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Media Arts Center San Diego has a new home

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Storefront on El Cajon Boulevard spruced up for the teaching of media skills

Story and Photos by Jennifer McEntee

What was previously an auto parts store on El Cajon Boulevard near 30th Street is the new home of the Media Arts Center San Diego.
The nonprofit — perhaps best known for its San Diego Latino Film Festival — has ambitious plans for the two-level, approximately 6,200-square-foot space.
Executive Director Ethan van Thillo hopes the place will be an attractive addition to the neighborhood, and a resource for the community.
“We hope to be a catalyst for change,” van Thillo said in a recent interview.
Since the Media Arts Center moved in on Aug. 21, the Art Deco-style building has been scrubbed of graffiti and given a fresh coat of paint. The storefront display windows are newly polished, exterior lighting has been installed and numerous computer workstations have been set up inside.
Still, there’s plenty of work to be done. The interior walls are configured for the previous tenant. Some of the linoleum flooring is mismatched and peeling. Electricity, plumbing and air conditioning need to be addressed. And the upstairs is packed wall-to-wall with storage boxes accumulated over the organization’s 18-year history.
The Media Arts Center’s mission is to promote design, audio, video and film as tools for community self-expression, social change and professional development. In pursuit of those goals, the center’s new headquarters will eventually include workshop space, a small concession and media gadgetry store, a 49-seat theater, an audio lab, editing suite, lounge area and office space, according to van Thillo.
“We have to have big plans, but of course take baby steps toward them,” he said.
While foundations and corporations fund much of the Media Arts Center’s programs, additional support was sought for the building revamp. The North Park Redevelopment Project Area Committee on Oct. 12 approved a $350,000 forgivable loan for the Media Arts Center to redevelop the space.  The loan means the center will be able to make structural, plumbing and electrical upgrades throughout 2011, said van Thillo.
“The idea for the new space came to me about two years ago,” he said. “We wanted to create what’s called a ‘digital gym.’ Any community member can come into the storefront and it’s inviting. We want to provide a means where people can learn skills for the 21st century.
“It’s not just about educating local filmmakers, but also local community members. We live in a YouTube world now where everyone is creating, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be teaching story structure, how to write, how to videotape, lighting, all those things that people need to know.”
The Media Arts Center hosts after-school programs, community do-it-yourself labs, digital music sessions and senior workshops. Its Teen Producers Project has resulted in some 300 videos created by youth, including educational films contracted by San Diego County’s Registrar of Voters and Department of Health. The center’s Digital Story Stations, available at some 35 public libraries throughout California, have resulted in 1,200 video clips that tell personal stories of historical and cultural significance. And The People’s Post is an experiment in online citizen journalism, by which community members can upload videos about current events.
“Everyone has a story to tell, and we want everyone to participate in our democracy. One way to participate in a democracy is to have a voice,” van Thillo said.
The Latino Film Festival, which was the genesis of the Media Arts Center, now draws some 30,000 viewers at a number of venues, according to van Thillo.  “Now it’s come full circle. It’s not just about exhibition, it’s about production, and helping the community tell their own story.”
The Media Arts Center has six full-time staff and four part-timers, and more than 100 volunteers for film festivals and workshops throughout the year.
The new space on El Cajon Boulevard, wedged between a liquor store and a piano store, is triple the size of the Media Arts Center’s previous headquarters in a Golden Hill Craftsman-style home.
Van Thillo said he was encouraged to consider properties along University Avenue near Ray Street, and also Point Loma’s NTC Promenade. While the already established Ray Street arts community was attractive, van Thillo said the El Cajon Boulevard location offers both challenges and promise. The neighborhood is gritty, urban and vibrant.
“That’s part of our mission: social change,” he said. “Ray Street has been a catalyst for bringing creative new stuff, new life to a neighborhood. If we can give a little bit of that to this area, we’ve done a good job.”
The Media Arts Center has a five-year lease, with a five-year option. The center hopes to become a valued neighbor in North Park over the next decade, van Thillo said.
“The whole point with this storefront is to get better engaged in the community. I think you’re going to see us really more involved.”
Media Arts Center San Diego, 2921 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego, (619) 230-1938,

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