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Artistic Visions for East Village

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Entrepreneurs seek an art-cultural-educational transformation

By Manny Cruz

In a far corner of his sprawling arts gallery at Seventh and Broadway, Alex Salazar plots his next move in an ambitious plan to help transform the old East Village neighborhood into a thriving arts community. There is nothing devious about Salazar’s plan. The artist-turned-art entrepreneur envisions a Downtown neighborhood where artists can produce and sell their art, where they can exhibit their works and where those who are new to the field can learn from established artists.
“I want Broadway and Seventh to be the Times Square of San Diego because Broadway and 7th Avenue is Times Square in New York,” says Salazar. “Im trying to make our own Times Square here, focusing on art.”
The well-educated, well-traveled Salazar — he holds a master’s degree in theology and art from Harvard, a seond master’s in sociology and art from Boston College and has lived in London, Florence, Italy, Miami, among other places — has already made significant headway in his pursuit of an arts district. Within the past several months, he has leased 7,000 square feet of Downtown real estate and plans to lease additional space in the future.
His home base, which he calls his flagship and where he maintains a small office, is located at 640 Broadway. It’s a 2,000-square-foot, high-end art salon that features the works of national and international, mid-career and emerging artists. “The space used to be a popcorn shop and it’s actually two spaces that I took,” says Salazar. “I knocked down one of the walls and made it into one larger space. And it’s been a great year. Business has been good, which has allowed me to use the money to rent the other spaces.”
One of his other spaces is at 635 Broadway, a small studio fronting on the sidewalk that is provided free of charge, at 30-day intervals, to individual artists who can’t afford a work space of their own. “I believe in giving back to the community financially, especially so when I meet a lot of artists painting in their bedrooms, their garages, outside,” says Salazar. “I realized that I could take a space and donate it to them and they would have a place to create a better work. . . This allows them to lock the doors and paint. And I serve as a mentor in guiding them, teaching them a little bit about how to maintain the studio, presenting the artwork in the space. It’s like their own gallery.” Because the Artist-in-Residence studio has a glass front, passers-by on Broadway can watch the artists at work.
“At the end of their 30 days, I give them a solo show here at the corner,” explains Salazar. “The goal is for them to create a body of work so that they have art to sell, but also so they are able to present it to another gallery who might take them.” (Artist Greg Holden Regan is currently exhibiting his paintings that he produced while an Artist in Residence. The exhibition opened March 24 and runs through April 4.)
Salazar also leased a 5,000-square-foot space at 1040 Broadway that is to be used for art exhibitions and art auctions. He has petitioned the city for storefront improvement funds for the space. “Unfortunately, it turns out that the building was built in 1922 so now I have to go through the historical review (process) so I don’t know how long that’s going to take,” he says.
The 37-year-old Salazar (he’ll turn 38 in May), said he fell in love with art while studying in Italy and London, and worked at art galleries and did some painting himself, principally religious art reflecting his Catholic upbringing, and some abstract work. gave it up when he discovered he liked the business side of the art world better.
The Houston native, who lives a half-block away from his art spaces, says he isn’t finished leasing Downtown property around his “flagship” gallery. The additional spaces he hopes to lease would be used for a collaborative project with a group of perhaps 10 artists. Each would have a studio but all would share exhibition space. “I think it’s a brilliant business plan — not many spaces allow them to do that.”
Salazar, of course, is not the only person interested in bringing new artistic vitality to the Downtown area. There are many others. Two such entrepreneurs are Bob Leathers and wife Cheryl Nickel, who co-founded Space 4 Art by leasing three adjacent warehouses on 15 Street in East Village in 2009 and, with the help of numerous artists and other volunteers, turned them into 30 affordable work studios and five affordable work/live studios for 40 San Diego artists, designers and craftspeople.
Nickel said that when San Diego’s economy boomed around 2006-2007 and new developments took hold Downtown, artists who had been living and working here couldn’t afford to stay. She and Leathers’ vision was to bring them back. “We want to keep those great artists that are graduating from State and UCSD here in San Diego,” said Leathers. “That can only happen if we provide affordable housing, and what better place than right here in the center of the city, where it’s the core and nucleus of everything.”
The Space 4 Art space is blessed with natural light and has a large gallery, several shared community spaces, an outdoor patio, performance area and a classroom. Artists work in a variety of media — painting, printmaking, welding, woodworking. Tenant artists take part in a collective and perform eight hours of service each month to keep costs down and their rents affordable.
Perhaps the boldest idea yet for the transformation of the East Village is a proposal conceived by David Malmuth, president of David Malmuth Development LLC in Carmel Valley, a company he formed last year with, he says, a singular purpose: to lead in the creation of art-inspired places that transform communities. His idea is I.D.E.A. (Innovation+Design+Education+Arts), a district encompassing 35 city blocks of East Village that would not only be home to the arts industry but a whole slew of technology and design businesses and educational institutions who, says Malmuth, are “hungry for collaboration.” Malmuth and business partner Pete Garcia spend most of the week working on this and other projects out of Garcia’s place in Bankers Hill.
“The I.D.E.A. District holds the potential to become a major new business and jobs engine in San Diego,”(see page page 24) Malmuth says. “Making this vision a reality can have a transformational impact on our city by creating as many as 10,000 jobs in the next decade.”
Malmuth has spent 25 years in the development business. Nine of those were with the Walt Disney Co., where led its restoration of the New Amsterdam Theater in New York and has been involved as a lead executive on a number of development projects in California and Las Vegas.
“San Diego is already home to significant design activity,” Malmuth says in a treatise on the I.D.E.A. proposal (See excerpts on Page ). “In fact, the relatively undeveloped East Village area that we are targeting already has 30 design-related businesses, including recording studios, architecture firms, photographers, artists, urban lifestyle boutiques, graphic design firms, fashion designers, stylists, art schools, and art galleries and spaces. But, we have yet to seize the potential to create and support a specific cluster of these firms that will not only elevate their importance in the region, but can also lead to new collaborations and growth.”
As for Salazar, his vision for East Village are similar to Malmuth’s. “We already have the Gaslamp, Petco Park and the foot traffic that a business needs for it to be successful,” Salazar says. “An arts district would definitely support the economy. It will bring culture and energy and more visitors to San Diego.”

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