There's no sign of a gallery from the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue, Downtown, as a crowd walks past a yoga studio and down an unmarked flight of stairs. Well below street level, more people are gathered for an art opening. Even though the room is large, low ceilings and poor ventilation make it slightly claustrophobic, but no one seems to notice.
A shattered mirror, flanked by bathroom cabinets, dominates one wall. Empty prescription-medicine bottles line one of the white cabinets, while bottles marked with the names of marijuana strains sit on the other. The crowd stares, apparently fascinated by water flowing through plastic tubes that lead from the wall to a series of jugs holding plants.
It's called "Your Better Self," and it's an art installation built by brother-and-sister team Alexander and Savannah Jarman. An installation, Savannah explains, is a sculpture that people can walk into, "creating an experience and emotions rather than a work for people to stand back and look at."
The setting is Canvas Gallery, which changed hands earlier this year after launching in 2011 as Zepf Alt Gallery. The space is one of only a handful of locations around the city where artists can show their work without the pressures of a commercial gallery.
However, these spaces often have a limited lifecycle. The last 12 months saw the closure of Double Break, Garage 4141, Habitat House, Periscope Project and Sala de Espera. The influential Agitprop closed its North Park location and is revising its mission. And experimental project Art Boxed did not return for a second year.
"All the greatest galleries that I've ever loved have lasted less than five years," said Dan Allen, the new owner of Canvas Gallery. "I've seen so many places come and go in San Diego, and I really didn't want to lose this place.
"There's a lot of forward-thinking people that can do interesting work if they're given the space to do it," Allen added.
Call them "alternative," "experimental" or "nontraditional," these spaces are an essential part of an art ecosystem. They are the testing ground where young artists gain traction and established artists try out new concepts.
The fluctuating nature of alternative art spaces is "regretful but understandable," says Alexander Jarman, who is also public programs manager at the San Diego Museum of Art. He compares nontraditional art spaces to the Hydra of Greek mythology. "They're like a seven-headed serpent monster. You can cut one head off and the next one will grow right back in its place."
Barrio Logan's Bread & Salt is one of the newcomers. James Brown is two years into his renovation of a century-old, 43,000- square-foot building that once housed a commercial bakery. Brown and his investors have bold plans for artists' studios, housing, a café, community garden and multiple galleries.
Art Pulse moved in this fall, opening its gallery on Nov. 7. The San Diego Museum of Art operates an "Open Spaces" program with artist-in-residence Roberto Salas, Bob Matheny is curating the tiny Not an Exit Gallery, Jason Lane has set up shop with JXL Studio and Bonnie Wright's "Fresh Sound" music series is scheduled through 2014.
Brown says that the long-awaited reopening of Ice Gallery inside Bread & Salt will happen before the end of the year. That's also his target to have the building fully functional. The public will be able to see the space at the first open house, from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6. A shared gallery, Pan y Sol, will display David Harrison's photographs of the vintage baking equipment found onsite.
One of the quirkier spaces, South Park's Disclosed UnLocation, expanded from quarterly openings to a more frequent schedule of "anything thought-provoking, creative, community-building, progressive, inspiring, necessary," according to a new mission statement. If that's not broad enough, a little note adds that proposals representing "even the opposite" are welcome.
UnLocation, as the participants call it, was founded by Jfre Coad to focus on "up-and-comers, esoterics, unknowns and the ultra wily." Two years and 10 exhibitions later, Coad recruited four partners to help share the workload. One of them, Cristina Trecha, sees a connection between her background as a scientist and the role of experimental art spaces.
"You're thinking of questions and introducing variables," she explains. "When we say experimental,' it really is, What would happen if we did this?' and then What would happen if we did this? It's important to ask those questions and not just expect that experimental' means newest and best.' That is not an assumption, I think, that we should make."
Alternative spaces push boundaries, spark discussion and introduce us to "the kind of art that makes me feel funny inside," says Josh Pavlick, who's run Helmuth Projects for two years.
Pavlick peers into a large hole cut into the floor of the storefront he rents in a Bankers Hill strip mall, which doubles as his living space and the latest home of Helmuth. The hole reveals a cavernous area underneath the old building. Jagged wood beams look like they've been torn, and close examination shows some blackened by a long-ago fire. Cool air drifts up from the darkness, carrying a musty smell of damp and dirt.
The hole is part of an art installation titled "Fontaine (monument)" created by Robert Andrade and Timothy Earl Neill for the exhibition Phantom Gardens Fortified Cities (monuments). On the wall, four mirrored gold brackets surround an area that appears to be blank except for a faint yellowish stain, the remnants of a bottle of Chanel No. 5. It's called "Logo (monument)." They are fundamentally unsalable pieces in an exhibition that deals with wealth and the merchandising of public space.
That makes Helmuth's next experiment all the more striking: The gallery will sell artwork. Object Object!, opening Saturday, Nov. 16, is co-curated by John Lewis and Jessica McCambly. It features small works by 71 highly respected local, national and international artists, all priced under $300. It's a big transition for a place that Pavlick has strived to keep "simple and seamless."
"If there was a mission statement, it's, like, You can come and do something that you can't do somewhere else,' because there's nothing about having to pay for it," he says. "That's the business model. All I'm sacrificing is a living room."
For his part, Pavlick is adamant that he doesn't want to become a "gallerist," shaking his head at the thought of keeping regular hours or judging work on commercial potential. "It's liberating to not have that lens anywhere near me when I'm looking at what I want to do."
Lynn Susholtz's North Park space Art Produce is one of the few alternative galleries with longevity. Susholtz purchased the building in 1999, renovated it and reopened it as an art gallery in 2001. She added a community garden in 2010, used for film screenings, workshops, art installations and events. A third renovation in 2012 expanded the gallery and made room for a café, creating a synergistic relationship between the tenants, restaurant and art.
She chuckles when talking about her "atypical business model," devoting the most lucrative space to the gallery: "It's a non-profit-making enterprise, but not a nonprofit."
"I wasn't going to show typical commercial work," she says. "It's very hard for anyone to survive on selling paintings and sculpture."
Giving into what she calls her "citizen artist alter-ego," she elaborates on what alternative spaces mean for an urban area:
The gallery "gives folks a chance to have public culture in their own neighborhood and a sense of what it's like to be in a creative space. A lot of people who live around here, [they've] never been to a gallery. They're not going to pay $12 to take their family to a museum. It should be free and it should be in their neighborhoods. Everyone should have an opportunity to be engaged."
Susholtz works to build dialogue between her gallery and the public but sees San Diego as lacking in opportunities for citywide discussion—a thought echoed by many of the others interviewed.
"There's a tripod of art production, art patronage and art criticism, theory, discourse," she says. "We don't have many options for cultural discourse. Once you're out of school, it's done. We can't be a growing, changing community if we don't have places for discourse and public culture. There seem to be a lot of people in the art-production piece of the tripod, fewer people in the patronage, and even fewer in the cultural dialogue.
"There's the building of public space, creating infrastructure. Everyone's talking about that because that's where the dollars are," she adds. "But who's actually creating the culture? Who are the artists, who are the theorists, the thinkers, the doers and the makers who need to be part of the discussion? Where's the leadership?"
Susholtz hopes that the city's Commission for Arts and Culture will soon find "a dynamic, visionary force" and that the next mayor will support the nascent Civic Innovation Lab that former Mayor Bob Filner created. It remains to be seen, though, if art—particularly experimental visual art— will be at the table. San Diego is a theater-and-music town first.
Then there's what Alexander Jarman called "the audience factor." Most experimental venues are self-funded, which doesn't leave much of a budget for promotion, other than Facebook. San Diego's alternative spaces could show the same caliber work as Los Angeles yet bring in much smaller crowds. Some find that disheartening. It contributes to an atmosphere that Larry Caveney of Garage 4141 calls "a touch-and-go city" and part of the reason why Dan Allen says that "everyone seems to have this one-way ticket in their back pocket. It's a tourist town, and you're on your way somewhere else."
Jarman takes a pragmatic view of turnover. "We've had a lot of great stuff come and go. That's our norm, that's our rhythm," he says. "There's always something weird and exciting just on the horizon. There are interesting people who—whether or not they stay here—are here for some amount of time and do these types of things."
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