In an era when many arts groups have suffered a downturn in funding, Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center has succeeded as an ever-evolving artist space for nearly 25 years. Given that its budget is a little over $1 million, this is nothing short of a miracle. It may just be that 18th Street’s resilience is due to one special art it has mastered — fostering relationships.
This Saturday from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., the 18th Street Arts Center invites the public onto its Santa Monica campus for one of its quarterly ArtNight events. And on April 21, the center holds its annual benefit dinner, offering a special lifetime achievement award to 18th Street co-founder Susanna Bixby Dakin for her work as an artist, arts advocate, and philanthropist, and also honoring the Alliance of Artists Communities for 21 years of advocacy and support to artist communities, nationally and internationally.
Like any typical gallery, at this week’s ArtNight there will be work by artists, including the exhibit Visions from the New California in the main gallery, a “pan-cultural, two-city exhibition” curated by Mark Steven Greenfield in collaboration with San Francisco’s Kala Art Institute; in the Atrium Gallery, Tandem/Lebensraum-Living Room features a “bi-national photography exhibition” of student photographers from Frankfurt, Germany and Santa Monica College’s Art Mentor Program instructor Ichiro Irie; and, as part of her Project Room presentation, “Samsara Pleasure Principle,” resident artist Michiko Yao will create an edible and interactive still-life table setting.
Less typical is the willingness of 18th Street’s resident artists to open their studio doors for the public to observe both their work and their process. That’s the key difference between 18th Street and other art spaces: it’s not just about the product, it’s particularly about the process. And it’s also about community — on the campus, throughout California and across the globe.
18th Street describes its mission this way: “To provoke public dialogue through contemporary art making. We value art-making as an essential component of a vibrant, just and healthy society.”
In addition to its public programs — exhibitions, public talks, publications — 18th Street’s multi-tiered Artist Residency Program allows visiting national and international artists to live and work on site for one to six months; up to three years for California artists to advance their careers; and long-term residencies that mentor California artists and “anchor” organizations.
“I feel strongly about the idea of residency being critical in terms of artistic evolution,” said newly-installed director of residency programs, long-time contemporary art curator Pilar Tompkins Rivas. “We don’t put requirements on these artists to work toward a final exhibition, so we’re a bit of a haven for artists to spend some time, get exposure to L.A. and the region and explore on their own terms.
“One of the things I am doing in my new position is to work with the artists in anticipation of their arrival to find out what they want to accomplish and see how I can facilitate that,” Rivas added. “If they want to be connected to other art programs at universities here, or if they are seeking more context, wanting to become more involved in the local scene, then that’s part of my role here, as well.”
To “provoke public dialogue,” work by some of the resident artists and many of the curated shows take on issues of social justice. As often as not, what’s on the gallery’s walls are not just drawings, paintings, video or mixed media but words and documentation in art of social movements in society.
And while its mission might seem a bit heady, the business model of 18th Street Arts Center is well-grounded. Artist-technologist Sara Schnadt, a recent transplant from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, where she co-founded Chicago Artists Resource (an artists’ resource and opportunity website), was recently tapped as 18th Street’s director of communications and outreach.
She believes one of the reasons that 18th Street has survived so long is because “it has a regular earned income stream as part of its organizational model with the studio spaces.
“It’s not exclusively relying on one or two funding sources for its operations,” she said. “The fundraising is very diversified and each individual program has its own funding source, which could explain its resilience over the years.”
For example, residencies are underwritten via a diverse network of partnerships, including government and non-government grant making programs as well as consular support from other nations, and 18th Street is renowned among the international circuit of art residency programs.
Schnadt also notes that 18th Street has been moving from being “originally a studio facility complex, giving artists access to space, period, to being engaged with the community,” not just artists locally and globally, but the community around them.
“One of the things I’m interested in doing here is to increase local and national engagement, collaborating with local organizations and to cross-fertilize audiences, as well as to revamp and improve our online presence,” Schnadt said. “We have intimate artist studios, brown bag lunches and talks that draw smaller crowds, while our Pacific Standard Time show drew large numbers from the within the city as well as international visitors in town for the whole PST project.”
Perhaps one of 18th Street’s best-known “anchor organizations” is Highways Performance Space and Gallery, which puts on more than 200 multidisciplinary performances annually, featuring socially-involved artists and art forms that don’t shy from controversy — it was at the center of the 1980’s culture wars between artists and the National Endowment for the Arts. Other resident organizations include the non-profit California Lawyers for the Arts, offering artists a wide variety of legal services at affordable fees. And Electronic Café International was an early pioneer that continues to explore the creative potential of technology and telecommunications for artistic collaboration.
There’s no denying that a lot of the art coming out of 18th Street Arts Center is political in nature. But that’s what you’d expect from a hub of contemporary art whose goal is to engage, provoke and inspire.
Sarah Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for National Public Radio and a producer for public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.