By Tuesday the boxes were pretty much packed at Writer’s Boot Camp. After decades of mentoring Hollywood and television screenwriters in his space on Michigan Avenue, owner Jeff Gordon was asking if his neighbors would like any of his few remaining chairs. On Friday, he will lock the door one last time and officially walk out of Bergamot Station.
Gordon, who has been heavily involved in the fight to keep the galleries and creative businesses that make up the arts center in their studios is starting a new chapter for his business. Even with two feet out the door, he still feels passionate about keeping Bergamot’s character. That challenge has accelerated in recent months, as rising rental rates have forced some galleries to close for good and others to simply move out.
Early in the week, Gordon hosted a meeting between anxious gallery owners and City officials. Tenants have been on edge since longtime landlord Wayne Blank sold his two acres of the property to RedCar Properties Ltd. When the new owner passed along higher fees and property taxes to the tenants many, including Gordon, decided to leave.
The other five acres are slated for a big change as well, but are on City-owned property. In the next two months, the Arts Commission and the City Council will determine what happens to the arts center. While the City is working with a developer to get the most use out of the space, the gallery owners worry they will not be able to afford rising rents.
“We are Luddites,” longtime gallery owner Robert Berman said at the meeting. “We have actual physical spaces that invite people, tourists from around the world. And they stay in the hotels and they eat in the restaurants and they come to our galleries – not really to buy art but just to look at art and to talk to us.”
Berman argues the galleries function as museums. While they are for-profit companies, most of the people who visit are not actually customers.
“It’s an arcane idea,” Berman said. “It doesn’t really make sense in the business world.”
Arts Commission Chair Michael Myers agrees with Berman’s concerns, worrying that even discounted rents may prove to be too much for the gallery owners over the next decade.
“In the future, it’s only going to get harder to be a place that presents art, that presents culture,” Myers said. But after five years of back and forth between the gallery owners and the City over development plans, Myers thinks he may have a new idea that will save the arts culture at Bergamot for the next generation.
Myers, along with four other Arts commissioners on an ad-hoc committee, suggest the creative businesses should form a non-profit that would become the landlord for a certain portion of the five acres. He’s taking the model for affordable housing and using it to preserve the arts in Santa Monica.
“The whole point is to say these 65,000 square feet are not operated by the developer,” Myers said, “and its mission is not to make money. Its mission is to keep a vibrant mix of tenants, to retain tenants and also (promote) artistic programming.”
The idea is in its infancy but gave gallery owners some hope at the meeting. The City’s economic development administrator and manager, Jennifer Taylor and Jason Harris, did not comment on the plan, but explained the future of Bergamot is ultimately in the hands of the City Council, which will address the development on May 23.
Harris acknowledged the timeline to come up with a solution to keep the galleries has not given them much stability.
“Having uncertainty is one of the greatest challenges for a business,” Harris said.
The City’s new Cultural Affairs Manager Shannon Daut told the gallery owners she is optimistic about their future. Daut said people now crave the kind visual experience they can get from visiting a gallery.
“I think our increasingly virtual, globalized, technology-based world makes people yearn for those real experiences,” Daut said, adding that resurgence of vinyl records demonstrates a fondness for non-digital experiences. “I think it’s more vital now.”
“That’s why the City of Santa Monica needs to keep us because we are a record store still making old records and people from around the world want to see it,” Berman said.
Other gallery owners quickly chimed in to back him up, including William Turner whose gallery features contemporary Los Angeles artists.
“Yeah, a record store where no one buys the records but they listen to the music.”
While it is already too late for some galleries, the Arts Commission will tackle saving the rest at two public meetings on April 17 and May 15.