It’s Arts Month in San Diego, officially thus proclaimed by the City Council on Tuesday and kicked off by last weekend’s contemporary art fair, and a number of gallery shows and parties in the burgeoning arts districts in East Village and Barrio Logan.

(You might say it’s convenient timing to launch an arts blog at a local news outfit.)

All the buzz is serving to reignite a conversation I’ve been interested in since I moved to San Diego eight years ago:

Is San Diego an arts town? What’s its reputation? What should it be?

Along those lines, a really interesting debate’s been blossoming underneath this U-T letter to the editor: “Is San Diego doomed to be an arts backwater?”

What do you think?

As you mull your response, consider some highlights from the “Art in the City” conference last Saturday in conjunction with the art fair, where impresarios, developers and arts-minded folks brought success stories from other cities, and local experts filled in stories from San Diego.

Among the highlights I noted:

• Bob Wislow from Chicago gave a fascinating account of the effort to create that city’s Millennium Park. There were cost overruns and political controversy that surrounded the park, but now Wislow says the park’s a huge economic boost, as CityBeat’s editorial yesterday mentioned.

• Then, Mary Beebe, director of UCSD’s Stuart Collection of public art, lamented the ones that got away here — sculptures that had been proposed by renowned artists and later rejected in San Diego. She said the process of approaching artists, only to have to reject them later, is “humiliating.” The city lost out on public art installations by Ellsworth Kelly, Nancy Rubins and Vito Acconci.

• A big piece of developing more attractive neighborhoods and public spaces is to hire better architects for affordable housing, said (somewhat predictably) prominent local architect Jonathan Segal.

• Toronto developer Tim Jones said the idea that artists always fall victim to gentrification is a “tired old story.” His firm tries to rally artists to create their own housing and plans for a neighborhood to force other development to work around them.

• Cheryl Nickel and Bob Leathers, the founders of SD Space 4 Art, said their recently opened East Village warehouse with studios and apartments helps fill a longtime gap in San Diego. (I interviewed Nickel a couple of years ago about these ideas.) Nickel said they have a waiting list after filling the 40 artist studios.

• The city’s preservation of 26 buildings for arts and culture in the formal Naval Training Center (now known as NTC Promenade) was a triumph for San Diego, said Alan Ziter, the organization’s executive director. Now, he said, it’s just a matter of raising money to complete renovations and of filling the space. “This is a big blank canvas for San Diego,” he said. “I can’t imagine a time again when the city will give us 26 buildings on 28 acres.”

There’s been some interesting reaction after the conference.

The takeaway from yesterday’s CityBeat editorial on the conference: there weren’t enough local leaders there to catch the vision. (After art fair volunteer Susan Myrland pointed out several other influential attendees, editor Dave Rolland said he meant there weren’t enough there with “direct policy-making ability.”)

In his story last weekend, the Union-Tribune’s Peter Rowe gathered the main messages of the day: “pursue a vision,” “consider your customers,” “be a good neighbor,” and “believe in art — and the arts-based economy.”

I had to leave before the crown jewel presentation of the day, the contemplation of San Diego’s waterfront. One of VOSD’s reader-bloggers, Don Wood, got to thinking about whether San Diego could be a “truly great waterfront.”

I’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment or write me a note.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at or 619.325.0531 and follow her on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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