Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

A progress report on Ventura’s “New Art City” plan

By Maureen Foley 05/03/2007

These days, reinvention is as easy as hiring a publicist and getting some plastic surgery. Suddenly, everything old is new again, and that previous persona is gone like the wind. There are hundreds of examples of celebrities making a fresh start in our always-on, 24/7 information culture. But what about cities? What happens when a vibrant seaside community decides to re-make itself as a “New Art City?”

Of course, there is no one answer. As soon as the words are asked, the question begs further questions. Why should a city strive to become a New Art City? Who will pay for the transition? Who will benefit from the change? Now, as Ventura tries to convert itself into a new cultural center for all things art-related, these questions have begun to surface. But the big question is: Will local artists actually benefit from the change in Ventura’s focus, or is the New Art City tagline just a successful publicity stunt, all fluff and no substance?

For Kerry Adams Hapner, Cultural Affairs manager for the City of Ventura, the New Art City goal is both positive and in the process of becoming a reality. She says having such a concrete goal acts as a catalyst and a way of focusing the energies of Ventura’s diverse art community.

“The idea of Ventura as the New Art City mobilizes us as an art community to take things to the next level,” says Hapner.

Hapner’s positive sentiments are echoed by others in the art community, but with some qualifications. Stephen “Scaf” Schafer, a fine art photographer (and occasional VC Reporter photographer) who has lived in Ventura for 33 years, says that while the New Art City ideal is exciting, the city is not there, yet. “We’re not Santa Fe,” he says.

Like Hapner and Schafer, Michele DePuy Leavitt, gallery director for Studio Channel Islands Art Center, sees many advantages to the current makeover. But she also sees room for further growth. DePuy Leavitt, an L.A. transplant, says one thing that’s lacking (which she misses from her urban days) is a strong chorus of critical voices within the local media.

“There’s no lack of enthusiasm. Artists here ... are really serious about their careers. But what’s going to happen if they don’t get critical feedback?” she says.

As the pop culture celebrity makeovers have shown, there is more to actual re-invention than some hair extensions and tight jeans. The problem with any grandiose, self-imposed transformation (performed by cities or celebs) is that they can feel artificial. However, from gallery owners to artists, many people in Ventura seem excited about the prospect of the area’s art-related activities being supported and highlighted.

Evolution of an idea

Let’s begin at the beginning. According to Hapner, the idea of remaking Ventura as California\\'s New Art City developed in 2004 during the process of creating a new cultural plan for the city. In 1992, Ventura\\'s previous cultural plan was developed, and it included having a downtown cultural district, performing space, signature events and other ideas.

By 2004, Hapner says all the goals from the earlier plan were accomplished. It was time to create some new goals. So the city, along with around 200 people, participated in a second cultural planning process, during which Hapner says some “key things emerged.”

One of the ideas generated during that group planning process was the New Art City plan. According to Hapner, the catchphrase was actually part of the second cultural plan\\'s title, “Creating California’s New Art City.” She explains the two overriding themes that blanket that plan are authenticity and collaboration. “[First, we wanted to create] something that was individual, something that was true and unique to Ventura ... We also realized that no one group can do this on their own.”

Besides blending art into daily life, Hapner says the cultural plan also focuses on stabilizing the financial resources and funding needed by nonprofit arts organizations. “Ten years ago, the total cumulative annual operating budgets for an arts organizations in downtown totaled $400,000. Now [it totals] $5 million.”

For Hapner, that financial growth proves the arts community downtown is growing in leaps and bounds.

“There has been exponential growth in the downtown cultural area ... The numbers really hit it home how much growth we\\'ve experienced, as a community,” she says.

In 2005, Ventura adopted the “Creating California’s New Art City” cultural plan. Since then, Hapner (and many others) have been working hard to implement the plan’s goals by developing programs, grants, classes and other arts-related activities. And behind it all, hovering like a vision of an oasis, is that glimmering vision of Ventura as a cultural mecca. But what does a New Art City actually look like? And is Hapner’s glorified vision of all things artistic in Ventura really improving the lives of artists locally?

Beyond the hype

In February 2007, the Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau sent out a shiny press release titled “Business Week Names Ventura One of the Best Cities for Artists in the U.S.” According to the press release, Ventura was named “as one of the top ten metropolitan areas in the U.S. for artists” by Business Week Online. From the bold words being proclaimed by the Visitors Bureau, it looked like myth had become reality for Ventura. It looked like California\\'s New Art City had arrived.

However, the actual article from Business Week Online, “Bohemian Today, High-Rent Tomorrow” by Maya Roney, paints a slightly different picture. First of all, the press release fails to mention that while the article does indeed name Ventura a top 10 art city, it included Thousand Oaks, Oxnard and Ventura together as one area. Because the top cities for artists were identified by their statistics related to “a combination of artistic resources, relatively low living costs, and young, diverse populations,” Ventura by itself probably would not have qualified.

Although Roney\\'s formula for choosing each artist-friendly area is not described exactly, she writes that she used various indices compiled by Sperling\\'s Best Places. From her article, it is possible to guess how the greater Ventura area was influenced by Thousand Oaks and Oxnard. When grouped with Oxnard, Ventura probably received a higher score in diversity and a better score for cost of living. The inclusion of Thousands Oaks, probably raised the area’s score for cultural attractions per capita.

But do these finer points really matter? Isn’t this just splitting hairs? Even if the Ventura Visitors Bureau press release had said “Ventura County is named as one of the top ten areas for artists,” what difference does it make? These details matter because the cities of Oxnard and Thousand Oaks are not trying to re-create their collective personas as aesthetic hubs. Perhaps, Thousand Oaks and Oxnard were deliberately left off the press release because they don\\'t work into Ventura\\'s neat vision of itself. By now, the city may have invested too much time and money into this New Art City myth to turn back now.

In the same way Disneyland touts itself as the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Ventura may not be able to see itself as anything other than the “New Art City.” To do so now, to question the possibility that a plan has failed or is actually impossible, may be far too depressing for the collective art community. But the truth remains that trying to fabricate an art center in Ventura may be as absurd as trying to make a theme park the world center for a particular emotion.

In the shadow

Still, the fact that Ventura is trying to create its own art-centric destiny is noble. As federal funding for artists shrinks and money for public arts education disappears in California, Ventura, at least, is one city trying to make a stand for the arts.

But behind all the happy-happy joy-joy hoopla over the New Art City spectacle, there is a darker pattern. Traditionally, as cities grow financially because of their thriving arts scene, they lose the very artists that fueled their growth.

Rents for studios, apartments and performance spaces rise, and the high cost of living becomes prohibitively expensive. In come the tourists and out go the artists. This idea is the subtext of Roney’s article, but this point is conveniently absent from the Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau’s press release.

Roney writes, “Artists, because of their typically lower incomes, usually need to seek out less expensive, developing neighborhoods where they can afford the rent. But because of their creativity they are able to fix up these areas, eventually attracting hip boutiques, galleries and restaurants.” Roney’s article implies that today’s artist-friendly cities are tomorrow’s overpriced real estate markets.

And while Roney doesn’t say it outright, that means artists themselves may have to leave after being forced out by skyrocketing rents. Ventura, however, hopes to avoid this cruel fate. Hapner says Ventura’s Working Artists Ventura (WAV) project, an affordable artist’s live/work housing project, was designed specifically to address the hip today, high-rent tomorrow debacle. “Because, so often, communities become homogenized and the artists that helped make a place hip get priced out, the City Council supports [the WAVE project],” says Hapner.

The question of what happens to artists when a city gets rich from the arts also points to the idea of money. Is Ventura undertaking this New Art City project as a nicely packaged way to generate extra tourism income? According to Hapner, there is an element of truth to that, although it is only part of the larger reasons behind the movement. “The arts support about 645 full-time jobs and is an $18.6 million industry [in Ventura],” she says.

But, Hapner says, there are also inherent community values that are stimulated by promoting the arts. “There are great social and public values,” she says. Having programs that target diverse and low-income populations are also important to the New Art City concept, she says.

In process

For now, the question of whether Ventura is becoming the New Art City remains unanswered, and the makeover is still in process. At its worst, Ventura could become a city of smoke and mirrors for artists, like the land of Oz with a worthless manipulator lurking behind a sparkly PR machine. At best, Ventura could make a splashy comeback, with all things artistic glowing like a new diamond set in an old ring.

Now, while there may be differing views about how close (or far) Ventura is from its New Art City goal, many people seem to be enthusiastic about the changes so far, and the idea itself seems to be generating a lot of positive energy. “I feel confident in saying we’re not there yet,” says Schafer. “It’s slowly creeping in. Ventura is slowly becoming a destination.”

For Schafer, who is organizing and promoting the second annual Photo Ventura event this year, the biggest sign of the times was the closing of the Thomas Kinkade gallery on Main Street. That, and the growing popularity of things like the ArtWalk, are proof positive for him that there is a new aesthetic dynamic awakening in Ventura. But he still sees room for improvement.

For Schafer, the New Art City will be complete when there is a piece of public art on every block. Moving forward, he says that while most cities in California are looking for ways to enhance their tourism base by promoting the arts, Ventura is going to have to do more. He also compared Ventura’s journey in becoming the New Art City to that of an individual artist building up their career.

As he says, “[Ventura] can’t have financial viability and a reputation without putting in the time. We have to put in the hours.”

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