Monday, October 17, 2005 | For 35 years, journeyman artist Scott Kuhnly has methodically produced landscape watercolors from a storefront studio on West Grand Avenue in downtown Escondido. As the sole artist in what was by all accounts a cultural wasteland, Kuhnly is now dwarfed by 15 neighboring galleries housing 30 artists’ studios and showing the work of hundreds more, four museums, nearly two dozen public art installations and North County’s cultural behemoth, the California Center for the Arts, Escondido.

The arts facilities account in large part for a downtown vacancy rate that has plummeted from nearly 30 percent to less than 2 percent. In a town with an acknowledged image problem, that is a significant accomplishment

“I’ve been here forever,” said Kuhnly. “I was the first artist downtown and I’ve seen a really big change.”

The Escondido Art Association, which has been nurturing local artists since 1956, will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. Seven years ago, the 200-member nonprofit organization settled into a small Grand Avenue storefront. “Escondido was a ghost town,” said Marty Tiedeman, the association’s director.

“Now we feel great about having a gallery on Grand Avenue,” she added. “There is community interest in the arts. People from out of town are discovering Escondido.”

Shiva, one of Grand Avenue’s fledgling galleries, is a trendy mixed-use enterprise with a warren of rented artist studios tucked behind a storefront gallery representing about 50 artists, some of whom also offer classes. With a quirky range of contemporary artwork ranging from bronze-throned frogs to recycled-chopsticks lamps as well as painting, glass and fiber arts, the gallery has seen healthy sales since opening a year ago.

Acknowledging that Escondido once was stagnant, Shiva owner Melissa Ralston is upbeat about the city’s current arts profile. “Escondido has changed,” said Ralston. “And the downtown has charm and character, not like the strip malls.”

Kuhnly, Tiedeman and Ralston typify the shared but cautious optimism of downtown Escondido’s gallery denizens. All told, the burgeoning arts district sweeps from the western tip of Grand Avenue near Orange Street, where the newly opened SANA Art Foundation exhibits a sophisticated raft of African, Oceanic and Native American art and, nearby, glassmaker Bill Kasper shares space with North County beadmakers, to the East Valley Parkway studio site of renowned glass artist Joan Irving.

The corridor encompasses a broad range of art, including the studio gallery of nationally recognized landscape artist Niles Nordquist; two prestigious galleries – Robert Wright, featuring California plein air paintings and the Lillian Berkley Collection, representing primarily Russian artists; and the year-old Distinction Gallery, a showcase for offbeat contemporary work by ingenues.

Anchoring the downtown arts assemblage are four museums – the airy, capacious California Center for the Arts Museum; the Escondido Children’s Museum, occupying happy but cramped quarters in the Arts Center complex; the Historical Society’s cluster of restored vintage buildings in Grape Day Park; and the stunning Mingei International Museum North County Satellite, an adaptive reuse triumph carved from a long-vacant JC Penney building.

Stationed like quirky oversize sentinels throughout downtown are glittering outdoor sculptures by internationally renowned artist and local hero, Niki de Saint Phalle. The mosaic works also serve as teasers for her curvilinear sculptural installation, “Queen Califia’s Magical Garden,” in nearby Kit Carson Park. Though functioning on a shoestring budget, the city’s Municipal Gallery nurtures the arts constituency through an aggressive calendar of eight annual juried art exhibits and four special events as well as monthly workshops, demonstrations and lectures. And a spate of upscale eateries now reside downtown, adding sustenance and variety to the cultural menu.

The emergence of Escondido as an arts destination was not accidental. It was nurtured into being by vision, leadership, perseverance and a surprisingly supportive city government. The formative event was the 1995 opening of the city’s $86 million performing arts center, a monumental public works feat. But the primary change agent of Escondido’s reinvention as a visual arts community is Kathy Rubesha – artist, Arts Center Board member, founder of the city-funded Escondido Arts Partnership (EAP) and former president of the Downtown Business Association (DBA). Rubesha bridges the arts and business communities – and helped to align them.

“Seven years ago, we made a conscious effort on the one hand to recruit artists and on the other to put art on the radar of the Downtown Business Association,” said Rubesha. Recruitment tools included a City, DBA and EAP-sponsored “Business & Arts/Arts & Business” seminar for real estate professionals, artists and business owners alike, and a glossy promotional video showcasing Escondido as an emerging arts community. Low downtown rents provided an economic magnet to attract arts-related businesses to a city not known for its cultural amenities.

Just as important as the immediate pay-offs were the long-term partnerships forged by this united effort and the shared awareness among community leaders that the arts are an economic catalyst, particularly important for this city of 135,000 with a large low-income population.

“We recognize that arts and culture are a major factor for economic vitality and quality of life in Escondido,” said Debra Rosen, CEO of the Downtown Business Association, which represents 900 businesses in the 71-square-block downtown business district.

City Economic Development Division Manager Jo Ann Case, an intrepid arts advocate, concurs.

While the achievements of this civic partnership may be indisputable, the city is not all a portrait of success. While improving, Arts Center finances remain precarious, relying on hefty annual city subsidies and refueling old controversies. On Grand Avenue, the heart of downtown, foot traffic is often scant and gallery sales sporadic. Marginal businesses still root there. And Second Saturday, the eight-year-old downtown art walk, has yet to establish a coherent identity or strong following. While acknowledging that the city’s arts growth has been “phenomenal,” Escondido Arts Partnership’s new executive director Victoria Huckins says one of her goals is to boost Second Saturday. “We need to increase attendance, increase participation and increase awareness,” she acknowledged.

More important, Escondido struggles to overcome persistent image problems, dating back to its origin as a rough-housing, pioneer, cowboy town. Community leaders quietly refer to regional surveys that confirm negative perceptions of Escondido. Gallery owners admit that most of their customers are still local. “We are not yet drawing enough from other communities,” reported Shiva owner Ralston. “We need to bring more people to Escondido,” said Lillian Berkley Collection gallery owner Susan McLaughlin. “It’s a big challenge, and the Arts Partnership needs to work very hard.”

Unequivocally positive about the city’s arts initiatives, Rubesha says this is no time for the community to rest on its laurels. “We’ve come a huge distance,” she said. “Now we need to focus on events and the cultural life of our city. Our biggest challenge is the perception of Escondido. We need a branding campaign for Escondido,” she said. “We need to pool some resources for a marketing effort, and the city needs to participate to a greater degree. Our efforts need to be re-funded and refocused,” challenged Rubesha.

Above all, civic leaders share an awareness of the transformative effect of the arts on their community beyond their economic impact. In the words of John Haynes, former president and CEO of the Arts Center, “The power of the arts to bridge all of the perceived and real differences between us is tremendous … [The arts] are all about building community.”

Charlotte Cagan is chair of the NTC Officers Quarters Work Group. She is the former executive director of two botanical gardens and has a strong interest in historic preservation.

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