An Exodus of Artists
By Jorge Casuso
When the rent on June Phelps' studio in Santa Monica's Drescherville artist community tripled, the painter packed up her brushes and canvasses and looked for another space.
"Drescherville was dwindling fast and people were looking for a place to live and paint," said Phelps, who lives in Pacific Palisades.
Phelps tried the Drawing Room, a warehouse artists shared a dozen blocks from the ramshackle row of steel structures near the city's eastern border she had worked in since 1994. But the Drawing Room also was folding, yet another victim of the city's skyrocketing rents.
Unable to find a space in Santa Monica, Phelps joined the more than a dozen refugees from the Drawing Room who rented studios in a converted factory -- in Mar Vista.
"The landscape has changed for the creative person," Phelps said. "The feeling isn't there, whether you can afford it or not. Now there's a commercial aspect. Before it was eclectic."
Drescherville, a funky conglomeration of 26 studios tucked away just north of Olympic Boulevard, and the Drawing Room, a communal space with 24 studios facing the industrial corridor, are the latest artist communities to shut their doors.
Also folding was one of the city's oldest studios, a two-story building on Pico Boulevard where more than a dozen artists, some of whom had rented spaces for more than three decades, were forced to evacuate after a fire alerted officials to building code violations two months ago.
The exodus of artists from Santa Monica has been both rapid and dramatic. When consultants hired to gauge the extent of the problem conducted a survey of artists' spaces in May, there were 156 live/work and studio spaces left in the city. After the report on "Strategies to Preserve and Enhance Affordable Artist Housing and Studio Space" was typed up, the number had dropped to 117. By the time the final draft was presented to Santa Monica's Arts Commission on July 10, there were only 78 studios left, half the number just two months ago.
"There's nobody left," said Stephanie Blank, one of only two artists left in Drescherville, the six-acre artist community named after its founder, Santa Monica philanthropist John Drescher. "And it happened so rapidly in the last several months. Everybody's gone."
"Artists in Santa Monica are sort of the canaries in the coal mine," said Todd Darling, who runs a video editing company on a month-to-month lease and who is Drescherville's only other remaining tenant. "We're signaling the direction everything is going in. We're facing a crisis, a mass exit. Artists are economic refugees."
It wasn't long ago that Santa Monica boasted a thriving community of more than 600 painters, sculptors and performers who worked, and sometimes lived, in old warehouses and rows of metal shacks along the city's industrial corridor. The spaces were roomy and well lit and often rented for less than a dollar a square foot.
But by the early 1990s, with the high-tech revolution in full gear, digital studios, post-production houses and dot.com companies were lured by city officials seeking to cash in on new, environmentally sound industries. The wheels that would drive the artists out of town were set in motion.
Now, the city's Arts Commission is scrambling to find ways to halt, if not reverse the trend. The 42-page report on Santa Monica's dwindling artist community, which the commission voted to send to the City Council, lists a number of ways city officials can encourage the production of artist spaces.
The recommendations include changing zoning to encourage development of artist spaces, possibly modifying the current district zoning to establish an artist studio district that would specifically encourage arts activity and using city owned property for day studios and live/work spaces.
The report also recommends erecting temporary structures, adding studios atop existing parking structures, including day studios in new city facilities and prioritizing leasing opportunities for day-studios at Santa Monica Airport. To assure the spaces will go to fine artists, the proposal recommends excluding film and entertainment industry artists, as well as architects, from renting the spaces.
But its recommendations may be too little too late. The unique needs of artists for large well-lit spaces, coupled with an affordable housing crunch and stiff competition for commercial spaces from high-tech firms, makes it difficult to meet the demand, especially when retaining artists is not high on the list of priorities at City Hall.
"There's a lot of limited resources and competing needs in the city," said Jennifer Spangler, a northern California based consultant who prepared the report with AMS Planning & Research in Petaluma. "The need for artists' housing is not seen as high a priority as housing for the homeless or other groups."
Part of the problem, some artists contend, is that artists are not, by nature, political. Although they contribute to forging a community's soul, artists tend to labor away in solitude, emerging in society only during gallery openings.
"Artists are not in the limelight of politics," said artist Bruria Finkel, a former arts commissioner and driving force in Santa Monica's arts community. "They tend to be individuals who are working, primarily creating. They don't have much clout. They don't play the political game."
Artists also face the perception by city officials that they don't deserve help. "Many councils look at artists as if they are privileged folks, Finkel said. "They don't look at them as people who need affordable housing. Many are educated. They don't go to a job every day. They work very hard, but not at the kind of work people consider work."
Artists and their supporters acknowledge that it will take more than recommendations to reverse the accelerating trend - it will likely take legal as well as political action.
"I have been working on this for 18 years," Finkel told the commission. "If this (the report) moves it one inch it will be a lot."
"The City doesn't really consider artists as a priority," said former arts commissioner Neal Goldberg. "If we do not act quickly what facilities and land is available will be gone. It's that critical. It's a crisis."
Yosi Govrin and the 35 artists who rent the space he leases near Drescherville may be the next to go. When his lease expires in February, Govrin is faced with paying a 60 percent rent hike on a one-year lease or shutting down the Santa Monica Fine Arts Studios the Israeli-born sculptor started in a dilapidated warehouse space he fixed up for $80,000 15 years ago.
"We'd like to move as a group," said Govrin, who already has decided he can't afford the higher rent. "We're one of the most stable and self-sustaining artist communities in Los Angeles. You become like a wonderful family and then it becomes dismantled."
Like the Drawing Room, Santa Monica Fine Arts studios carves out the scarce artist spaces into small separate studios, as well as into wall space that is rented out to different artists. The rents range from $150 for part of a wall to $800 for a studio.
But it's not just the space that attracts artists, said Govrin. It's the feeling that comes from being part of a group, the sense of camaraderie forged during a creative crisis or the mad rush to finish the work before a gallery opening. Artist communities like the Drawing Room and Santa Monica Fine Arts Studios also hold classes to hone an artist's craft, as well as openings to showcase an artist's work.
"I have artists here who are cleaning floors to be here, and I have artists who could buy the building," Govrin said. "Artists are desperate for space."
Unlike the Drawing Room or Santa Monica Fine Arts Studios, Drescherville was not only a place where artists could work, the congregation of 50-year-old metal shacks along a dusty road was a place they also called home. The main structures were designed and built with scrap steel and siding by John Drescher, a multi-millionaire who made his fortune as an aircraft mechanism designer during World War II.
Drescher, who died in February, had once planned to build a skyscraper on the site and went as far as digging catacombs where according legend - backed by a coffin and gothic mannequins - Life magazine once held a Halloween bash that drew hundreds underground. A notorious ladies man who drove an old station wagon, Drescher, who lived on the property, often mingled with the artists who turned the stark shantytown into Santa Monica's equivalent of the Soho District.
"He was around all the time," said former tenant Joe Nicoletti, a painter who owns Chameleon Paintworks and who restored the Main Street lobby of Los Angeles City Hall and lists Rod Stewart and Sting among his clients. "There were people everywhere all the time. There seemed to be an opening every night. It was just very Bohemian."
The community's days were numbered when Drescher donated the property to Pepperdine University under an agreement that allowed him to receive a yearly income and sheltered the real estate from taxes. In August, 1997 Pepperdine sold the land to Santa Monica Studios, a company located in a former toilet bowl factory adjacent to Drescherville that was rapidly outgrowing its site.
Billed as a one-stop studio that would be a mini Dreamworks, the company was responsible for the more spectacular computer-generated effects in Independence Day and Godzilla. Now, it planned to build digital sound stages, fiber optically connected production spaces, screening rooms, live-work spaces, a food court, an upscale restaurant, a health club facility and subterranean parking for 1,400 vehicles.
The City Council, which had carved out a special Studio Zone in 1995, could hardly stop the first major project in its newly formed district. Besides, city officials said there was little they could do. This was private property and the project involved a private developer. Entertainment firms are considered environmentally sound companies that provide high paying jobs and generate substantial revenue for the city, Santa Monica planning director Suzanne Frick told the press at the time.
The artists tried to mount a political war, but their efforts went nowhere. Neither did the studio's ambitious plans, which have yet to be realized. But the story of Drescherville was a harbinger of things to come for Santa Monica artists.
The city would commission reports that confirmed the conclusions of its 1995 Cultural Master Plan, which made the need for studios where artists could live and work one of its top six priorities. Still, artists saw little action by City officials, who failed to take up the rallying cry.
"It's not within our purview to impact the process," said Maria Luisa de Herrera, the city's director of cultural affairs. "The Master Plan went before the council and was approved. Everyone has been aware of the situation, now everybody needs space.
"I guess they want us to buy the buildings," De Herrera said. "We don't have the ability to buy buildings.... There's a thin line between advocacy and public process."
Govrin is not optimistic about the future of Santa Monica artists. The latest report, he said, "is to put out small fires, not to look ahead." And city officials may not have the power to reverse the trend.
"Every time they (the landlord) tried to get us out, they (city officials) said, 'It's your problem. It's between you and your landlord,'" Govrin said. "They don't realize it's a cultural problem. What's the city doing to preserve its culture?
"If you dismantle the artists, you dismantle the culture," said Govrin, whose bust of assasinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sits in front of Tel Aviv's city hall. "It's really urgent. Santa Monica's becoming a desert."
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