Down Linden Ave in Long Beach CA on April 28, 2017.

In World War II, Winston Churchill was pressured to cut funding for the arts,” Almanza said. “His response was, ‘Then what are we fighting for?’”

Story by Melina Paris

Photos by Rebecca Vazquez and Crystal Adams-King

(Editors note: Arts council’s executive director Griselda Suarez clarified that the original Creative Spaces meeting was inspired by the Ghost Ship tragedy, not the mural incident at ArtX).

After the tragic Ghost Ship fire in the Oakland, California performance space and artist collective home where 36 people died and after artist, Jasper Wong’s mural on the Art Exchange building in downtown Long Beach had been painted over with black paint, the Long Beach Arts Council called for a meeting of Open Conversations on Creative Spaces.

Arts council’s executive director Griselda Suarez conducted the town hall-style meeting at the Gina M. Woodruff Gallery in Long Beach. Major topics of discussion drew on how gentrification and permitting issues affect artists and also considered how to create sustainable live-work spaces for local artists.

Suarez wants the conversation to build a new way of community accountability for the arts council and for art leaders in the city.

Creative spaces exist because artists make them, Suarez wrote in the event invitation. Producers promote events at these spaces for profit and cities push artists to the margins. We have seen how housing policies and development growth impact artists through gentrification.

Down Linden Ave in Long Beach, April 28, 2017, the East Village Arts District.

Local artist and meeting attendee Eric Almanza believes Long Beach needs more public art, not less. He spoke about Wong’s mural and Ghost Ship.

“As an artist when you go into a public artwork situation you have to realize there is a temporal state to the artwork,” Almanza said. “You do have to go in not holding the work so precious.” He was glad there were several people in the community who showed and voiced outrage about the painting over of the mural.

Almanza knows several friends who have lived or are living in situations like the one at Ghost Ship, “If an artist goes through long periods of time when work doesn’t sell, they need a place that can be affordable,” he said. “Sometimes they surrender security and peace of mind to sustain their art.”

People were living in the building that houses Almanza’s studio. It is not zoned for residential occupants. He said after Ghost Ship, the city came in and had everybody move out.  “You see [situations] where they got five days to leave. Almanza said. “They knew beforehand because they were working with the city and knew they were on a clock but still it’s hard. Until the button is pushed you’re in a status of limbo.”

According to Almanza, his building manager is struggling with the city’s demands. It’s been almost a year since they started the permitting process to allow living spaces and three months since people moved out. The manager is hoping for a hearing soon but was upset with how long the process was taking.

“The city would tell him he had to do X, Y and Z,” Almanza said. “He would do it, request a hearing then something else would be added onto it. This is a space that could really transform the neighborhood and be a very vocal and visual place for Long Beach and the neighborhood but it’s caught in red tape.”

On potential solutions, Almanza would like to see a partnership with either local business people and business owners, philanthropists, or the big art names like the Getty’s or the Broad’s.

“Can we create an artist co-op run by the artists but with financial backing?” He said.

Almanza also likes Phantom Gallery programs to broaden exposure. Local artists work with business owners and take over storefronts that are temporarily vacant and populate it with art.

“If Long Beach wants to capitalize on the creative capital that it has they should invest or find investors that have the same drive to get something up and running in art,” he said. “We need more spaces to be built with consistent use to increase awareness.

In World War II, Winston Churchill was pressured to cut funding for the arts,” Almanza said. “His response was, ‘Then what are we fighting for?’”

Eric Almanza, 38, local long beach artist in his creative space.
Mural in Long Beach CA on April 28, 2017, off of Broadway.

LBCC’s visual and media arts department chair, Morgan Barnard, attended art school in Oakland’s California College of the Arts. He said Ghost Ship resonated with him.

Back then there was a strong culture of artists taking over warehouse spaces and established spaces with art studios. He lived in one that was an old radiator factory that had been converted into “this kind of crazy place,” he said.

 

“Part of it was very fringe and haphazardly constructed,” Barnard said. “The other part of it was being developed for residential space, more above the books. Spaces were becoming more legitimate, meaning people would pay more money to live there.”

Barnard noted with Oakland being a port town it has seen many transformations that other port towns have seen. Here in Long Beach, there are many parallels. As shipping patterns change, manufacturing patterns change then the economy shifts. When there is an economic decline, artists see that as an opportunity to have spaces that they can afford.

The first dot-com boom changed things in the San Francisco Bay Area. Rents soared. People were displaced through gentrification. San Francisco is inaccessible to low-income families, artists and many other people. Entire communities are disappearing.

“It’s a stimulus for gentrification and a complicated issue,” Barnard said. “The city really needs to get behind artist spaces and ensure that there are safe affordable live-work spaces for artists. These kind of raw spaces are complicated. They pose many challenges for the city and the inspectors. But I can just picture what Ghost Ship was like,” he said. “What they were trying to do there was create experiences and create amazing opportunities but something went really wrong.”

Barnard said creating grants or artist residencies is a good way to get the community involved to make art more present. He wants to see more public art opportunities.

“Public art is concrete,” Barnard said. “People can make a career out of being public artists. With the uncertainty in trade right now, port cities have to figure out how to innovate and art is something that is a known economic stimulus.”  

One big question for Suarez was to find out if it’s possible for the arts council to be a mediator between artists and city government to create live-work spaces for artists. This has led her to initiate meetings about creative spaces and hear about thoughts and ideas from artists within the Long Beach community.

She’s looking at other models of this kind cooperation nationally including in San Francisco, New Mexico, Minneapolis and Ohio.

“These places see artists as not only a springboard for the creative economy but for the economy in general and for the arts and culture of a city,” Suarez said.

Her goal is to begin to bridge that conversation with city government.

“Even with the discretion of the public one percent [of city budget] for art, I often remind representatives I’m meeting with, that this is just one part of the larger arts ecology,” Suarez said. “If we don’t have a healthy arts ecology then we don’t have enough spaces for artists, or spaces for a show, or performance venues. This year it’s an issue of [having] gatherings. It’s not about a big radical change. It’s taking the steps slowly, to see how we function in Long Beach.”

Suarez wants to locate the gaps, fill them and learn how the arts council can advocate for all kinds of artists, performers and writers. She notes, it is important to empower the arts council but also empower arts and music collectives to do some of the work so we can help them. Doing it too quickly may give the city an arts and culture identity that does not reflect this community or maybe one that we’re not comfortable with.

Suarez appreciated the energy around creating Creative Spaces and artists being willing to invest in that.

“That gives leverage to the artist community,” Suarez said. “I can then take that to the city and say, ‘artists are ready to make something here.’ Some of the best ideas come from that grassroots feeling and artists taking it upon themselves. Then the city catches up. That’s where the energy is.”

Current live work spaces being considered are developments between Third Street and Broadway, by Elm and Long Beach Boulevard and another at Alamitos Avenue and Fourth Street.

Additionally, California State University Long Beach is connected to a development planned for the Acres of Books lot on Third Street. They will partner with the University College of the Arts to create gallery, studio and student space and a working artist space there. And there are conversations about making studio space in the new Queen Mary development.

“There’s a long history of the arts in Long Beach and we should shine a light on it as much as possible.”

Eric Almanza’s workstation

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