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San Diego's Art Scene Can't Stop Asking Itself: 'What's Wrong With Me?'

For years, folks have been organizing panels and discussions on why San Diego doesn’t have a more vibrant arts scene. Here are 10 points that continually resurface in the arts world’s neverending soul-searching quest.

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.

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.

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