Ron Slayen is an artist with a small studio at Arts District Liberty Station. / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

When a group from the California Arts Council came to San Diego last year, surveying areas vying to become official California cultural districts, they were impressed by what they saw in Balboa Park, Barrio Logan and a neighborhood in Oceanside. All three made the cut.

Arts District Liberty Station, which had also applied for the designation, did not.

“Visitorship seems low and not very diverse for the area – does not seem to be culturally diverse or activated,” wrote one panelist.

“Panel would have liked to see evidence of visionary leadership towards equity and accessibility toward low income communities and communities of color and artists of color,” wrote another.

“Would like to see evidence of interest in leveraging assets towards greater economic and cultural diversity of tenants and engagement of the community,” wrote a third.

Tenants at Arts District Liberty Station have long complained the rent is too high. Ron Slayen has a small studio in the district, and said the high rates have resulted in most resident artists being like him – white, retired and affluent enough to afford rent without having to worry about selling art.

“With the rates that they’re charging here, it’s going to continue to be people like me who don’t have to make a living anymore,” he said.

Many of the approximately 50 arts tenants at Arts District Liberty Station say they’re troubled by the lack of diversity in their ranks. For example, none of the working artists there are black. Alan Ziter, longtime executive director of the NTC Foundation, the nonprofit that oversees the arts district, said no black artist has ever applied to be a tenant.

Ziter said the arts district rents are below market rate, at $1.58 per square foot plus utilities and maintenance fees. He said the foundation offers those deals despite an agreement between the city and NTC’s master developer  that put a financial burden on the foundation’s shoulders.

The deal set aside 26 historic city-owned buildings for arts and culture and established a new nonprofit to pay most of the cost of renovations. Ziter said the foundation passes those costs on to tenants.

“We are 99.1% occupied, demonstrating that at any rate, there is a demand for space in our ARTS DISTRICT buildings,” he wrote in an email.

Ziter said the district has nurtured several minority and women-run businesses and nonprofits. The foundation also offers nonprofit organizations, including some that have diverse cultural programming, reduced rent. He said the foundation is on track to provide a total subsidy of $385,000 to its nonprofit tenants this year. He acknowledged the working artists in Arts District Liberty Station skew older, but said the foundation just announced a plan to create smaller, cheaper studios to attract younger artists.

Dance is thriving at Arts District Liberty Station, thanks, in part, to the foundation’s rent subsidies. There’s also a cluster of cultural nonprofit museums there, including the New Americans Museum, which focuses on telling the stories of immigrant experiences.

But the artists and for-profit businesses at Arts District Liberty Station don’t get the same rent subsidies as nonprofit tenants – they pay a higher rate.

It’s not only the tenants at Arts District Liberty Station who lack diversity. Tenants there say the crowds that visit the arts district aren’t big or diverse enough either. They said the same people show up to monthly events there, and that the foundation isn’t doing enough to market Arts District Liberty Station to a wide enough swath of residents and tourists.

Aida Valencia, a Latina business owner who recently closed down her Casa Valencia Galeria gallery after six years in the district, said the high cost wouldn’t be a problem if more people went to the arts district to buy art.

“Not a lot of people go there for art,” Valencia said. “Right now, it looks more like a food court than an arts district.”

Valencia is also the founder of the Latin American Art Fair that used to be held annually at Arts District Liberty Station. But she said the NTC Foundation was charging her a high fee to use common space inside the district to put on the event. This year, she moved the event to Bread & Salt in Logan Heights, where she’s getting a better deal.

Kelsey O’Brien and Michelle Ballantyne are two young business owners who opened their photography gallery MK Envision Galleries in the arts district in 2016. When they signed their lease, they said they felt like they were buying into something exciting.

“We came in here being hopeful of what it could be,” O’Brien said. “The support that it sounded like we were going to be getting, and the creation of a vibrant arts district was very hopeful sounding. … But the potential that was alluded to about the arts district is nothing short of nonexistent. There’s really no foot traffic at all.”

Andy Gonzalez had a studio at the arts district for a few years before he packed up and left.

“Based on what the foundation had told me, they said they would be bringing this and that and there would eventually be tons of people,” Gonzalez said. “So I went with that. But after two years, none of the things they had promised came about. They said it would be filled with artists and galleries, but it didn’t pan out, and I wasn’t able to make money there by selling art.”

Ziter said he never tells prospective tenants to expect a lot of traffic.

“I’ve been here long enough,” he said. “I don’t promise foot traffic. I tell them, ‘You need to be proactive in your marketing plan. You have to have a reason for people to come here.’”

The foundation tries to bring in crowds on the first Friday of every month with the Friday Night Liberty art walk. The foundation gets funding from San Diego County and the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture. It uses the money to program events and commission dances and public art installations and otherwise ty to get people walking through the district.

At June’s Friday Night Liberty art walk, a band played in the grassy promenade and a few dozen people milled about, popping into the galleries, museums and art studios. Far fewer folks ventured to the second floor, where most of the individual artists’ studios are located.

Painter Leslie Pierce, who has a studio at the arts district, said while the Friday Night Liberty art walks can be hit or miss – sometimes people come in demanding free food and wine, other times they come in and ask good questions about her art – she doesn’t expect anyone aside herself to be working hard to help sell her art.

“I don’t look to the NTC Foundation to do my marketing,” she said. “It’s nice when they list you in brochures or something, but I’ve always been used to doing my own marketing. I don’t have to rely on them.”

Pierce said she just recently made her first international sale when a visiting tourist wandered by her studio. She’s said she’s happy to be a tenant at Arts District Liberty Station.

Valencia, the gallery owner who recently left the arts district, said more tenants would be happier if the NTC Foundation listened to them. She said she and others often floated ideas to make the Friday night art walks more successful and reach more people, but she said the suggestions never got anywhere.

“I think the NTC Foundation needs to be doing more,” Valencia said. “They need to let artists display their work on the lawn or do something that can reach more of an audience and make the place feel and look more alive.”

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture Report. She also managed VOSD’s podcasts and covered...

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