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Farewell Art 

High rents forcing artists out of Santa Monica

Wednesday, Jul 26 2000

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”Artists are not in the limelight of politics,“ said artist Bruria Finkel, a former arts commissioner and a 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.“

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”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 are available will be gone. It‘s that critical. It’s a crisis.“

Yossi 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 15 years ago for $80,000. ”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 multimillionaire 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 to 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, livework spaces, a food court, an upscale restaurant, a health-club facility, and subterranean parking for 1,400 vehicles.

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