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Farewell Art 

High rents forcing artists out of Santa Monica

Wednesday, Jul 26 2000
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When the rent on June Phelps’ studio in Santa Monica‘s Drescherville artist community tripled, the painter packed up her brushes and canvases and looked for another space. ”Drescherville was dwindling fast, and people were looking for a place to live and paint,“ said Phelps.

Phelps tried the Drawing Room, a warehouse shared by artists a dozen blocks from the city’s eastern border. But that community 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.“

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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 livework 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 6-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, a video producer who used to have a Drescherville studio. ”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, postproduction 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 livework 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 that 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, make 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.

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