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Downtown Still Has Way to Go --Artistically

San Diego County Arts Editor

A Friday evening, downtown San Diego, circa 1990:

The streets are bustling with a spirited throng of visitors and residents. Some head for Symphony Hall--formerly the Fox Theatre, and now splendidly redecorated--where the San Diego Symphony Orchestra performs proudly and profitably. Others take in the San Diego Opera, which holds forth year-round at the Civic Theatre.

Fronting Broadway is Horton Plaza, half a decade old and now downtown’s centerpiece, the focus of shopping, dining, entertainment, adventurous public artworks. On the top level, a seven-screen motion picture complex offers first-run films; below the plaza’s first floor, acclaimed new productions by the San Diego Repertory Theatre and other groups draw playgoing crowds to two intimate theaters. The eastern wing shelters the San Diego Art Center, where exhibitions of modern art and design flourish.

At the waterfront sits a warehouse annex of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, housing the museum’s renowned permanent collection and modern art treasures from the fabled collection of Italy’s Count Giusseppe Panza. On the twin peninsulas of Embarcadero Park towers the most ambitious work to date by one of America’s greatest living artists, Ellsworth Kelly--a 70-foot Minimalist monolith of stainless steel, matched by a great concrete prow, a cutting edge against the night.

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Viewed from the Coronado Bridge, San Diego’s downtown is a compact cultural jewel of art and architecture, the envy of the West.

So goes the dream.

While it may not come true, at least the specifics in the above scenario are in place, planned or proposed. Downtown San Diego stands a chance of growing into a cultural oasis if everything clicks into place: a steady, successful pace for downtown redevelopment, a steady rise in downtown’s residential population, the long-term success of Horton Plaza as a commercial magnet, the vitality of the convention center area, and growing public and political support for the arts and artists.

If all this comes together, San Diego will have achieved what precious few cities--Toronto, Pittsburgh and Seattle among them--have managed, a contrast to the many failed urban renewal efforts of the 1970s and ‘80s.

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“I think it’s appropriate to be skeptical right now. The odds are against us,” conceded Gerald Hirshberg, the Nissan Design Center chief who stands prime among San Diego’s cultural dreamers. As head of the five-member arts advisory panel for the San Diego Unified Port District and the Centre City Development Corp., Hirshberg tempers his idealism with a strong sense of purpose.

“It’s going to take a commitment on the part of everybody to the same vision--that we have a vibrant urban center,” Hirshberg said. “And I think most people do agree that a healthy center is a significant part of what San Diego is trying to become. Mainly, I like the fact that the vision seems to be going toward downtown as a center of culture and entertainment rather than as a dinner, gambling or nightclub center.”

But Hirshberg knows there are countless variations on any vision. Several weeks ago, he ran headlong into what he termed “the typical San Diego reaction” (conservative) to adventurous art when port commissioners elected to delay for 90 days a decision on the $450,000 Ellsworth Kelly Embarcadero Park sculpture selected by Hirshberg’s panel. Not only did passionate public opposition to Kelly’s abstraction slow the port’s hand in commissioning the work, but it also seemed to reinforce San Diego’s image as a slow-to-change town that prefers old-fashioned nautical monuments to new-age art.

“If San Diego is to become alive in the cultural sense, it’s going to have to drop a lot of its preconceptions and open itself up to public ferment,” Hirshberg insisted. “Even though not all of the public comment on the Ellsworth Kelly is positive, suddenly people are talking about aesthetics! My kids have even had a discussion on the Kelly in their classroom! We’re becoming a meeting ground for divergent tastes and opinions--and that defines culture.”

But not even the most optimistic arts-dreamer denies that San Diego lags far behind its urban competition in the area of public art--perhaps the most visible measure of downtown culture.

If approved, the Kelly work--which Kelly has already agreed to consider revising--would go a long way toward putting San Diego on the international art map.

In the meantime, downtown’s public art has a checkered image to overcome. The most recent major work of public sculpture, Sergio Benvenuti’s “Fountain of the Two Oceans” at the First Interstate Plaza, seems to please San Diego’s traditionalists, but those who favor modern art on the stylistic cutting edge have lambasted it as reactionary and even fascistic.

Indeed, Benvenuti’s work was to have been preceded downtown by a large-scale prismatic sculpture, “Rock, Water and Light,” by nationally renowned artist Charles Ross of New York. But Ross’ work, which was to have been installed almost a year ago in the Wells Fargo Bank plaza at Front Street and Broadway, has been delayed by the bank building’s need for structural redesign of its plaza site.

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Otherwise, downtown’s public art has failed to generate much interest. For example, the city’s most acclaimed public artwork, Beverly Pepper’s 1975 steel wedge sculpture, “Excalibur,” has not only fallen into disrepair but is virtually invisible, tucked away beneath the Federal Building at the dead-end of Front and E streets.

San Diego’s public art problem could be dramatically addressed should the City Council adopt a contemplated percentage-for-art ordinance. Such a measure would require that 2% of the total capital improvement budget for any individual development project be budgeted for public artworks. The ordinance has been formulated by the city’s Public Arts Advisory Board (PAAB), a panel of local artists, arts administrators, architects and business people formed within the last year. Despite a lack of money, the PAAB has begun to focus on the city’s need for an arts plan.

“The percentage-for-art ordinance is long overdue,” said Art Skolnik, the urban-projects expert who heads the Gaslamp Quarter Council. A potentially quaint historical district strategically positioned between Broadway, Harbor Drive and 4th to 6th avenues, the Gaslamp Quarter will have to overcome its image as a sleazy porn and pawn area to help fulfill downtown’s promise. Skolnik views the growth of public art, galleries, artists’ space and theater as crucial to Gaslamp’s hopes.

It’s not that city officials have turned a deaf ear to appeals to support the arts. Mayor Roger Hedgecock has maintained a high art-support profile from the beginning of his current term, while such potential mayoral successors as Councilmen Mike Gotch, William Jones and Uvaldo Martinez have made support of the arts a priority. And the City Council has steadfastly backed the risky effort to transform the historic Balboa Theater into the San Diego Art Center, despite preservationists’ efforts to maintain the Balboa as a theater.

In February, the council designated the 120-square block area bordered by Broadway, Commercial Avenue, I-5 and 4th Avenue as an “arts neighborhood,” a land-use designation that emphasizes the creation of loft space for artists. In early March, the council approved amending the building code, exempting the area from certain earthquake safety requirements and thus permitting the old Showley’s Candy Factory building at 8th Avenue and K Street--which had been renovated illegally by its 16 tenants--to become downtown’s premier site for artists who live in their studios.

At this point, downtown landlords Bud Fischer and Morey Slayen, respectively, have undertaken renovations for artists’ live-in studios and commercial art space in the old Salvation Army Building at 8th Avenue and J Street, and a property at 7th Avenue and G Street. Live/work space for artists is already flourishing at 920 E St. And a downtown group called the Artists Resource Center is negotiating with Stan Foster for a lease on his 100,000-square-foot Ratner Corp. Building at 730 13th St., which could hold 30 to 50 units for artists.

Demand for such space, which typically rents for about 50 cents a square foot, is high, and is coming from outside San Diego.

In the last year the number of art galleries downtown has nearly doubled to two dozen, as many of them have moved from higher-rent locations. The current model for a successful downtown gallery-studio complex is the 9/G Arts Complex, on G Street between 9th and 8th, which landlord Betty Slater has renovated exclusively for artistic uses.

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But with this growth comes the inevitable Catch-22: as previously undesirable areas turn trendy, the financial squeeze tightens.

“Before, (downtown’s art community) used to be a very grass roots, let’s-do-it-on-our-own kind of thing,” said Patty Aande, whose modern art gallery is in the 9/G Arts Complex. Before relocating there, Aande’s space had been in the heart of the Gaslamp, where redevelopment efforts wound up displacing many artists and gallery owners.

“But now,” she said, “it’s more a matter of planned intervention, with real estate people stepping in, and that changes the whole thing. People’s rents have been going up. Not long ago, you got 1,200 square feet downtown for about $150 (a month); now that space is renting for about $500--though that’s still better than you’d do someplace like La Jolla.

“Still, all of us here wouldn’t want to be anywhere else even if the rent was comparable, because we like the feeling of being in the urban environment.

Another 9/G tenant, gallery owner Mark Quint, relocated downtown in early 1983 from the posh, pricey confines of La Jolla, where he built a strong modern-art clientele. Quint said he hasn’t lost a single client since his move southward and noted that his rent is one-third what it was in La Jolla. He also points out that if art followers in La Jolla think downtown is sleazy, it’s a picture of safety compared to areas patrons must venture into to visit galleries in New York and Los Angeles.

“I came downtown because it’s a central area,” Quint said. “But, yeah, I have my anxieties about it. I worry about its ambiance and its growing power, though I tend to think positively. Generally, I worry that too much power will be put in the hands of bureaucrats who don’t know about art. Another problem is that a lot of the people here don’t trust their own instincts and eyes when it comes to art. They’ll take a five-hour plane ride to New York and buy the same artists and artwork they could buy here. It’s going to take time.”

Then there’s Stephen Ross, whose family had operated International Gallery, specializing in primitive folk art and crafts, for five years in La Mesa. Late last year, Ross relocated to a large space at 643 G St.--a major investment, with striking renovation and design by local architect Kotaro Nakamura.

Ross said the move has begun to pay off.

“There’s certainly an art movement developing downtown,” he said. “And there are the clients from La Mesa who follow us here. In addition to those people, I’m getting greater response from the community just being in San Diego. I think there was always a feeling in the city that if something is worth seeing, no way can it be found in La Mesa. So that hurdle was immediately jumped when we came downtown. I’m encouraged.”

But the true core of any downtown arts movement is its artists. Resident theater artists like those of the Gaslamp Quarter, Bowery and San Diego Repertory theaters have every reason to be optimistic--the audiences are growing, the reviews are glowing. The Gaslamp Quarter Theater is moving to a larger facility across the street from its 547 5th Ave. site. These theaters are already breeding the crucial night life that Horton Plaza and its attractions promise to expand.

Yet Horton Plaza’s scheduled Aug. 9 opening will fall short, culturally. Neither its two-theater underground complex nor its seven-screen cinema will be operational at the center’s opening, though the San Diego Art Center does plan to feature modern art exhibitions at a temporary space inside the plaza. In the case of the Horton Plaza theaters, the problem of structuring a theater in a hard-to-get-to underground space--"building a ship in a bottle,” as project architect Gene Weston puts it--has delayed construction.

In most urban development projects, such delays are to be expected and tolerated. But the cultural hitch in Horton Plaza’s big bow strengthens the skeptics who seriously doubt downtown’s viability as an art center.

But one needn’t venture out of downtown to encounter skepticism. For years, the short end of San Diego’s cultural stick has gone to its visual artists, the painters and sculptors who settled years ago in low-rent downtown, and who now watch a brave new world taking shape around them. For some of them --Raul Guerrero, Gillian Theobald, Jay Johnson and Gary Ghirardi--local recognition has begun to widen into national exposure. But they’re wary of being co-opted.

“I always saw the downtown art community forming as its own entity, not concerning the public. The public’s out in left field, not appreciating what artists do or why,” said Ghirardi, who produces modern sculpture and drawings in his Island Avenue loft. A New Jersey native, Ghirardi, 29, moved to downtown San Diego in 1978 and co-founded two local galleries

--the 552 Gallery, which is no longer in operation, and Installation Gallery, which is.

“I think the downtown arts movement is a trendy thing right now, attracting a lot of neophytes . . . of art,” he observed. “It seems to create a lot of energy, but also a lot of bull.”

But there’s not much doubt that something has begun. Boosterism may be the rule at this point, but there is also a strong sense of no-turning-back, of forging into 21st-Century culture whatever the cost.

“The stage has been set for downtown San Diego to get over its inferiority complex,” the Gaslamp Quarter’s Skolnik vowed. “That is, if we structure ourselves to do it, end the various separate designations and turfdoms, and focus on downtown as a total entity. The doomsayers don’t believe it can happen, but their apathy and lack of participation only gets in the way. Those of us who have a feel for what downtown should be won’t take no for an answer.”


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