Art Communities — The Smaller Picture pg235
Colorful companion to my memoir The Incompetent Psychic
Jobs to estimate, signs to paint and Benicia Artists Open Studios was coming up again in May. Earnings from the previous lucrative year had zero’d the debt, bought an iMac and gotten me through a winter of experimenting with new techniques. The last of it paid for Paris, then ran out during my two week vacation coughing into a pillow. All that right up to the sick part was great. Now I was back to the monthly scramble for income. I wandered into the disheveled studio to see what I had painted over the winter. Open Studios is held the first weekend of every May. It’s a pretty big deal that forces at least seventy artists to clean up their shit every spring. — From Chapter 13
The huge Civil War-era arsenal by the industrial port on the waterfront of Benicia, California was converted to five warehouses of artist live/work space in the 80s, and has been a thriving creative colony ever since. This slightly funky yet vibrant community is anchored by Arts Benicia Center Gallery and its arts education facility next door.
I intended to write today’s thought about how art colonies organically form to become creative, economic and politically progressive hubs. Woodstock NY, Sedona AZ, Taos NM and Benicia CA come to mind. Is there a spiritual/energy connection with the earth itself? Is there an X factor beyond the basics where art communities will form and evolve? I googled maps of the ley lines and vortexes of the earth to find a theoretical connection, and quickly discarded this flight of fancy when graphs of unsubstantiated evidence looked as complicated and impenetrable as Vedic astrology. Turning the thought for today into the thought for this year? Maybe not… or maybe someone else.
This surfing search revealed another theory I formed over decades of observing the movements of creative makers in the Bay Area. The basics for an art colony to establish are pretty basic… affordable rent, scenic attraction and an existing willingness within a town to appreciate and support art education and the output of the artists themselves as they congregate to form a tribe. Towns and cities can become internationally famous for an artsy reputation. So much so they reach a tipping point where the place becomes so desirable that working artists can no longer afford to live there. I’m not talking about those few artists in the upper stratosphere of fame who supply the tiny market of uber wealth described by say, Madelaine DAngelo. 99% of artists are experimenters, teachers and students. Many subsist on a modest following of middle-income patrons as economies and trends fluctuate. Every one needs some space to create.
Sausalito in the 50s and 60s was one such creative colony before artists could no longer afford to live there. They migrated across the Golden Gate to the abandoned warehouses and factories South of Market, where they renovated and reinvigorated the area so successfully they were rent evicted. In the 80s many moved to Hunter’s Point south of the City, or across the Bay to the Port of Oakland and the abandoned NASA buildings in Emeryville… where they helped Jack London Square and Emeryville become so desirable they were again priced out in another ‘Let’s kill the golden goose’ cycle. I knew a few painters and sculptors who had migrated that circuit. They were once again starting over in the old arsenal buildings of Benicia. A generous philanthropist made his holdings a haven which is still intact.
If you ever find yourself between San Francisco and Napa on a first weekend in May, check out Benicia Artists Open Studios. It is a wonder of the art community world — not just because of the overall high quality of the work, but because even though real estate prices have soared, the town still respects and supports the makers who helped make that happen.
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