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Santa Ana’s Artists Village: The Pros and Cons of Gentrification

“Santa Ana was a grease pole to hell in the 1980s with poverty, crime and gangs," remarked Don Cribb, founder of the Artists Village—today a flourishing arts district in the city’s downtown. Yet Santa Ana in the 1920s to 50s had been OC’s financial and cultural center, with many grand homes on tree-lined streets, housing the county’s elite. Inspired by this illustrious history, arts entrepreneur Cribb intentionally spearheaded the city’s artistic renewal. While gentrification is often controversial, as it displaces local residents and raises rents, Cribb and his supporters ultimately prevailed. “Evidence shows that arts and cultural development create a new atmosphere for growth and prosperity,” he asserted. His first effort in the city’s artistic renewal involved mounting a show by artist David Hockney in a local exhibition space. The 1989 retrospective garnered support from the Segerstrom family, the South Coast Plaza founders, as well as from local colleges and universities. It also received coverage from local and national press including CNN.

Supported by the Santa Ana Council of Arts and Culture, Cribb soon began discussing the Artists Village vision with neighborhood associations and with arts organizations. These included the Cal State Fullerton (CSUF) Art Department and the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA). The latter, a non-profit affiliate-run gallery, was established in the city in 1980 by five CSUF MFA graduates, at the urging of their professor, renowned artist George Herms. 

Cindy Pankopf: Face of Our Nation | Courtesy of OCCCA
Cindy Pankopf: Face of Our Nation | Courtesy of OCCCA

The irrepressible Cribb suggested to OCCCA’s first director Jeffrey Frisch and to board members that the venue move to a larger space in the heart of the Artists Village. He even proposed that OCCCA could receive $326,000 from the city’s redevelopment funds. Frisch and the board said, “yes.” OCCCA moved to its larger digs in 1996 and has subsequently exhibited over 800 guest artists and held numerous solo and group shows. Art luminaries who have mounted exhibitions there include Herms, Grace Kook-Anderson, formerly Laguna Art Museum curator, and Tyler Stallings, the director, Sweeney Art Gallery at UC Riverside. His Art as Protest exhibition recently finished its run at the venue on July 8. The current director, Stephen Anderson, explains, “I look at OCCCA as a giant sandbox, inspiring artists to experiment and take risks with their art. It also allows opportunities from curating shows on hot-topic themes, to creating musical events, to collaborating with other institutions.”

Kelly Burke: Reimagined American Flag | Tyler Stallings
Kelly Burke: Reimagined American Flag | Tyler Stallings

In the 1990s, the decrepit Santora Building on Broadway near 2nd Street began undergoing its own regeneration with artists moving into its inexpensive spaces. (Opened in 1929, the Santora, with its decorative masonry, terrazzo floor lobby and wrought iron railed staircase, had a tearoom visited by movie stars, a speakeasy and upscale retail venues. As the city started declining in the 1970s, the building was neglected.) Connie Sasso, also part of the Santora’s rebirth, mounted an installation in the building’s street-facing window in 1993. Her feathered, robed figure with a crucifix and jar of honey —inspired by Andres Serrano’s 1987 photo “Piss Christ” — was so notorious that it attracted the local press and major TV stations, and effectively jump-started the Artists Village’s creation. 

In the ensuing years, individuals and cooperatives moved into the Santora, including Mexican painter Vladimir Cora, Santa Ana College’s Legacy Gallery, and the Artbar and Paper Studio. The jewel of the Santora was the Salon of the Theatres created by designer Joseph Musil. Opened in the 1990s, it displayed four-dozen dollhouse-size theater models, designed or restored by Musil. The enchanting models with footlights, illumination and operable curtains included the rococo Chicago Rialto Theater, NYC’s art deco Roxy Theater and Disney’s El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

Dave Barton, a political activist steeped in classical literature, observed the city’s renewal and opened the Rude Guerrilla Theater across from the Santora in 1997. “I took my desires to talk about politics, sex, religion and social justice and transferred them to our plays,” he said. “Guerilla theater is a form of social protest, and our productions focused on edgy British imports and US premieres.”

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The Artists Village soon encompassed a ten-square block area, from First to Fourth Street, and from Broadway to Spurgeon Street, with Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) on the 2nd Street Promenade as its centerpiece. Cribb and Mike McGee, CSUF art professor and Begovich Gallery director, conceived of GCAC in 1994 as the village anchor. After extensive negotiations and renovations to the former residential hotel and market, Grand Central opened in 1999 as a collaboration between Santa Ana and CSUF. The 45,000 square-foot venue included three large galleries, a project room, theater, printmaking workshop, classrooms, and studio and living spaces for graduate students in the arts and artists-in-residence. McGee and GCAC founding director Andrea Harris curated and installed hundreds of contemporary art exhibitions there by regional, national and international artists. They also promoted collaborations among artists, students and the community.

Don Manderson: Epiphany | Tyler Stallings
Don Manderson: Epiphany | Tyler Stallings

In 2009, they mounted Grand Central’s tenth anniversary show with highlights of work exhibited since 1999. These included Jeffrey Vallance’s “Blinky Bone” and “Vegas Crucifixes Blessed by Pope John Paul II” assemblage crucifixes; “Psychoanalytic Filiations,” a poster by Ernst Salzader, mapping relationships between Sigmund Freud and his patients; Charles Krafft’s “Hitler Teapot,” from the artist’s “disasterware” earthenware series; Jim Jenkins’ “A Dime a Dance,” a blood red devil from the gallery’s “One Hundred Artists See Satan” exhibition; and Thomas Kincade’s “Dogwood Chapel,” a faux-European, romantic realistic painting. Harris explained, “Grand Central is the only residential art program to have exhibited two artists, Elizabeth Turk and Camille Utterback, who went on to win MacArthur genius awards.”

Harris and McGee (who were married in 2002) created Grand Central Press, publishing nearly 100 books, catalogs and folios of artists they exhibited, from 2001 to 2010. McGee explained:  “Our first publication was Charles Kraft’s ‘Villa Delirium.’ We published monographs for numerous artists including Janice Lowery, Mark Mothersbaugh, Richard Turner, and Basil Wolverton—the Wolverton book received a glowing notice in the ‘New York Times Book Review.’ We published books for Sandow Birk, Jeffrey Vallance, and Michael Davis, for group exhibitions, and produced twenty-six prints by sixteen artists, including performance artist Rachel Rosenthal.”

John Spiak became Grand Central’s Director/Chief Curator in 2011. Since manning the venue, he has emphasized showing artists from the community, particularly those who work with socially engaged practices. He has worked with the Creative Leaders of Santa Ana-GCAC Teen Program, and co-founded Santa Ana Sites, presenting theatrical, dance and musical performances throughout the city. Grand Central is also participating in “Vireo,” a contemporary opera, which premiered as a twelve-episode broadcast on KCET on June 13.

Spiak’s several exhibitions created by artists-in-residence include “SanTana’s Fairy Tales” (2017), which integrates community-based narratives of Mexican-American residents with contemporary fairytales; the visual art installation, storytelling project by Sarah Rafael García includes an independently published book. The 2016 “Unfinished Conversation: Reconstructing the Invisible” addresses the trauma of people in war-torn countries and in crime-related professions. It combines a heartbreaking film by Aide Šehović about her refugee parents, with Santa Ana crime scene photos by investigator Leonard Correa. “All the Queen’s Men” (2011-12) by photographer Naida Osline, featuring drag queens and kings from Santa Ana, confronts gender barriers.

Gentrified areas go through cycles of regeneration and decline, and the Artists Village is no exception. Joseph Musil’s theater gallery closed in the mid 2000s shortly after his death. Dave Barton shut down his Rude Guerrilla Theater in 2009, because, “The constant fundraising to pay a landlord high rents is something I'm no longer interested in." A number of galleries closed, with several spaces now occupied by businesses. JoAnne Artman closed her Space on Spurgeon gallery in 2009, changed its name and moved to Laguna Beach. The Santora building, still an artists’ center, has attorneys and other business occupying about one-third of the units. And occasional undercurrents of dissatisfaction in the village evoke the moods in Venice and Boyle Heights, especially as artists, among them Skeith de Wine, are moving out of Santa Ana due to rising rents.

Jairo Banuelos | Tyler Stallings
Jairo Banuelos | Tyler Stallings

Cribb calls the city’s ups and downs, “the SoHo syndrome,” emphasizing the village’s positive developments. Among these is the First Saturday Artwalk when the 2nd Street Promenade bustles with throngs of people, numerous pop-up vendors and with local residents engaging in colorful Lucha Libre wrestling. The nearby Q Art Salon with its figurative work attracts a diverse audience. OCCCA mounts controversial exhibitions, drawing a variety of people. Local residents appreciate Grand Central’s engagement with the community; and the area just beyond the village is energized with new galleries, shops, high-end restaurants, apartments, and the OC High School for the Arts.

Yet in a recent KCET article, “SanTana’s Fairy Tales” writer Sarah Rafael García, remarks: “Where once Mexican culture was celebrated on Calle Cuatro, today white-walled coffee shops and trendy barbers are replacing quinceañera stores and chasing away fruteros (fruit vendors).” Further emphasizing this theme of loss, she writes imaginatively in her fairytale book: “Just as I turned my head again to look towards the tree, the carousel appeared. It was translucent like fog and spun slowly in silence, floating above the sidewalk.” Indeed, gentrification is a double-edged sword.

Top Image: 9 Peaceful Protest Helmets - James Berson | Courtesy of James Berson

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