San Diego County is vast and diverse, stretching from the Orange and Riverside county line in the north, to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in the east, to the Pacific Ocean in the west and on a border of sixty miles with Mexico. south, creating the largest cross-border metropolitan area in the south of the country. As a site of cultural production, the San Diego region is uniquely enriched by its location, cultural milieu and the diversity of its people.
Recently, several of San Diego’s high-profile cultural developments have captured national attention, including the multimillion-dollar renovation of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, which reopened last April, and the striking of the ICA San Diego in September 2021. This winter, the newly renovated Mandeville Art Gallery at the University of California San Diego is set to reopen after a years-long closure. As these institutions attract new audiences, this is an opportunity to shine a light on other driving forces that define the region’s artistic ecosystem.
With relatively few commercial galleries, San Diego’s contemporary art scene is rooted in its community-centric art spaces. These non-profit exhibition spaces (along with many long-standing university and college galleries) provide a cohesive support structure for local artists through exhibition opportunities, professional development, residencies and fellowships. jobs.
For example, the massive Bread & Salt, a former commercial bakery turned arts complex, includes a residency program and publishing house, and education-focused initiative The AjA Project empowers young people through storytelling. and documentary art forms. These spaces, and by extension the local art scene, are distinguished by their emphasis on interconnection and exchange beyond the realm of art. Each shares a commitment to integrating art as an expressive outlet into surrounding communities, as a reflection and celebration of culture, and as a catalyst for collaboration.
The Centro Cultural de la Raza is one of the oldest Chicano cultural institutions in San Diego. Born out of the Chicano civil rights movement in 1971, the Centro remains one of the region’s most important organizations of its kind, pursuing its mission to create, promote and preserve Chicano, Indigenous and Latino arts and culture from its location. in historic Balboa. To park. Founded by a group of artists who called themselves Los Toltecas in Aztlanthe Centro became home to San Diego’s first permanent Chicano murals (by artist Guillermo “Yermo” Aranda), and served as a hub of artistic activism, spawning collectives like the Border Art Workshop /Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF) in the early 1980s.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Dr. Roberto D. Hernández, Associate Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University, emphasized that the art produced, exhibited, and supported by Centro maintains a spirit of resistance and self-determination. “It was about art rooted in a particular political reality of living on the border, living in a context of racism, sexism, all these different manifestations of power,” he explained. “If we think about the mere presence of Mexican indigenous communities in a context of erasure, our very visibility is already political, whether we like it or not.”
The Centro continues to support an impressive range of events, from exhibitions and performances to educational workshops, dance classes for children, several monthly markets and a community garden. It has been run entirely by volunteers for four years, a testament to its value to the community. “Are we a gallery space? Are we a cultural center? Are we a community center? Well, we’re all above,” Hernández says. “We pride ourselves on not fitting into any of these spaces or categories. That’s what gave us the flexibility to do what we do.
Art Produce, another multi-faceted, multi-purpose art and culture center, is an extension of the public and community practice of artist and educator Lynn Susholtz. Susholtz purchased and rehabilitated the closed North Park Produce Market in 1999 and it now serves as a cultural center, where community members can gather and “imagine what life in a culturally rich environment might be like,” Susholtz explained. The building houses gallery and studio space, community rooms, an art lab, its own offices, a retail tenant, and a sustainable garden. Anyone can apply for Art Produce’s artist residencies, propose an exhibition, or attend its free art-making events and workshops for all ages. Resident artists and exhibitors are strongly encouraged to propose or develop projects that engage the local community.
When Susholtz moved to North Park 30 years ago, she got involved in neighborhood politics and encouraged other artists to do the same. Art Produce has continued to meet the needs of artists and community members as the neighborhood changes, always emphasizing audience engagement. Its gallery is fully visible from the sidewalk, making exhibits accessible without even entering the space. “I try to present other opportunities for the neighborhood to engage in art and feel like it’s part of their everyday life,” Susholtz said. “Artists [have been] challenged to experience their work and really learn what community engagement can be and what it means to their practice and teaching.
In 2007, Casa Familiar, an advocacy and social service agency serving South San Diego for nearly 50 years, launched The Front, an innovative gallery operation that enriches the lives of local residents through the arts and Culture. Located less than a mile and a half from the San Ysidro port of entry, The Front’s programming reflects an evolving cross-border arts community, contrasting media coverage that often narrows border discussions to immigration and crime . “There are many other themes and subjects that [artists] we’re talking about,” said gallery director and artist Francisco Morales. “They’re about love, about family, and I think those stories get less attention. I think it’s something that’s slowly changing. I see younger generations of artists, they’re interested, they’re activists , but they also live their youth, and they experience this border as a rich experience.
The recent exhibition of the Front New Indigenous Stories paired 17 young artists from Tijuana and South San Diego with five local mentor artists to create exhibition-specific works reflecting personal and collective experiences of life here and now. The association of emerging and established artists with an educational initiative and the assertion of culture is at the heart of what the Front brings to the region.
This year the Hill Street Country Club (HSCC) celebrates its tenth anniversary. Founded in 2012 by Margaret Hernandez and Dinah Poellnitz, who met while working at the Oceanside Art Museum, HSCC reflects and celebrates the cultural and socio-economic diversity of the San Diego-Tijuana region. “We’re a place of liberation, where our artists can say how they feel when they feel it, and not be punished or shamed or say it’s not selling,” Poellnitz said. Poellnitz and Hernandez became deeply involved in local politics, attending city government meetings to assess and increase support for local arts infrastructure. Their experiences reinforced what they already knew: traditional institutions and exhibition opportunities are often inaccessible to working-class and BIPOC artists. “There are so many artists who don’t exhibit or practice art in our community because they just don’t have a place to let them know they’re artists,” m’ said Poellnitz. “We had to get organized”
HSCC maintains a calendar of experimental exhibitions, collaborative pop-up events and community programs. Current initiatives include The Social, which includes monthly group therapy meetings and a related art therapy summer camp program for college students, and Soft U, a digitally streamed live music series. Through HSCC, Poellnitz and Hernandez have created a model of community art that is nimble, rhizomatic, and deeply personal. “Everything Marge and I did was personal experience,” Poellnitz said. “And then when we started telling that story out loud, or organizing behind it, we learned that there was a community that had had a similar experience. The purpose of art in our space is to plant seeds of memories and conversations, so people can find out who their community is.
San Diego County unfolds somewhat like a patchwork; its disparate swaths of culture and socio-economic status are crowded against each other, criss-crossed by valleys, canyons, hills and highways. The fabrics of neighborhoods change rapidly, even drastically from place to place, which can either enhance the experience of diversity or render it surprisingly invisible. Most conversations about the San Diego art scene reiterate that it’s supportive, but also disjointed.
“[Art]work and who does work has literally spread from Oceanside to San Ysidro. There’s all these different pockets of people doing art all over the county, but they don’t always call it that,” said arts and culture strategist Angie Chandler. Chandler’s Culture Mapping San Diego initiative, launched in 2021, fixes the invisibility of the region’s BIPOC arts leaders and cultural producers. Using a data-driven approach, Culture Mapping sheds light on the critical contributions and needs of these artists and organizations, while connecting them to local resources and opportunities for growth. This work is critical to the future of community art spaces in San Diego and to the larger project of creating a more cohesive and interconnected regional art landscape.
Despite its fragmentation, within the county’s community art spaces, individual and collective identities merge – specific to the particularities of each neighborhood, its history and its people. A common feeling among local artists is that spaces like the Centro Cultural de la Raza, the Front, Art Produce, and Hill Street Country Club allow them to truly see themselves, giving them and their neighbors a place to belong.