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When I share with my new neighbors in New York that I’ve just moved here from San Diego, they invariably respond with various degrees of incredulity. “Why on earth would you move here from San Diego?” When I respond that I’m an artist and I’m here for my career, they all nod their heads knowingly and encourage me with some version of how New York City is the place to be.
Yes, after 25 years of living in and around San Diego, from North County to North Park and Normal Heights to Logan Heights, I’ve decided it’s time for me to make a bolder move. It’s not that I don’t love our fine city on the bay. We all know what makes San Diego a special city, but, unfortunately, when it comes to the visual arts, it’s a bit of a desert. There’s really little opportunity for ambitious artists to grow artistically and succeed financially.
Before I’m admonished up and down about how there is actually art being created in San Diego, I didn’t say that there is no art here. After all, there is life in a desert – just not that much. Contemporary artists can’t flourish in San Diego just like polar bears can’t survive in the Mojave: There just doesn’t exist the ecosystem to support them. It’s not any one thing; it’s everything together and individually.
Though it may sound obvious, artists need to sell art to succeed. In San Diego, there’s only a handful of galleries (not including tourist-focused shops) that actually sell contemporary art and fewer still that sell it at sustainable prices. Many, if not most, galleries don’t even bother to attempt to sell the work they exhibit – they’re primarily interested in the foot traffic and using art shows to increase their visibility in the community. This promotional win for the gallery, however, offers little benefit to the artist seeking to be financially rewarded for his or her efforts.
At a recent show of my work in a prime exhibition space in San Diego, the only effort to sell the work was the owner attempting to persuade me to price pieces so low that I wouldn’t even recoup my costs. (I didn’t. Nothing sold.) Another popular gallery regularly prices work in the $100 to $200 range, which helps to explain why one of the exhibiting artists there had to regularly ask his girlfriend for bus fare.
It’s not just a pricing issue; there’s little to no attempt by these galleries to create a base of collectors who will purchase art on an ongoing basis. Without galleries actively engaged in creating a network of people willing to buy art, no work is sold and artists make no money. The real work of galleries lies not in exhibiting art on the walls, it lies in the power of the gallerists and their agents to get on the phone, connect with buyers and sell art every day of the week.
Between the unsustainably low prices, the lack of any attempt to sell the work and endless opportunities to work for free, there’s little hope for an emerging artist to succeed on any sort of financial level in San Diego. It’s not just a money thing, either. The dearth of local galleries makes it difficult for artists to build the track record of exhibitions necessary to advance their status in the art world.
The other side to this equation is, of course, the community. We love our surfing and our beer, but frankly, we don’t know nor really care much about art. There’s no spirit nor tradition of engaging with art in the community like people do in New York or even Mexico City. Supporting the visual arts isn’t just about showing up to drink free wine or beer at an opening; it’s taking time to understand the landscape of contemporary art, engaging with artists and, yes, actually purchasing art from time to time.
Change is possible, however, and it can start with the prominent cultural institutions in town. Museums and nonprofits generally loathe anything to do with commercial activities relating to art – i.e., the buying and selling of it – but there is definitely a role for them to play if they can look at visual art from the point of view of an ecosystem that must be nourished in its entirety for it to succeed. They can start by engaging with emerging and working artists in the form of workshops, talks and community forums to help nurture the local scene. A handful of lucrative grants or residencies is good and even necessary, but they do little to help the artist community at large make the jump from coffee shop walls to museum retrospectives.
Educating patrons and visitors alike on how and why to buy art would be helpful as well. This city has quickly given rise to countless beer connoisseurs. Imagine if the same could be done with contemporary art? Also, given that most gallery owners are untrained and unskilled at selling work, some education in the nuts and bolts of art dealing would go a long way. Teaching gallery owners how to sell art may be a tougher grant-writing pitch than teaching high school kids photography, but it’s arguably more necessary for a vibrant contemporary arts culture.
Meanwhile, artists would do well not to succumb to the pressure of underpricing one’s work and working for free in the hopes of exposure. Some money is not better than no money if you’re attempting to make a career in the arts. Artists should also avoid providing free art to businesses, be it through hanging work to sell at shops that have no hope at selling it or participating in calls for work that require the artist to create work upfront in the hopes that it will be selected. (A special shame-on-you goes to the San Diego Airport for asking artists to do major installations and only offering to cover for the cost of installation and transportation rather than paying the artists a meaningful stipend.) By all means, local artists should engage with the burgeoning Tijuana art scene and regularly visit the rapidly expanding universe of Los Angeles galleries to see what’s possible both creatively and financially.
Until change comes, creating art in San Diego is much like the proverbial tree falling in the forest – it’s of little consequence. When I hear that galleries like Planet Rooth and JDC Fine Art have recently departed for other cities, I’m not surprised. One can only wander in the desert for so long before it’s time to head for green pastures. San Diego can either create those pastures at home or watch as its homegrown talent forever packs up and leaves town.
John Raymond Mireles is a former commercial photographer turned artist now living in New York City. Mireles’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.