It’s an emotional goodbye.

One of the founding tenants in the former Naval Training Center’s arts and culture district is planning to leave this summer, despite being a major player in the district’s development since 2004.

Matt D’Arrigo runs ARTS: A Reason to Survive, a nonprofit arts training program for kids living tough lives. He never thought he’d leave the NTC’s arts and culture district, a dream he helped realize when he moved there five years ago.

But the NTC’s arts vision has been pricier than D’Arrigo expected. He pays $6,200 a month for 7,000 square feet of the Point Loma space, where teachers provide art classes and workshops for at-risk kids — young people aged 3 to 23 facing all sorts of problems, from homelessness and domestic violence to socioeconomic challenges and illness. The hope is that they discover life gets better as they learn to paint, draw, make ceramics, play music and dance.

ARTS doesn’t charge for most of its programs; D’Arrigo relies on donations. He needs to get the most bang for his buck in all areas of his budget, including rent. Last year a surprise tax bill didn’t make this easier. The NTC landlords passed the increased costs off to the tenants, which increased D’Arrigo’s worry that the space was becoming too expensive.

But then he heard about an old library in National City that closed down a few years ago. City leaders have been trying to turn it into the hub of an arts district, and D’Arrigo’s been talking with them for months. On May 15, an arrangement to let ARTS take over the library will go before City Council for final approval.

D’Arrigo’s plan to move his nonprofit from NTC, however, doesn’t come without some sensitivity. When he first viewed the yellow buildings they were in disrepair, merely a shadow of what the overseeing nonprofit NTC Foundation wanted to turn into an arts district. Eight years later, it’s tough for one of the founding tenants to leave.

“Emotionally, we like being here,” D’Arrigo said. “Pragmatically, it’s not the best.”

It means NTC will be losing one of its arts district’s major players in a time when the economy has become a major challenge for programs to relocate.

“A lot of nonprofits have struggled through the last years because of the recession,” said Alan Ziter, executive director for the NTC Foundation. “Groups that maybe wanted to make a plan to move over here have held firm to the fact that they just need to stay put where they are right now. There are funds that are required to be here.”

Ziter also said it’s difficult to compete with other arts districts like those in North Park and Barrio Logan, which are all vying for the attention of arts organizations.

Now, National City is one of those. And for ARTS, the library is too good to pass up.

Photo courtesy of ARTS
Destinee, an ARTS student, works on a drawing.

It’s a huge space — 16,000 square feet with another 2,000-square-foot building that sits separately behind the main one. That’d give D’Arrigo almost three times as much room for classrooms and studios, and for just two-thirds of what he’s paying now in Point Loma.

“So in terms of saving money, it will alleviate stress and ensure things run more smoothly because you need money for good people, for good supplies, just to function,” said Andrea Davies, who runs programs for ARTS.

Moving to National City will put the program closer to many of its current participants, who live there already. The new location will also allow many more kids to join, since it is within walking distance of a Boys & Girls Club and an elementary, middle and high school.

“We’re going right into where we should be in a community who needs us,” D’Arrigo said.

Brad Raulston, the development manager for National City, has been one of the biggest proponents of moving ARTS into the empty building.

“I think he really wants the city to stand out,” D’Arrigo said. “He wants to make a splash. I’ve been impressed with his vision.”

National City first solidified its dream for an arts district in June 2011, hoping to increase the educational, cultural and public art features in the city. A new, bigger library with more computers was built in 2007. It left the old library open for artistic uses.

Young people who aren’t in walking distance can take the trolley, which has a stop close to the library. And a group of three vans D’Arrigo already uses, called Van Go!, will still function. He uses them now to help pick up and drop off his young artists from various locations like schools and shelters.

D’Arrigo describes the 58-year-old library as “a cool kind of chaos” because of its hodge-podge assembly of building facades. It hasn’t been sitting empty: Portions of the building have housed city workers and offices for a longshoremen union. And the San Diego Repertory Theatre has been using the library rent-free for almost four years as a space to rehearse and build scenery. The group’s lease with National City ends this month. If the council votes to approve ARTS’ lease, the theater company will have to leave.

Larry Alldredge, managing director for the Rep, said while he and his team enjoyed the location, they didn’t attempt to make any offer to stay. Part of the new plan for the building includes moving a city department into one of the rooms, which he said wouldn’t leave enough space for what he needs.

“The city did a really nice job of improving the old library to make it a good space for creating art,” he said.

The larger building will allow ARTS to create new programs, possibly even a dance studio. Davies is most excited the sound from the drum set and other instruments won’t have to be monitored; sometimes the neighbors in Point Loma would complain since they shared walls with the music room.

National City leaders, meanwhile, are getting excited about targeting youth who will benefit from art programs and tracking their progress. And, since the building is about a block away from a retirement home, city officials also hope to engage senior citizens to help them mentor children in art programs. But D’Arrigo must be careful.

“We have to be very purposeful,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is rush in, promise all this stuff and then fall short. Part of the challenge is having patience.”

But he already has a task list including learning the ins and outs of a new city, partnering with other local arts groups and creating a stronger program for his oldest participants. It’s an excitement he can’t shake.

“It’s like a candy store,” he said. “It’s going to be so much fun. It’s a blank canvas. It’s a work of art.”

The students featured in the photographs above are identified by their first names only at ARTS’ request.

Allie Daugherty reports on arts for Voice of San Diego. You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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