Lynn Susholtz proudly looks around the garden and communal area of Art Produce, an art gallery and multi-use building in North Park. Five years ago, the garden area was an asphalt parking lot populated by homeless people. Nowadays, in addition to the communal picnic tables and potted herbs, there's a new sign, a new brewery tasting room and workers bustling to install new lights throughout the outside area.
It'd be easy to assume that Art Produce, after 15 years in business, is going through a second phase of growth and expansion, but Susholtz is quick to point out that the building's new additions and programs have been years in the making.
"This is phase 3.5 or something," says Susholtz, chuckling. She says there have been monumental changes over the years despite the consistent issue of funding. "I've always tried tot stay ahead of the neighborhood. To be flexible and responsive to the neighborhood while retaining an artist-centered cultural venue."
It's that last point that makes Art Produce both a neighborhood mainstay and a consistently evolving arts entity—in a part of town that has become increasingly less friendly to galleries and arts spaces. Susholtz recalls one of the first art shows she ever curated being held in the Claire de Lune coffeehouse, which permanently closed a few weeks before after nearly two decades in business. It's helped that she owns the Art Produce building and has used the rent money from tenants, such as ceviche restaurant Tostadas, to subsidize the arts programing, but she still says it's been sad to see neighborhood art spaces come and go over the years.
"I like to think of the changes here as making a private space public when everyone else in the neighborhood is in the business of privatizing public spaces," says Susholtz, who prides herself on being the daughter of a real estate agent father and an artist mother. "What's happening now has been the concept I had in mind all along—to create a cultural venue and figure out a way to create a cultural development project. I've been pushing for something like this since I moved into the neighborhood 26 years ago."
This grand culmination into a "cultural development project" begins on Saturday, May 14, at 6 p.m. when the majority of the building will host Looking Back/Forward, a retrospective art exhibition that will feature more than 25 local artists, all of whom have had solo shows at Art Produce. The rotating show will include site-specific installations as well as performance-based pieces and marks the beginning of regularly occurring activities within Art Produce. The months of May and June will feature artist talks, salons, pop-up dinners and social dances in the garden area.
A notable addition to the garden is a beer tasting room from ChuckAleck Brewers, who specialize in "old-world beers for new-school palates." Named after the founder and head brewer's grandfathers, the tasting room includes a mural of the men by local artist Janelle Despot. As Susholtz sits down at one of the communal picnic tables, a woman comes up to inquire about reserving the space for a party in a few weeks. It's easy to see how Susholtz is still getting the hang of some of the business aspects that come with having beautified the space.
"I wish I had a business background," Susholtz says. "I've been able to experiment since I own the space, but it's almost been like, 'Let's try this and see if it works,' and just tweak the formula from there."
One aspect that has helped significantly is that Art Produce, as of last year, became a nonprofit. This helped Susholtz secure a grant from the California Arts Council's Artists Activating Communities program. The first round of funding just came through and will be used to start an artist-in-residency program in 2017. In the meantime, San Antonio-based artist Patty Ortiz plans on hiring 12 neighborhood non-artists to help her construct a large-scale painting in July. There are also plans to turn what is being used as a meditation center into a dual exhibition space and "community room" studio for performances and various classes. The ultimate vision is to have the space be something for everyone.
"Economies and neighborhoods flourish when there's diversity," says Susholtz, who is also a member of the North Park Main Street Association. "I'm continuing to try to be a voice in the neighborhood. To keep the direction heading toward arts and culture; toward safe and interesting things for families and not just focusing on one demographic."
Back inside the space that houses Susholtz's office, she shows off a scan of a sketch she made in 2010 that outlines how she wanted the Art Produce space to evolve. She says back then she never had an "articulated master plan," but a closer inspection of the sketch reveals that most of the dozens of goals listed are now coming to fruition.
"I am embedded here. And I have the capacity to stay here in ways that others don't," says Susholtz, who shows off her own line of "Citizen Artist" t-shirts that use the slogan, "If We Don't Do It, Who Will?"
"It's just been this dynamic work in progress and I have continuously responded to the context of the neighborhood, the economy and the needs of those that are participating," she adds. "That has evolved over the years, and we just need to keep being fluid and dynamic."