander in the desert for so long before it’s time to head for green pastures. San Diego can either create those pastures at home or watch as its homegrown talent forever packs up and leaves town.

John Raymond Mireles is a former commercial photographer turned artist now living in New York City. Mireles’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. 

    This article relates to: Arts/Culture, Must Reads, Opinion

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    17 comments
    Christina Leta
    Christina Leta

    Thank you for voicing this thoughtful criticism. I live in LA & exhibit in SD & often struggle with these issues in both cities. I'm very glad this spawned public discussion.

    ScottinSanDiego
    ScottinSanDiego subscriber

    Indeed it is difficult to find contemporary art to purchase in San Diego. While I have several pieces by a couple local artists, most of our art has come from places on our travels where art is in the culture (Santa Fe, NYC, LA, Miami, Mexico City). All those places seem to have more effective public-private strategies with respect to the visual arts. Contemporary art is not in our local culture yet. Our city's government and policy folks are incentivized to increase tourism, and it is perennially a priority. So look at other cities that have supported contemporary art and where art place making flourishes (and creates economic gain.) The city could provide incentives for development that is art centric. For instance, in Miami, a major tourist draw is The Wynwood Walls. What other models are there that could inspire San Diego's policy makers? http://www.thewynwoodwalls.com

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I have a friend who grew up in San Diego, still has family here and owns a successful art gallery in Park City, UT.A few years ago she participated in a much ballyhooed art exhibition/sale in a hotel next to the convention center.Sold almost nothing and vowed “Never Again”.My wife and I attended and found a lot of really interesting stuff, but almost all visitors were lookie loos. Guess we're not that arty here.


    The Little Italy annual art weekend is OK, but only if you’re part Billy Goat. 


    Don Atenow
    Don Atenow

    I've had a number of friends who have moved from San Diego and found much more success in some likely places such as Chicago, New York, San Francisco. But also, some have moved to Twin Falls (Idaho), Madison (Wisconsin), Minneapolis, etc. Still another moved to Kentucky and has found great success, earning well above her salary here in SD.

    Darn thing, but my take is that many simply need to find a home, not a destination.

    Philly Joe Swendoza
    Philly Joe Swendoza

    Another day, another artist "leaving" San Diego, as if a global art market requires residence in any particular place. But to one of the writer's points. San Diego galleries don't know how to sell art because they have no art to sell. That is, they do not carry an inventory that they bought & paid for directly to the artist. They are not "art dealers." They are mostly consignment sellers who have no incentive other than to pay the rent by moving pieces in & out the door as fast as possible, by any means needed, usually at the expense of the artist's time, energy, investment, etc. As "gallery directors," they do little but direct the art traffic in & out. No real skin in the game, just a shell game, with artists as the peas under the shells. Whe you have to eat what you cannot sell, you are incentivized to sell or go out of business. Instead of acting as "agent" for the artist, be your own agent. Bottom line, galleries should buy the art directly from the artist & then try to sell it like any other commodity. This would also make the artists the best salespeople they could ever have.

    Richard ChauDavis
    Richard ChauDavis

    I think the 3 following things would have a profound effect on the local art scene.

    1.  No free shows, all pop-ups, gallery shows have a cover.  Artists and galleries cannot continue to pay people to see the work.  This is one of the prime causes for death by exposure.

    2.  Artists paid to hang.  Currently artists pay to hang their work through entry fee's and other means.  If the shows themselves becoming revenue generators, no longer dependent on exhibiting artists hoping to sell to a non-existent SD art market, THEN part of the proceeds can go back to the artists encouraging them to make interesting as opposed to sell-able work.

    3.  The market in San Diego is other artists.  There are thousands here.  Most (not all) support themselves (some quite well) in other ways.  Artists need to buy work (not trade), pay to go to openings, pay gallery commissions, rent work from each other.  Any way possible pump money into the local art scene and then it will grow.  It is up to us, New York is just an illusion and a snare.


    Finally I believe in art gyms where people gather and are enabled to create their art.  Arts money would be better spent in San Diego enabling artists with only a few hours free time to produce work and grow their art. 

    Dan Adams
    Dan Adams

    I've lived in San Diego my entire life, been creating art since 1976, & have to agree with & add that this is by far the worst time ever for a local artist in San Diego.  I agree with Jennifer Spencer that there needs to be a Municipal Art Gallery in San Diego.  Unfortunately, San Diego tolerates but is not really interested with anything having to do with local art. Small galleries come & go, & the very few high level galleries are just not  interested in local art, period.  If you have a day job, & are not dependent on your art to make a living, then San Diego is a great place to live. If an artist wants to make a living solely from their art, then San Diego is not the place to be.

    Jennifer Spencer
    Jennifer Spencer subscriber

    Unfortunately, the City of San Diego lacks a Municipal Gallery.  This kind of gallery can be an incubator for rising young artists, mid-career artists as well as for artists' retrospectives, giving the community a broad prospective on local talent.  As a non-profit, a Municipal Gallery, can apply for grants from City/State/Federal sources in support of programs bring the exposure of local artist to a community.  There is no pressure to sell work. 

    The closest institution dedicated to the local art community and its development is the Oceanside Museum.  Until the City of San Diego and its Commission for Arts and Culture push the City for this kind of institution, the existing situation will persist in San Diego. Oceanside is way ahead of San Diego.  Such a shame, considering that the San Diego is so much larger than Oceanside. 

    John Mireles
    John Mireles

    @Jennifer Spencer The old library would be a great location for a municipal gallery. Having said that, having more places to show art still doesn't create more opportunities for artists to sell art. Artists need to make a living if art is to flourish. 

    Felix King
    Felix King

    @Jennifer Spencer Ship in the Woods is sailing along with some really great art, exhibitions, but the same can be said that everyone else is saying.  Art, no buyers, lots of good ideas in this comment thread to propel the art community further though

    Jennifer Spencer
    Jennifer Spencer subscriber

    @Felix King @Jennifer Spencer Yes, Ship in the Woods has been doing great work.  An audience for art is something that is developed over time.  San Diego has been losing out over the past 20 years on the audience they could be developing for the visual arts.  Having a focal point such as a community gallery or municipal gallery lends credibility to the local visual art community, and helps to develop an audience for local artists. The museums are doing their best to draw attention to the visual arts and educate the public on what is good art. Local galleries are doing their best as well.  Unfortunately, there is a middle step missing in developing both the artists and the patrons..the municipal or community supported gallery. 


    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    Well, there's art and there's art. Thing is, a lot of those surfers and others who play also make art. We don't sell it, or try to get it in galleries, but it's all around you.


    Why do we need an artist when we can create our own art?

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    John. Not Sure how long you have been in New York but is the environment much better concerning making a living off visual arts?

    John Mireles
    John Mireles

    @Mark Giffin I could write a followup article on the NYC side of things. It's a thriving scene with more galleries in one block of my apartment than all of San Diego. There are literally hundreds of galleries here that show - and sell - work from emerging to established artists. I meet visual and performing artists all over the place. I go for drinks with curators and gallery directors. I meet people who are in insurance, media and finance who have arts degrees. People ask intelligent, educated questions about my work. They get art here.


    I think the thing that convinced me to move to NY was when I was introduced to someone in business who, after seeing what I do, asked for my information because he enjoyed collecting art. That never happens in SD. In one day, I make more connections than I would in a year of being in San Diego. There's just no comparison between the two cities when it comes to visual art. Anyone serious about making a living from their art just needs to pack up and move to New York.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @John Mireles @Mark Giffin 

    Thanks for the reply John.

    Sounds like you are way more upbeat in that environment and way more stimulated with the art scene.

    best to you.

    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    Some career advice I got early on, which I think applies to many careers, go east when you're young, come back when you've made it.  I didn't follow this advice, however, and don't regret it.  So there you go.