Dec. 4 2013 01:16 PM

East Village nonprofit continues down the challenging path toward property ownership and lasting affordability

Photo courtesy of Space 4 Art

Standing in the parking lot of Space 4 Art, you can see four giant nearby cranes cutting up through the horizon, ready to help build the next stage of urban infill projects in San Diego's once-dilapidated, now-booming East Village.

Founders Cheryl Nickel (left) and Bob Leathers 
(top right) and new arts administrator Alisunn Curtin
stand around the model for a new permanent home.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

The role artists play in the gentrification of a neighborhood is nothing new. They find seemingly undesirable, affordable space and move in, activate and transform the block, attracting more and more people to the area. Property prices go up, and artists are forced out.

The inevitable predicament is precisely why Space 4 Art signed a lease on its 15th Street property back in 2010, knowing it was the start of a living, breathing experiment rather than a safe place to settle. While there was talk of buying the current space early on, it's clear now that the location is too close to Petco Park and the surrounding new construction to serve as a lasting enclave for the arts.

Space 4 Art offers affordable central space to artists via live / work units, studios and gallery space. There's a high demand for what it offers, measured by the extremely low vacancy rate. One of the unforeseen outcomes off the experiment is that the building has become a popular event venue, perhaps filling a void left by Sushi Contemporary Performance and Visual Arts, which closed in 2011.

But the success and popularity of the current location hasn't changed Space 4 Art's long-term vision. Property ownership has always been the goal. It doesn't want to get stuck in the cycle of perpetually pricing itself out.

"We've been working hard for permanence," says Bob Leathers, cofounder, along with his wife Cheryl Nickel and artist Chris Warr, of Space 4 Art.

Leathers says the organization is closer than ever to achieving that goal. An architect by training, he's even built an impressive model depicting a contemporary, mixed-use building that will serve as the permanent headquarters for Space 4 Art. He says the organization has a purchase offer on a nice chunk of land at 2529 Market St. in Sherman Heights. If all goes well, he says they'll close on the property by April 2014. Now they just have to figure out how to fund the new building.

"It's not an easy task," Leathers says. 

By his calculations, an approximately $4-million funding shortfall will need to be filled.

Securing a permanent home for Space 4 Art will become even more pressing in coming months. Bob Sinclair, former owner of the current Space 4 Art property, died in a motorcycle accident in 2011. His heirs will put the property on the market next year. And even though Space 4 Art has a lease for the next four years, if the property sells and the organization's unable to reach an agreement with the new owners, it could be kicked out with just six months' notice.

Leathers and Nickels say that even if Space 4 Art loses its home before the new space is ready, they'll find a way to keep things going.

"We haven't done all of this to have it end," Leathers says. "It isn't going to."

Space 4 Art's path to permanency has had some twists and turns this past year. In late January, the owners hired a new executive director, Patric Stillman, who, along with his assistant, Kait Sewell, helped get the organization ready for a major capital campaign to fund the new building. In April, Space 4 Art officially achieved nonprofit status, opening the door to grants and other fundraising. Yet, by as early as June, Leathers says the enthusiasm for the capital campaign was waning. By September, the founders decided to go another direction, which didn't include the need for an executive director, and Stillman tendered his resignation in September. Sewell left shortly thereafter.

The sudden change of course caused Space 4 Art board member Vernon Franck, a new member of the city of San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture, to resign. Franck says he didn't agree with letting the executive director go. He felt the board should have been allowed to explore other options, but he says their arms were tied by Leathers, who didn't want to listen to other recommendations.

"I love everything about Space 4 Art," Franck says. "It's important to me, and they can count on my continued support, but as someone who was asked to help further the mission of the space, I was frustrated by the lack of the ability of a governing board to do its governance and the failure of a founder to follow our guidance."

The sudden departure of two key administrators and a prominent board member didn't go unnoticed by the artist tenants. Justin Hudnall, executive director of narrative-arts production and education nonprofit So Say We All and a tenant at Space 4 Art (as well as an occasional CityBeat contributor), says he's concerned about the organization's direction.

"We are sitting on a property that has all of these studios, this potential to rent, this constant flow of income, and yet we can't keep one person around to run a capital campaign," he says. "I see the model for the new building developing, but I haven't heard any talk about how it's going to get paid for at all, and I'm beginning to think it's conjecture, because I don't see Qualcomm or Irwin Jacobs stepping in at the last minute to help fund things."

Hudnall believes the organization needs an executive director and a board that's allowed to provide governance, in part so that it has a better chance at scoring grants. He says it's time for Leathers to let Space 4 Art operate more like a nonprofit rather than a private enterprise.

Leathers, who recently stepped back in as board president when the former president took a leave of absence due to illness, admits that it's been hard for him to let go of leadership, but he says he's ready to give up the reins.

A So Say We All event
Photo by Matt Lewis

"The three founders are stepping back," Leathers says. "It's been difficult to do, personally, quite frankly, but I have to do it because I need to focus on the architecture of the new building."

Space 4 Art recently hired a new arts administrator, Alisunn Curtin, and Leathers and Nickel say they're exploring alternative options to fund the new building, such as tax credits and offering market-rate condominiums on the top floor of the new space to help offset the cost of the affordable units.

"I love what they're doing," says David Malmuth, a developer with IDEA Partners who's been consulting with Space 4 Art on a development strategy. "I hope they can find someone who's willing to provide some serious money, because that's what it's going to take…. But if we get this right and we get people behind this, I think it's something that can spark other arts-and-culture projects in the area. It will start to build confidence that we can get things like this done."

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