Back when the WAV was but a gleam in the City of Ventura's eye, even before a seedling's shape was visualized, there were forces that presented and then nurtured into fruition the concept of the WAV, Working Artists Ventura.
In the mid 1980s, Ventura was a sleepy Southern California seacoast town notable for a few exits off the 101 highway between the big city of Los Angeles and the tourist destination of Santa Barbara. At the time, San Buenaventura had a solid reputation as a blue collar domain working the agricultural and oil fields. Life was fully occupied by work, with little time left over for recreation. . Of course, there was the coast, beaches and surfing. There were family outings to the few local restaurants, maybe after church. Weekends were taken up by visiting friends and family, a drive-in movie on Telephone Road, browsing a used book or thrift store downtown or going to a local pub with the rare good musical talent to dance to. There were almost no theaters, no art galleries, no sidewalk cafes, nor any of the grander
big city venues. One had to travel to Santa Barbara or Los Angeles for these. Ventura's sidewalks rolled up by 9pm. Because of this convergence of workingman's thrift and the city's sequestered nature, Ventura's rents were low, reasonable enough to attract artists to live and work here.
Then, Ventura began to grow. During the 1990s, there was an influx of young, sophisticated families who brought with them young, sophisticated ideas. They wanted culture, an arena that expresses, questions, challenges perception. These could be had in the sophisticated big city. But what about Ventura? City fathers rose to the occasion at the time. They quickly recognized that culture was as important as keeping the roads paved for
quality of life. The 1990s was a wonderful time in the sense that all the creaks and groans, all the sudden cultural expansion was a birth, more a sort of pre-birth to the concept of California’s New Art City.
From the mid 90s to the middle of the first decade of the new millennium there was a frenzy of all things cultural. The local crowds gathering at Ventura's Main Street Fair was a harbinger of creating more crowd pleasing cultural events involving visuals, dance and music. There were plans for public sculpture gardens, plans for attracting nationally known name artists to leave their mark such as the bus station, sculpture along the Ventura River trail, the
spouting sculpture at the end of the newly rebuilt pier, which some wags happily said goodbye to when the ocean took it during a storm along with a good portion of the new pier. There was even sculpture in Cemetery Park. Thursday evenings during the summer City sponsored downtown began to hop with music, full restaurants and happily opened late local shop owners. And the crowds came, drawing musicians and other artists to perform before the crowds. The first Ventura ArtWalk was a surprisingly dazzling event. Thousands roamed Main Street checking out the dusted off canvases displayed by the thrift stores. There were precious few galleries at the time, but there was a strong group of local artists, and the City reached out to these to help plan the way forward.
Those of us who moved here in the 80s primarily for cheap rent and the weather sought out other local artists to discuss our situation and how to better it. Informal gatherings at Paul Lindhard's Art City, himself a transplant from Santa Barbara's high rents and lack of space, gelled into a strong voice for artists' concerns. The informal became formal as the San Buenaventura Artists Union, started by Joe Cardella, publisher of ArtLife, and supported by all the old timers, became the contact point for issues involving artists. And the City listened. The three main concerns were financial support, a quality high end contemporary gallery enmeshed in the life of the City and the possibility of live/work space dedicated to the arts.
Ventura responded by seeking out and distributing generous, competitive grants to the whole spectrum of cultural entities. These supported theater, dance, music, visual arts and individual artists. Ventura supported several ArtWalks and many other cultural events during the year. City Hall itself became a gallery with its collection of works from local artists. Plans solidified to have a comprehensive cultural plan culminating in the Downtown Cultural District. To address the need for a contemporary gallery the City took a gaggle of run down buildings at the Livery off Main St. and converted them into a contemporary gallery, a theater, shops, and a restaurant. The gallery was essentially run by the Artists Union, which became so popular that it was squeezed out by the market demand for the space. Eventually the City looked around and found a second contemporary gallery space in City Hall itself, in what was the third floor woman's jail. That tenancy ended when City Hall needed to be reroofed. The third and latest incarnation of the Artists Union Gallery is in the California St. Promenade. That too was a run down, derelict property, graffitied, dirty, unkempt, home to the homeless, a crumbling, half closed off parking structure with empty space that was previously occupied by a failed restaurant and sea and surf shop. This was transformed by the same core of artists who transformed the Livery, the Woman's Jail gallery and now the Promenade.
The phenomenon of SoHoification became well known at the time. A town or city can invest a few artists placed in derelict, unsavory property, leave them alone to do their thing, and, a few years later, the area becomes upscale and desirable. Many studies were done, enough to convince frugal city managers that a dollar spent for the arts is returned many times not only monetarily but in enhancing local culture to achieve a quality of life that attracts contributing citizens who appreciate having art in their lives.
This is where the WAV comes in. As I mentioned, the third concern for the Artists Union was the possibility of City backed live/work space. Here again the artist was being squeezed out by the economics of a successfully growing city. The labor of an artist is not necessarily economically oriented. There is also the need for space, usually large. It became more and more difficult to find live/work space that was affordable. Some artists lived and worked in illegal industrial or commercial spaces. Others made do as best as they could. But the writing was on the wall; it would soon be impossible for most artists to live and work in Ventura. Again, in this dialogue between the artist and the City, Ventura responded. Why not look into derelict properties and improve them by supporting artists? This led to a contract with a Midwest company that specialized in transforming derelict property by renovating such into artists’ studios. Several areas were identified that might benefit from this. However, Ventura is far flung. Renovating industrial or farm properties far from downtown wasn't feasible or desirable. There was one property at the bottom of the Ventura Avenue near downtown that could be renovated, but it was not available. That was it. The focus of the Midwest company was on renovation, with the best candidate properties far removed from downtown. The City's focus was on the Downtown Cultural District. This divergence ended relationships with the Midwest company and any possibility of renovations dedicated to live/work space.
Enter Chris Velasco, one of the VPs of the Midwest company. He started his own company, PLACE, and presented his vision to the City. Why not build a live/work space for artists from the ground up? There are very few such entities in the United States. Economically it makes little sense to take raw property in a relatively desirable neighborhood and build artist dwellings there. Think of all the other money generating things one can build on such land. The City saw it differently as one of the legs supporting the notion of the Downtown Cultural District. It also fit into the City's adopted moniker as California's New Art City.
Then began the long process of fulfilling Chris' vision. As Carl Sagan would say,
There were billions and billions... of meetings. The City gently blew into this little campfire to get the warming flame where there was once only smoke by giving seed money, land and whatever else was needed to get it going. Chris stitched together a tapestry of public and private monies. He cobbled together on what was a very bumpy street federal, state, county, city money, land, tax breaks, public and private investments, and loans. He held numerous meetings with the artist community to determine what they'd like to see in the project.
Thus was born the WAV, a precarious birth because it was conceived and implemented during a time of heady expansion, a hot economy and the means to think beyond basic sustenance in the life of a city. Had the WAV concept been started six months or a year down the road or closer to the financial meltdown facing us in the future, it most likely never would have gotten off the ground.
As it is...
It is what it is, San Buenaventura created a bold experiment. It encompasses community living that not only includes poorer artists but provides housing for wealthier tenants enjoying an elbow rub with creative types. There is also transitional housing for mothers with young children caught suddenly in a desperate situation and nowhere to go, or special circumstances like young people leaving the State orphan system at the age of eighteen still needing some support as they study their way through college. The WAV also opened its doors to artists outside Ventura. There are ballet dancers who danced in Moscow and New York, now teaching our children and enlivening our lives. There are teachers at our best institutions pursuing rare studies in photography and print. There are modern dancers, stylists, theater people, wood workers, well known painters, muralists, sculptors, ceramicists, popular musicians and producers, all living in a
green sustainable, state of the art community, free to pursue and experiment their disciplines.
Perhaps the history of the WAV is going full circle. The San Buenaventura Artists Union has lost its lease on California Plaza, again due to market pressure. What started out as a derelict property has become thriving and desirable for the businesses who moved in after the gallery was in place. The City of Ventura is actively seeking a new space to accommodate the AUG. There are rumors that a potential space is in one of the empty commercial units at the WAV. If this happens, talk about the enjoyment of the fruits of a long ago vision begun by Ventura's
old timers, carried by a long line of movers and shakers and culminating in the present day WAV.
April 6, 2012