San Diego's Cultural Catch-22 - Voice of San Diego

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San Diego's Cultural Catch-22

Without affordable venues to show one’s work, there is at best limited exposure to the audiences that are interested in contemporary local art.

La Bodega Gallery / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

There is no doubt that art is flourishing in San Diego County with numerous talents working to achieve a higher caliber of work than has been seen before. Unfortunately, due to the peculiar nature of the arts and cultural industries in San Diego, much of the best work — coming out of galleries and breweries in places like Barrio Logan — goes unseen and unappreciated.

San Diego is a divided city geographically, economically and culturally. There is no centralized focus, no single source of exposure as one finds in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. The canyons that divide our communities do not just offer beautiful views of the natural topography; they also define and isolate neighborhoods based on property values, rents and the costs of amenities.

Voice of San Diego CommentaryThe business of art has always been dependent on a steady flow of new work by artists who are working and subsisting in their communities as they develop their distinctive voices and perspectives and reflect on the environments around them. Art is the science of culture and any science needs laboratories in which theories can be tried, applied and shaped by the environment.

But those laboratories are becoming harder to find and afford, and that needs to change.

Arts districts used to serve as places of aesthetic innovation and local culture, but their successes are waning.

To succeed and endure, there must be more of a financial incentive and tax breaks for investing in the sustainability of affordable work spaces for working artists. We need an all-encompassing strategy for nurturing the arts and cultural talents already here. We don’t just need a museum for comics and the popular arts; we need exhibitions dedicated to the new Chicano art. We need tax breaks and rent control for the warehouse districts that now house and support many of our city’s artists. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Barrio Logan Arts District only recently established by the state of California, where Chicano art was born and raised.

Unfortunately, some of the best work never sees well-deserved exposure outside of the Barrio galleries like the Bodega Gallery, Salt & Bread and even Border X’s ongoing exhibitions on the nightclub walls of the brewery. This is yet another example of the cultural canyons that divide San Diego’s arts scene.

The museums of Balboa Park as well as the upmarket galleries in Little Italy, La Jolla and the North Coastal county are a positive step in the right direction, but the space, taste and scope those communities offer is limited to already successful artists. Most, if not all, of those gallery owners are in the business of exhibiting and selling artwork by big-name artists to affluent buyers to sustain their businesses.

The elitism that one finds among the established collectors and auction crowd, however, offers little opportunity for new talents who are trying to build their own reputations based on their success in the market. It’s a cultural Catch-22.

Without affordable venues to show one’s work, there is at best limited exposure to the audiences that are interested in contemporary local art. Online galleries are now a creative requirement, regardless of what medium you’re working in. But that means people are competing for screen time and relying on finely tuned search algorithms to promote their work that would have traditionally stood out in the window of your neighborhood gallery or coffeehouse or restaurant or brewery.

Art has always been the keystone of any metropolitan culture, be it Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Paris, London or Tokyo. But world-class cities require a robust and developing arts scene and the resources that are within the reach of working artists to nurture that scene. The fundamental role that art must play in public education is indisputable. With art comes discernment, perspective and most of all, human values. Artists more than deserve the support of our public agencies and communities to not only preserve but further the culture of our values.

Don’t just say you support the arts: Go out and buy some.

Igor Goldkind is a writer and “artivista” who places artists and their works in public and commercial spaces. He’s a native San Diegan.

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