Hidden away on a dead-end street in a light industrial area of Santa Monica is one of Southern California’s great art resources. The 18th Street Arts Center, housed in a set of nondescript buildings, is home to artists’ studios, galleries, the offices of several arts organizations and the Highways Gallery and Performance Space.
18th Street’s Executive Director Jan Williamson talked with the Mirror about the Center’s evolution. It started, she says, in 1977, with a magazine devoted to performance art, called High Performance.
“That magazine was writing about performance art that was happening all over the world. It was based downtown. In 1988, the publisher of the magazine, Susanna Dakin, bought the property at 18th Street, and Linda Burnham, the editor of the magazine, moved High Performance to this building.”
Dakin and Burnham put out a call to local visual and performance artists and arts organizations and brought them together to form the Center. At that time, a few arts organizations were already using some of the buildings. Judy Chicago had assembled her famous Dinner Party installation in the building that is now Highways. The main office building was then used as offices for an architecture firm, while other buildings had formerly been used as a light bulb factory, an auto repair shop and a warehouse for the Santa Monica Airport.
What resulted was a unique center that was part nonprofit arts organization and part artists’ residency center. Some artists took up living on the property, while other studios were provided for visiting artists on a short-term basis. A number of other arts organizations moved into 18th Street on a permanent basis.
Organizations currently occupying space at 18th Street include California Lawyers for the Arts (“a really important arts organization that provides legal services to the arts community”); EZTV, which produces video and digital art; Continuum Montage and Continuum Movement Studio (two organizations that promote body awareness through movement art); Celebration Arts, which produces festivals and parades and coordinates with communities to create events; independent film company Lightning Bolt Picks; TeAda Productions, a group that develops performance and theatre projects by people of color; and the Electronic Café (“The original electronic café – the whole concept was modeled on them – they’ve been around for nearly 20 years,” says Williamson).
Artists-in-residence include and have included artist Lita Albuquerque; performance artists Denise Uyehara and Dan Kwong; playwright, poet and Hittite Empire founder Keith Antar Mason; actor-filmmaker Joan Hotchkis; Celebration Arts founder Michelle Berne; and artist/musician Cindy DeSantis.
In 1998, 18th Street took the big step of buying the 1.2-acre property from Susanna Dakin for the price of $2.5 million (it was appraised at $8.25 million in 2005). This put 18th Street in the unique position of being one of very few arts organizations to own the land on which it resided. However, 18th Street is still paying off the purchase price.
“We have multiple sources of funding,” says Williamson. “Any healthy organization has to have a diverse income stream. We get about 50 percent of our income from grants and habitual donors. A big chunk of income is sustained through the artists’ rents.”
The organization also offers membership to the public, at levels ranging from “Critic” at $35 a year, through “Art Historian,” “Curator” and “Patron,” to “Muse” at $1000.
But with increased property values and a need for more space for the renting artists, 18th Street began to realize, after several feasibility studies, that the best option would be to rebuild the center as a larger, more modern facility.
“Even when the property was purchased, the buildings were very funky,” says Williamson.” Ten years later they were even more funky – and we’re looking at close to another 10 years now.”
Other incentives for rebuilding include the fact that there is, as Williamson puts it, a “dearth” of affordable studio space in Santa Monica, and the fact that donors will be more encouraged to contribute financially to the organization if it were housed in a more modern space.
Construction for the new facility will take a minimum of three years, during which time the artists and organizations now in residence will have to move out. Asked if some of these organizations will have temporary spaces, Williamson says “absolutely.” The new facility will be designed by the local firm Pugh + Scarpa. At three stories, it will be three times larger than the current set of buildings, with 30 to 60 artists’ studios on the upper floors and space on the ground floor for galleries, theatres and even a café.
Looking back at 18th Street’s history, Williamson says the response from the public has always been “very positive.” The Center has maintained a constant connection to the community, participating in events like the annual Santa Monica Festival, where artists from 18th Street lead crafts workshops and give performances. Over the years, 18th Street has occasionally held “open house” days or nights, when the public can visit artists in their studios. Currently, the Center holds “Art Night” four times a year, with studios and galleries open to let visitors see what is going on in 18th Street’s world of art.
Williamson sums up the philosophy of 18th Street as a place that welcomes Southern California artists, usually in group shows, as well as a venue for visiting artists from around the world. She adds: “Everything is founded on the concept of rebuilding the facility at this point. That’s a huge vision that will really transform the whole organization and move [it] to a new level.”