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A once-limitless arts space – and the person behind it – find closure.
“It feels like a living thing,” Josh Pavlick said from the old couch inside his art space, Helmuth Projects, slated to officially shutter its doors on April 1. Pavlick is called many things by the press and his peers, ranging from owner to director, neither of which he likes. “In a way, it’s been my residency. I call myself facilities resident,” he said. “I’m taking care of this great space. I’m here living in it and taking care of it.”
Helmuth Projects took shape in early 2011. A group of friends and artists started taking turns hosting art shows in their homes, and when it was Pavlick’s turn, he went all out. And never really stopped.
“When it was my turn I just kinda went a little bit further and built some walls,” he said. “I bought a row of track lights.” Shortly after the success of the mini-gallery, when a friend walked by the current Helmuth location in Banker’s Hill and saw a for lease sign, she called Pavlick right away. “And two days later I had the keys,” he said.
He moved in, effectively squatting in the commercially zoned building, but one of Pavlick’s favorite things about “the block,” is how under-the-radar it is. Nestled between Hillcrest and downtown, “it’s like we had the cloak of invisibility. It’s like this weird forgotten neighborhood.”
But the space is not entirely invisible. Last summer, an undercover vice team showed up to an event with live music and shut the event down, citing lack of permits. The crackdown coincided with increased arts and events enforcement throughout the city.
It’s impossible to talk about event venues, underground arts projects and permits without talking about Ghost Ship, the Oakland tragedy in which 36 people died in a fire in an unpermitted arts space. Ghost Ship is now shorthand for the demise of DIY, accessible and affordable venues for artists to create and share work together.
After the raid, Pavlick instantly crowd-funded $7,000 for legal support and – so far – fended off any type of case. “That’s kind of the whole thing about this project, I just started doing this thing, and then San Diego just …” Pavlick gestured with a sound that was somewhere between a suction cup and an explosion, “… totally just carried it.”
But in the meantime, he received word that the building has been sold and will be torn down to build condos. “It’s been this weird thing I just keep hanging onto even though I can’t afford it, and wondering how to end it,” Pavlick said. “And then the building sold.”
“The project’s cool, but this space is just magic,” he marveled. “I think it already was really cool, and then so many people put so much energy into it, that it’s been really hard to actually walk away from it.”
Helmuth Projects focused its energies on being a space for things artists couldn’t necessarily do anywhere else. Large-scale installations, site-specific works, extended residencies that sometimes involved artists setting up a tent and living in the space. Pavlick doesn’t seem to like limits, so he did his best to avoid placing them on the project. No public funding, no nonprofit status, no board of directors making decisions about the next show. Nobody to answer to.
“I just wanna do what I wanna do,” he said. “I did get a business license once, but I’m not good at taxes and all that kind of stuff.”
To close out Helmuth’s reign, Pavlick is hosting one final residency. Andrew Alcasid, whose work Pavlick describes as “architectural interventions,” will spend the next few months installing pieces in the space, culminating in a March 30 opening. On April 1, Pavlick will turn over the keys.
Which such a short public viewing period, Pavlick and Alcasid will leave the work visible from the street in a final subversive act. “It’ll be ‘up’ until they tear the building down, so it’s like a weird workaround with not having to pay rent, but we actually have a show up.”
When asked if, had the building not been sold, he would continue Helmuth despite his debt, Pavlick gets philosophical.
“That weaves right into the whole magic of this spot, it just sort of landing in my lap,” he said. The closing of the place also landed in his lap. “I’ve never had anything be so easy. I just feel like I stepped into something that’s bigger than me,” he said. But ultimately, “No, I couldn’t keep going.”
Pavlick isn’t worried about creative restlessness, and lights up as he rattles off countless projects and collaborations he sees for himself – and San Diego – on the horizon. For now, he only mourns the space.
“There’s been, like, 118 years of people living their lives in this place,” he said. “And we’re gonna be the last tenants.”