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1991 IN REVIEW: SAN DIEGO COUNTY ARTS : Downtown Art Scene: Is It Dead or Alive?


SAN DIEGO — When two of downtown's most important contemporary art galleries shut their doors in 1987, the downtown art community suffered what felt like a death blow. But the paralysis passed, and other galleries and arts-related businesses have since moved into the area centered around G Street between 6th and 9th avenues.

On paper, the downtown art community now appears to be flourishing, but those active in the city's visual arts scene continue to question whether downtown has what it takes to be a cultural destination.

"It's not a place where people want to go. It hasn't hit a critical mass yet," said Linda Moore, who opened the Linda Moore Gallery in Mission Hills last year. Moore said she seriously considered locating the gallery downtown to benefit from the synergy that results from proximity to other arts-related businesses, but personal and practical concerns dissuaded her.

"I talked to a lot of people, and I felt that this area is not ascending. It's descending, and it's not the time to move in."

Moving in, however, is just what gallery director David Lewinson plans to do. The Del Mar gallery that bears his name will soon move to smaller quarters in Del Mar, and Lewinson hopes to open a second, larger exhibition space downtown.

"I think downtown is getting to be a serious place. Slowly, the transformation that people want to see happening is happening down there," Lewinson said.

For others, downtown has long been a "serious place." Physician and art collector Doug Simay opened Java, a coffeehouse and gallery, at 9th Avenue and G Street in 1986, and two years later launched ABC Books/Art+Architecture next door. Simay stages changing art exhibits at both sites, featuring work from his own extensive collection as well as work by both emerging and more established local artists.

"Everyone tries to analyze an art scene by determining if it's arrived, but it's a developmental process. I think things continue to grow downtown, but you have an up blip and a down blip. There is a slope to this line, and it's heading upward, but we're on a little bit of a down side now. It has a lot to do with the economy. Rather than the patient having cancer, I think the environment has cancer."

Changes in the downtown art district have sent mixed signals in recent years, giving credence to Simay's vision of a jagged course of progress. Among the more encouraging signs of maturation has been the establishment of the Center City East Arts Assn. (CCEAA). The 2-year-old organization has enhanced communication and coordination among galleries and other businesses downtown.

Andrea Hattersley, manager/owner of ABC Books and president of the association, says the general goal of the CCEAA is to support the arts in downtown San Diego, and toward this end it organizes synchronized open houses one Friday evening of every month, arranges cooperative publicity and publishes a map of the area showing the locations of all 34 arts-related business members.

Another promising sign is the increasing presence of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum operated a low-profile downtown space from 1986-89, but is scheduled to open a new, 10,000-square-foot facility next summer. Located in a free-standing building in the America Plaza complex at Kettner and Broadway, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art Downtown, as it is currently known, will be a short trek from the concentration of other galleries downtown, but it may provide a new westside anchor to the downtown art scene.

The previous anchors were pulled in 1987, when the Patty Aande and Mark Quint galleries closed. Others have since followed, including the Natalie Bush Gallery, the Dietrich Jenny Gallery, the Wita Gardiner Gallery, Spectrum Gallery and Photowest.

They have been replaced by new galleries that tend to be smaller and less ambitious in scope. Brushworks, Options, Circa 9 and BB La Femme focus primarily on local artists of varying accomplishment. But several others have helped sustain a high level of energy and credibility for visual arts offerings downtown.

The three-year-old Oneiros Gallery has consistently presented engaging work of a spiritualist/surrealist bent. Sushi Performance Gallery has exhibited art for more than 10 years, but has just started giving exposure to promising artists nationwide. The International Gallery and Faith Nightingale Gallery expand the menu downtown to include folk arts and contemporary crafts, and the Rita Dean Gallery, newly opened in September, has infused a healthy renegade spirit to the scene. Sandwiched between two gun shops on 6th Avenue below Market Street, the gallery picks up where owner James Healy's former Tohubohu gallery left off, showing work of raw, youthful vitality.

"I know that San Diego needs a lot of help, but the city is ripe," Healy said. "It's very conservative, so it's ripe for what I'm doing."

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