You wouldn’t think that economic strategy and abstract expression could share center stage in the mind of an artist. Painter Erik ReeL, who recently spoke at a Ventura City Council meeting about economic development, is one such artist. This weekend, he opens a solo show of new works at 643 Project Space in Ventura, titled “Tabula Rasa.”
ReeL’s work is gestural, physical — a stripping and layering of color and markings in acrylics on canvas. He has a background in perceptual psychology and taught color theory for more than 11 years. “A lot of art reinforces materialism,” he explains, “but I’ve wanted to point to consciousness itself.” He’s interested in cognitive and ecstatic processes of perception and their transformative potential because he believes that “We are each a walking miracle.” His economic thinking is an extension of this belief. It is a means of imagining the best possible systems for organizing ourselves socially and politically.
Prior to moving to Ventura, ReeL lived in Santa Barbara, Seattle, Boulder and Santa Fe. In each of these places he witnessed and/or participated in arts-driven transformations, some that worked and some that didn’t. He saw Santa Fe transition from cowboy art to a contemporary art center that pushed out the city’s historic families and authentic charm. Santa Barbara has to “import art,” says ReeL, “because it’s too expensive for artists to live there.” And as an analyst in Seattle, he helped the city adjust its industrial insurance rates to draw the creative industries it wanted, and watched it grow a healthy, diversified economy and cultural scene.
ReeL sees a pattern in how the arts shape the direction of a city. “Local anchor artists hold down the fort for years, the MB Hanrahans and Michele Chapins, and there are hundreds of them here,” he explains. “They make the scene and build a consciousness that eventually magnetizes new blood,” which brings with it outside perspectives iand experiences. These mix together, forming a critical mass of activity “that makes the place become conscious of itself as an art center.” At this point there is often public resistance and “The city feels the momentum and stops funding.” For ReeL, this is a critical opportunity. Artists either kick into gear and commit to their place, which “lets art become a real engine of growth, or it dies, which just means it wasn’t strong enough to begin with.”
ReeL believes that the critical mass was sufficient in Ventura to make this shift two years ago, but it didn’t happen. And he fears the city is running out of time. As the economy recovers, real estate prices will rise, making it harder for artists and middle-class families to stay. ReeL thinks the biggest problem exacerbating the city’s sizable income inequality is its inability to retain and attract young people. “The problem is not the aging population but that the top 10 percent to 12 percent of your students and young artists can’t get traction here, so they leave,” he says. This talent exodus creates a concentration of issues that drag down the economy. “If we create a scene here, they might stay, and that would be powerful.”
Key to creating this scene is the development of spaces for artists of all disciplines to gather, teach and present. Arts spaces catalyze change, and many more are needed in Ventura. ReeL says this would be helped by simply adjusting permitting and zoning requirements to encourage initiative. Of utmost importance is securing high-speed Internet for the city, which will foster greater production and promotion. It will also provide the essential utility for luring tech and creative businesses.
ReeL thinks the focus should be on attracting the creative class, or “keyboard jobs,” in writing, animation, software development, graphic and web design, and pre- and post-production of media. “Don’t attract businesses that pay low wages,” he says. “Attract higher-earning workers” who also tend to telecommute. One in eight jobs in L.A. County are in the creative sector. “If you draw just ten people who earn $125,000 a year, they’ll spend 80 percent of their income locally,” says ReeL. “That’s one million more dollars circulating in our economy,” as well as a lighter load on housing and infrastructure.
What attracts youth and the creative sector is affordable housing, a vibrant cultural scene, and quality of place. By claiming itself to be the New Art City, Ventura has both home-grown and attracted artists who think and care deeply about the city and their role in it. “Something really special is happening here and time will prove us right,” says ReeL. But he warns that if artists and the city don’t work together to strengthen what is authentic about Ventura and design its future, the developers will act for them.
Tabula Rasa by Erik ReeL at 643 Project Space. First Friday viewing April 5, 6 to 9 p.m., and reception on Saturday, April 6, at 7 p.m.