Oceanside, California to the Mexican border: this is the span of San Diego County. Encompassing more than 4,000 square miles, it is the second-largest county in California and home to more than three million people. To comprehensively describe or contain this clamorous multitude of landscapes, demographics, histories, and dreams is a near impossibility. Instead, it is best to zoom in and focus, to follow particular threads and see where they lead. The things San Diego is likely best known for--its armed forces, its zoo, and its coastline, for example--are certainly relevant, but they are not the whole story, merely a few among many. Another story of this county, less often told but equally relevant, is one of creativity simmering throughout, in places expected and unexpected, large and small. There are museums, concert halls, and galleries here, certainly. But, beyond the orbit of the official arbiters of culture, there are also an increasing number of smaller, nimbler, and more cutting-edge entities expanding the terrain in exciting ways. Such entities, more willing in a recession to take chances on the experimental and unknown; less beholden to donors and the vagaries of funding, appear in many forms and locations. Creativity does not disappear in the face of a faltering economy. Sometimes, it just moves next door.
The private home re-imagined as gallery, music venue, or experimental project space; it is hardly a new idea, but in recent years there has been an efflorescence in San Diego. Within little more than five miles of one another, three such efforts of varying formality, longevity, and focus have emerged: a concert series known as Listen, a gallery/music venue called Habitat House, and Helmuth Projects, a gallery/project space. Inviting artists, musicians, and the public into their homes, these swiftly expanding loci of creativity and experimentation are changing the arts community in San Diego in significant and necessary ways. And while such efforts are certainly part of a larger cultural turn, the San Diego context is important. With an ear tuned to similar enterprises unfolding across the state and country, these spaces and projects are nonetheless resolutely local, committed to this place and this time.
The longest running of these, Habitat House, has been around since 2002, when Roy Silverstein moved into a picturesque, Craftsman-style home in Golden Hill, a residential neighborhood near downtown San Diego. A musician and audio engineer, Silverstein put together a modest recording studio in the house, primarily for personal use. However, this soon evolved into something more elaborate, with Silverstein recording not only his own music but that of other musicians and bands as well. By 2006, Silverstein and his roommates were also hosting live shows in the house. The Habitat, as this serendipitous venue came to be known, was soon putting on shows a few times a month, quietly gaining enthusiastic fans and accolades along the way. Capping attendance at 20-30 people and promoting primarily through word-of-mouth, the shows and recording sessions continued until late 2009, when Silverstein decided to move on. The Habitat was inactive for almost a year, until Zack Nielsen, founder of local arts non-profit Sezio, took over the lease and sought out a new crew of creatively-inclined roommates with whom to rekindle the space. Picking up where Silverstein left off, Nielsen and his compatriots--Jackson Milgaten and Dylan Ousley, recently replaced by Carly Ealey--continue to record and host live music at the house, but have also extended The Habitat's purview to include the visual arts, organizing regular exhibitions and film screenings.
Building on what Silverstein started, under Nielsen and company's stewardship The Habitat has grown and expanded its reach, satisfying the need for both gallery and music venue in a neighborhood that is full of creative people, but surprisingly lacks either. One of their first exhibitions, Neighbors, drew upon this local resource, featuring 24 artists living in Golden Hill. This fulfilled a desire to both shine a light on the local scene, and to encourage the larger community to meet and interact with one another. Discussing his motivation for running such a space from his home, Nielsen references this communitarian aspect, as well as his hope that Habitat House function as a "gateway" to collecting, perhaps providing the occasion for "someone's first art purchase." "There's something about seeing the art in a home already," he says. Suddenly, perhaps in contrast to a traditional gallery setting, people can picture art in their own homes, can see themselves as collectors and active, supportive participants in the arts, rather than solely observers. According to Nielsen, "It all starts with that first piece and knowing the story of who made it. Having something on your wall that you know someone took time and effort on, there's something radically different about that." Providing such a platform has dual benefits: it supports local artists and allows them to continue to do their work, and it empowers people to contribute and engage. Judging from the size and enthusiasm of the crowds at Habitat House events, this mission is clearly resonating with audiences.
Like Habitat House, Helmuth Projects grew organically. Josh Pavlick's apartment in downtown San Diego was a ground-floor loft, with a large picture window facing the street; it seemed a shame not to use it. Part of DN/ZA, a roving curatorial project that put up exhibitions on a rotating schedule in different local residences, when Pavlick's turn came in early 2011, he went a little further than most--clearing out the space, installing track lighting, and building walls. Instead of rotating elsewhere at the end of that exhibition (Suspension of Disbelief, curated by Lauren Popp), Helmuth Projects was born--a permanent gallery/project space in Pavlick's home. Though only he lives there, it is a group effort spearheaded by him, Melissa Mclean, J Noland, and Popp. Described as a "clean well-lit space for whatever," Pavlick sees Helmuth Projects as existing somewhere between the studio and the gallery. "Good things happen in the studio that don't necessarily get carried into the gallery; we want to be that bridge," he says. Helmuth provides a non-commercial space for artists to experiment with ideas that are forming and evolving, placing equal premium on the process as on the end result. In this sense, they operate almost as a residency, and in fact, this is one of Pavlick's ultimate goals for the project. He envisions a future where he has moved out and Helmuth Projects has taken over the lease, establishing itself as a residency program where artists can live and work for a set time, culminating in an exhibition. In addition to this future vision, Helmuth Projects is also motivated by what it feels is a need for a "conceptual, off-beat place" in San Diego. They represent and are emblematic of a slightly different, though always close and interconnecting, strain of the local arts community, one that is more closely tied to the Conceptualist underpinnings of the Visual Arts department at the University of California, San Diego. Many of the department's current and former students, graduate and undergraduate, have become involved with Helmuth Projects, curating or participating in exhibitions, and attending or running workshops. Rob Duarte's recent Noisy Hacking Workshop, in which participants learned the basics of sound and electricity in order to make their own circuit board noisemaker, is one such example. This project and workshop-based element is important; they are not interested in being a pure exhibition space, instead stressing the notion that Helmuth Projects be a place "where people can come and do whatever they want," unconstrained by market expectation or even their own previous work. It is a space for artists, and for trial and error--a foundation from which to build.
While Habitat House and Helmuth Projects are both in perhaps likely neighborhoods for such projects, the still-in-its-infancy concert series, Listen, is something quite different. On a quiet residential street just off the main tourist drag in Old Town, the so-called "birthplace" of San Diego, a local couple has been opening their doors to the public, staging a monthly series of intimate musical performances by local and regional mostly jazz-based acts. Despite its early history as the site of the first permanent Spanish mission in Alta California, today Old Town is more tourist trap than historical site, a stage set leftover from some forgotten Western complete with swinging saloon doors, sombrero keychains, and sepia-toned, period costume photography--a somewhat unexpected place to find such creativity flourishing. Nevertheless, in a small house, and an even smaller living room, Listen has so far hosted two performances for audiences of 15-20. With just a few rows of folding chairs and a stage--and most importantly, an excellent sound system--they transform their home into a welcoming and professional venue, focused simply on showcasing the musicians they love in a setting where they can be heard and appreciated. Like Nielsen and Pavlick, they are not sure of the future of their project and don't necessarily envision it lasting forever, at least not exactly as is. Audience demand is already exceeding their limited space, and they are wary of expanding too quickly, preferring to continue in a low-key and informal fashion, growing through word-of-mouth. As with Habitat House and Helmuth Projects, though, the response from the local arts community has been swift and overwhelmingly positive; there is clearly a strong and largely unmet desire for such events, projects, and spaces in San Diego.
Nielsen describes Habitat House as a "rewarding, taxing, and interesting social experiment," a descriptor that could apply equally to Helmuth Projects and Listen. By their very nature, such projects tend to impermanency, if only because the desire to share your home with a crowd may understandably wane over time. But, and this is part of the point, such efforts aren't only about the immediate results, or even longevity. They aim to create possibilities--an atmosphere, inclination, or desire for such events and spaces that others can pick up and run with. When times are flush, this may not seem as urgent or pressing of a goal. However, in a recession, when the official gatekeepers of culture may be downsizing, reducing staff, hours, and programming or increasing the price of admission, alternatives become increasingly important. Similarly, contemporary audiences do not necessarily need to be told what is "good" or "important" in cultural terms; they are expanding beyond institutions, both by necessity and desire. If San Diego is generally perceived to be lacking in the institutional and commercial strength of Los Angeles, for example, it does not lack the artists, musicians, audiences, and innovators that constitute a true creative community. The power and strength of Habitat House, Helmuth Projects, and the Listen series comes via their acknowledgment of this underutilized creative community. Tapping into it, seeing it as the unique resource it is, these emergent home venues are writing new stories for San Diego County, making friends and influencing culture along the way.
Top Image: Candy Claws with Leah Goren. Photo by Tommy McAdams.
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