Photo by Xavier Vasquez
Panel at Bread and Salt
Artists, by nature, are an opinionative bunch. Stick them in a room or, better yet, let them air their grievances on a Facebook thread with a bunch of other artistically inclined people and the likely result will be chaos and disorder however well-intentioned.
Such was the case when Voice of San Diego’s Kinsee Morlan posted a rather harmless editorial from artist John Raymond Mireles titled “Why I Left San Diego’s Art Scene Behind.” The photographer, who recently moved from Logan Heights to New York, cited a number of reasons as to why he left but more controversially cited San Diego’s “little opportunity for ambitious artists to grow artistically and succeed financially.” The response to the piece ranged from defensiveness to agreeable, with dozens of people within the arts community weighing in.
If anything good came out of the original Facebook post, it inspired James Brown to host a panel discussion at his Bread & Salt art space in Logan Heights this past Saturday (a link to an audio recording of the panel can be found here). With Morlan serving as moderator of the discussion, some notable artists and arts advocates (myself included) sat down to discuss the topic of “What Does San Diego’s Art Scene Need to Thrive?” The answers were as varied and tangential as one might imagine, but here are some of the more pressing points:
• Affordable housing is key: “If we do not do something as citizens about the lack of affordable housing, then we’re going to be forced out,” said Cris Scorza, education curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. However, panelists were hard-pressed to point out any local programs that may help artists with housing and mostly listed examples of what other cities are doing.
• Collectors aren’t buying local: “There’s not a sufficient base of collectors in San Diego who are willing to plunk down money and buy art work,” said Larry Baza, a long time arts supporter and chair of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. This is absolutely true. Most of San Diego’s wealthy denizens choose to look at art as decorative investment and rely on brokers, often from L.A. and New York, to guide them. Those brokers are not looking at San Diego, but this may have something to do with the fact that…
• There’s a severe lack of arts marketing: I brought this point up, and I’ll admit that it didn’t really register with the crowd. However, as someone who has worked in the media for over a decade, I know how important marketing and PR can be. San Diego has a ton of boutique PR firms, but none are devoted entirely to the fields of music and visual art. Even firms in other cities like Austin and Portland take on pro-bono clients in order to support the city’s arts community. And while there are a ton of local firms in San Diego, only a handful take on these types of clients and almost none of them are visual artists.
• Artists need to be more involved: Baza was particularly adept at pointing out the need for artists to be more politically involved, especially when it comes to the purse holders over at the County Board of Supervisors. I couldn’t agree more. If artists want more opportunities from the city, they have to be politically involved on a local level.
• We need to look more closely at our relationship with Tijuana: This was a point brought up by not only Baza, but several attendees as well. While I agree in spirit that both art scenes could be better served with more bi-national collaboration, the logistics might prove to be complicated. What’s more, while San Diego’s relationship with Tijuana is fruitfully symbiotic, it is naïve and just a bit insulting to both cities to suggest, as one attendee did, that we should begin to refer to the scene as some kind of combinative “international metropolis.”
• Artists shouldn’t rely solely on a scene to define them: As artist Michael James Armstrong eloquently put it, “Luck favors the prepared.” What he meant was that artists need to work harder to perfect their own craft and spend less time worrying about fitting into a so-called scene. Artist Andrea Chung, who was in the audience, echoed these sentiments during the Q & A portion of the evening. That if you want to be a successful artist, you have to market yourself and not simply wait for a scene to prop you up.
Despite Brown’s request to have “actionable things” result from the conversation, I’d be surprised if anyone in the audience came out with any better sense of how to make the local art scene thrive. Sure, there were some handy tips peppered throughout the evening, but most of the panelists seemed defensive and self-promotional while much of the audience seemed only to want to relay their personal stories of struggle. I don’t blame them, really. When the topic of the discussion is so broad, it can be very difficult to truly diagnose the problem and prescribe a solution.
Overall, it was a somewhat frustrating evening, but not because of any lack of effort or passion on the part of the panelists and attendees. Sure, most of the people who complained and opined on that original Facebook post didn’t even bother to show up, but what I did come away with was that there should be more of these types of panels with more narrow focuses. There was a suggestion that they have them every quarter. I know I would attend them, be it as a panelist or an audience member.