Helena Ave. in the Funk Zone (Oct. 11 2011)
Paul Wellman

If you don’t build it, they will come. This paradox stands at the heart of the longstanding and worldwide love affair between visual artists and urban decay. Just as surfers seek waves and sailors seek wind, fine artists pursue otherwise abandoned spaces in which to do their collective thing — primarily paint, sculpt, and show their work, but also think, drink, talk, and make noise at all hours. From Williamsburg in Brooklyn to Echo Park and Downtown in Los Angeles, previously undervalued neighborhoods have become havens for artists; they can pop up anywhere that low rents and large spaces can still be had without sacrificing access to the city center. These same trendy neighborhoods often appeal to others, from the ultra-rich to the homeless, mostly for the same reason — underground arts districts don’t make many rules. But, as we know, hipster havens also typically don’t stay cheap for long. Once the galleries, restaurants, and shops hit stride, rents go up and artists move on.

In Santa Barbara, the Funk Zone is already the city’s next big thing. In what was once the dilapidated refuge of a few dozen artists, craftspeople, surfboard shapers, and misfits, corporate real estate speculators are now buying up properties. Where bare-bones art studios were rented from month to month on handshake deals, developers are busy retooling warehouses and Quonset huts to handle the influx of sophisticated wine tourists — and bachelorette parties. The lot that housed the venerable Bay Café, for example, will debut soon under the management of Central Coast Real Estate as a remodeled complex including multiple wine-tasting rooms, a brewery, and a distillery.

This much is clear — lots more shiny, happy people are coming to the Funk Zone soon, and nothing’s going to stop them. But despite concern that gentrification will drive studio artists out, the creative types haven’t left the Funk Zone yet. In fact, collective expectations for a new art scene in the Funk Zone, although mixed with a healthy skepticism, are at an all-time high. Artists keep arriving to share in the excitement, and gallery options continue to expand alongside the wineries and surf shops. In this follow-up to The Santa Barbara Independent’s October 2011 report on the recent evolution of the Funk Zone, we will look at some of what’s happened in the Zone in this last year, and specifically at what art’s got to do with it.

Laura Inks and Clay Bodine
Paul Wellman

Crossing the Tracks

The Funk Zone consists of two distinct areas on either side of the railroad tracks. If the future cultural identity of the neighborhood as one zone is to succeed, people will have to perceive these two areas as joined, rather than separated, by the regular interruptions of the Amtrak trains. It is partly this idea of thinking of the whole Funk Zone as one big neighborhood that attracted Brad Nack to the 10,000-square-foot Michael­Kate Interiors showroom at 132 Santa Barbara Street. The large, wide-ranging, and high-quality shows of contemporary art, mostly painting, that Nack has been curating there since 2011 have been a hit with visitors, making MichaelKate the largest space in the Funk Zone to be continuously programmed with serious fine art.

Speaking of the north-side area where Santa Barbara Street intersects Yanonali Street, Nack said that “when I got a chance to show my own work there for the first time, the store was still called Neuvié, and I had it in my head that it was over near Milpas or something. It wasn’t until recently that I tied that spot together in my mind with the other side, where we used to go as kids for chowder at Castagnola’s Restaurant, and where a lot of the artists’ studios are now. To me, that was like a different place until just a few years ago.” The fate of the Funk Zone may continue to hang on whether or not others will begin to accept that the waterfront by Rusty’s and the intersection in front of Metropulos are somehow one space. Maybe some chowder will help.

Michael McColm (left), co-owner at MichaelKate, and artist Brad Nack share a sofa at the store.
Paul Wellman

Holding the Space

For artists, the prospect of a neighborhood in which good galleries and affordable work spaces exist just across the tracks from one another may be appealing, but it won’t mean much if, as a result of gentrification, they get thrown out of their Funk Zone studios. This fall alone, at least seven artists who had been working in spaces on Helena Avenue have been given notice that their leases are expiring or that their rents will be significantly increased. Who will stand up for the Zone’s studio artists and keep them from having to go elsewhere? One answer that’s been heard throughout the Funk Zone in 2012 has come from the Santa Barbara Arts Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that sprung up to represent the collective interests of Funk Zone creatives. During the last months, I have spoken with several members of this group, including Nathan Vonk, Clay Bodine, and Laura Inks. Inks is also the author, with assistance from Bodine, of “The Funk Zone: A Neighborhood in Transition,” a study that was commissioned in the summer of 2012 by the Santa Barbara Foundation. While each of the members of the collaborative offered a slightly different angle on the Funk Zone, together they offered a portrait that was much more than the sum of its parts.

For nearly 12 years, Bodine was a tenant on the same block of Helena Avenue from which so many artists were recently evicted, and he remembers well that this is not the first time it’s happened. “There were a whole bunch of artists who had just been thrown out when I first moved there, back in 2000,” he told me, adding that “I was new in Santa Barbara at the time, and I was looking for something like what I had left behind, which was an artists’ neighborhood in Chicago called Pilsen. When I first got to California, I was living in Solvang, but it was too quiet for me, and I went looking for other artists in downtown Santa Barbara. I wanted to find a place where I could do whatever I wanted.” Bodine refers to his Helena Avenue art projects from this period as “playing in the street.” Inspired by trips to Burning Man, and aided and abetted by coconspirator and advanced electrical engineer Alan Macy, he combined sound sculpture, Doppler radar, and fire. For a time in the early 2000s, in the parking lot across the street from Bodine’s loft on Helena, large machines fitted with proximity sensors were programmed to respond to your approach by spouting jets of flame into the night sky. And what was even more impressive? “Nobody ever complained!” said Bodine, sounding as if he’s still surprised.

For Inks, a licensed realtor and a well-known organizer of youth arts programs, the corner of Helena Avenue and East Mason Street held a slightly different, but still related, appeal. Observing the perpetual battle between property owners and taggers that had been going on all over downtown for the better part of a decade, Inks envisioned a permanent home for truly artistically inclined graffiti artists, as opposed to gang members asserting their territory. Her idea got its lucky break by chance. “I was in Elements with a friend for a drink after work, and I met Ray Wicken, this developer from Newport Beach who was up here just a few days a week. His company, Mountain Funding, was working on unwinding the La Entrada project after Bill Levy went bankrupt in 2006. It took a year of taking him around to exhibitions, introducing him to artists, but eventually Ray Wicken came through with permission for AMASS, which is the rotating outdoor mural gallery that now occupies the corner of Mason and Helena.”

As part of the extended family of Fishbon, an underground arts collective, Inks and Bodine have collaborated on many memorable participatory events during the last five years, most notably the Fishnet project, a pop-up boutique and gallery on Helena Avenue that flourished in 2009 and 2010. More recently, the pair catalyzed the moment when deejays, artists, and even some of the dancers from the nearby Spearmint Rhino converged on the alley outside Chris Kirke­gaard’s frame shop at 218 Helena Avenue in the early hours of Sunday, October 7. This funky street party — the culmination of a daylong event, the Arts Collaborative’s Focus on the Funk Zone — represented the Fishbon aesthetic: participatory, improvisational, and highly inclusive. Foregoing the standard ambitions associated with mainstream party promoters and art dealers, Fishbon has forged both a distinctive style (costumes! art cars!) and a dedicated community that loves to play in the Funk Zone streets. Without the Fishbon precedent, an event like the New Noise Block Party (which drew 1,200 people to Mason Street for an afternoon and early evening of live music in early November) would be much harder to imagine, let alone produce.

But now, under the banner of the Creative Collaboration Network, and with the support of Nathan Vonk and the Santa Barbara Foundation, Inks and Bodine have branched out into something less nocturnal and potentially more permanent. Early in 2012, the Santa Barbara Foundation’s Sharyn Main asked them to survey not only the creative community in the Funk Zone but also comparable developments throughout the Northeastern United States. After visiting reconditioned warehouses, mills, and factories from Boston to Pittsburgh, the duo returned to write up a report that pitched an inclusive vision for the neighborhood — a creative space without a lot of rules.

By combining statistical and qualitative evidence about artists in the Funk Zone today with relevant comparisons to other cities and reasonable, nonpartisan recommendations, “The Funk Zone: A Neighborhood in Transition” has made the first significant independent claim to control the narrative about what the Funk Zone ought (and ought not) to be. Specific recommendations include a follow-up study to identify and survey other stakeholders, the funding of a grassroots neighborhood association, and the drafting of a neighborhood-wide PR-and-marketing plan including distinctive signage and ongoing events. The whole thing comes together around the idea that creative people contribute to a vibrant economy.

This project has meant a lot of volunteer hours for Inks and Bodine — especially impressive given that neither of them is a property owner or current leaseholder in the Funk Zone. But they care about the neighborhood, they know everyone involved, they are far from naïve, and they won’t abandon the cause, which they refer to as “holding the space for creatives.” “It’s all about relationships at this point,” Inks told me. “We have been meeting regularly with the people of the Funk Zone for years now, and not just the artists, but the property owners, new and old; and all along we’ve worked to include as many points of view as possible. That’s how we see the whole thing moving forward — through an encompassing dialogue.” When asked if she ever meets with skepticism about her stake in the Funk Zone, Inks replies with candor. “Yes, it’s true that for a while, I ran into people who asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ but actually now that has stopped. Our goal is to hold the space for creative use, and to give everyone a voice in what happens next.”

Xárene Eskandar in her Helena Avenue studio.
Paul Wellman

The Breathing Sweater and the Creative Class

The lumpy white sweater that’s wrapped around a mannequin in the Arts Fund Gallery’s exhibition 3-D is mostly familiar. It’s made of wool, and the design, while asymmetrical, triggers no shock. But one crucial difference sets it apart from other sweaters. … It’s breathing. Very slowly — almost imperceptibly — the soft contours of its white surface are rising and falling on their own. What gives? “HVAC,” as this art piece is named, is part of artist Xárene Eskandar’s Other Earth Artifacts project. Eskandar — who is also breathing by the way, and who wears a small, artificial bird amid her bouncy dark curls — tells me that “HVAC” is just one of several items she has imported from a “speculative parallel world” she calls “Other Earth.” “I hate regular architecture,” says Eskandar, “so I like that in Other Earth, they have ‘tentative architecture’ that’s designed to move with the body and travel freely in space.” The sweater, which is lined with galvanic sensors that allow it to respond to changes in the wearer’s body temperature, replaces the HVAC systems installed in buildings with something that could be worn everywhere. On the wall behind it are two dramatic color photographs showing a woman wearing “HVAC” (and not much else) as she wades in the shallows of a volcanic sand beach on Maui. I wonder if “HVAC” is supposed to be keeping the model warm or cooling her off. Hmm.

“HVAC” on the beach

Claims to Other Earth travel notwithstanding, Eskandar represents an increasingly prevalent image of what a contemporary artist is — and of who is attracted to the new Funk Zone. Her style of playful “speculation” at the border between science and fantasy gets theoretical back up from an expanding body of scholarship about urban renewal and the so-called “creative class.” These artist/innovators, known as “creatives,” are the avatars of a recent theory that’s been popularized by the sociologist Richard Florida, and that has been gaining respect with city planners and politicians seeking new rationales for the development of decaying neighborhoods. (Indeed, it is just this theory of the benefits of nurturing an urban creative class that is the backbone to the Inks report.)

The creatives, according to this concept, are people like Eskandar: well educated, with art backgrounds, who can also speak fluent tech. Their leading quality is that they like to frame big, important things in new ways.

The creative-class concept differs from more traditional ways of understanding the contribution of the arts to an economy. Rather than looking at ticket sales or museum admissions or revenue from hotels and restaurants, creative-class theorists identify the things about certain places that encourage profitable new ways of thinking. They attempt to track the economic benefits of living in environments that encourage really big breakthroughs — true paradigm shifts. Eskandar, who is completing a PhD in media arts and technology at UCSB, and who lives in Los Angeles but commutes to her Helena Street studio, uses the notion as her point of departure as well as her goal. But in one key way, I see what she is doing as fundamentally different from what inventors do, for example.

Eskandar on one of the last days in her Funk Zone space.
Paul Wellman

In the Funk Zone, where previous generations of entrepreneurs have developed such major technologies as the airplane (the Loughead brothers) and the short board (numerous shapers, most notably George Greenough), the idea of a creative class that contributes to the economy ought to be welcome, but the economic value of Eskandar’s self-breathing “HVAC” sweater, no matter how cool it is, or what Other Earth it comes from, is not really very practical, because Eskandar isn’t that kind of entrepreneur. Instead, she pursues her destiny among the collectors of contemporary art, a far-flung society of near-manic spendthrifts without a care in the world for useful spinoffs or innovative technologies. Eskandar seeks attention, but not really from people who might adopt her scheme for regulating body temperature as some kind of new product, but rather from those who will instead simply value the outlandish and disruptive coherence of her speculation. The creative class may somehow sow the seeds of real innovation, but most artists, even those who trade in techno-futurism, will continue to make nothing happen, and serious art collectors are fine with that. But whatever the theory, however innovative and exciting, the rental reality is the same:

“I was notified that I was being evicted in October,” she tells me. “All the artists in my building are being thrown out at the same time. I want to find another studio nearby, because even though I hate architecture” — and she smiles at this — “I love this neighborhood.”

Nancy Gifford (left) and Catherine Gee at the Arts Fund Gallery with work by sculptor Blake Rankin.
Paul Wellman

Focus on the Arts Fund

As recently as three years ago, it would have been a surprise to find a breathing sweater on exhibit in the Arts Fund Gallery. The nonprofit organization has for many years been primarily associated with its highly regarded Individual Artist Awards (IAA), which are chosen annually by a rotating group of distinguished judges and which have honored people working in a broad range of mostly traditional media, from printmaking and painting to poetry, musical composition, and graphic design. As an early arrival to the Funk Zone, the Arts Fund struggled with being in the right place (the corner of Yanonali and Santa Barbara streets) but at the wrong time — too soon to ride the current wave of wine- and surf-generated foot traffic. One artist who curated shows at Living Green, another Funk Zone operation from the early 2000s, described the experience of showing art in the neighborhood back then like this, “Even if you put together something really great, nobody came. At that time for most people, something being in the Funk Zone meant it was not really happening. Some of the IAA shows at the Arts Fund were wonderful, but I always felt that underneath, many of the visual artists who got the award were just there hoping that Frank Goss [owner of the Sullivan Goss Gallery on Anapamu St.] would walk in and offer them a real show.”

While the Arts Fund today remains the same organization and occupies the same location, both the directorship and the center of gravity on its board has shifted. This fall, they have made an unprecedented and sustained effort to become the headquarters of the new Funk Zone. First, there was the Funk Zone Charrette, a show cosponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation that featured the designs of eight teams of people who accepted the challenge of imagining a total plan and future identity for the neighborhood. This ambitious project coincided with Focus on the Funk Zone. Next came a flurry of exhibitions featuring artists who live and work within a few blocks of the gallery. With Arts Fund boardmember, artist, and major contemporary art collector Nancy Gifford acting as a curator, and the dynamic Catherine Gee taking control as director, the organization’s intention could not be more clear — it’s time to make this new thing happen.

At a dinner for the Arts Fund’s Teen Arts Mentorship Program in October, Nancy Gifford told me about her background as a fashion model and artist, first in Los Angeles, then in New York, London, and Miami. She explained why she’s so enthusiastic about the Funk Zone and about Santa Barbara as an art destination more generally. “When we left London and moved to Florida, I took a studio in Wynwood, in North Miami, back when it was still pretty wild up there,” she said. “I was right around the corner from the Rubell Collection [an important private museum of contemporary art that’s housed in a former DEA evidence warehouse], and it was great, but even as Wynwood caught on [it’s now home to more than 70 galleries], I knew that I could find somewhere even better. When we moved here, the first thing I did was begin collecting the Santa Barbara artists who are active today. I thought that was the best way to meet people and to understand what was going on here. I found all the good contemporary artists by word of mouth — they all knew each other.” When asked about leaving the “major” art worlds of these bigger cities, Gifford responded by saying, “What’s happening in Miami is fine, but to me, Santa Barbara right now is more compelling, and I’m more interested in collecting the work being done here. This city has a great soul.”

Gifford backs up her outspoken partisanship with a prodigious pattern of networking and acquisition — the spectacular modern home she shares with her husband, Michael, in Sycamore Canyon is probably the best place there is right now to see the full range of contemporary Santa Barbara art. While the Gifford collection cannot rival the historical depth of what was brought together by the late Barry Berkus (who, incidentally, was the architect of Gifford’s house), it does demonstrate that Nancy Gifford now has her finger on the pulse. As a boardmember of the Arts Fund and the Contemporary Arts Forum, and as a founding member of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s new Contemporaries group, she is well positioned to wield considerable influence, especially in this area — the synergy between locations and emerging artists. Oh, and did I mention that it was Gifford who curated the show at the Arts Fund featuring Eskandar’s “HVAC” sweater?

Wallace Piatt in front of his AMASS mural on Mason Street (January 2013)
Paul Wellman

Does Money Follow Art?

Perhaps the most striking of all the statistics in the Inks report is the news that more than half of the nearly 60 artists currently working in the Funk Zone arrived within the past four years. Will this rapid influx of self-identified artists inevitably result in an art market that can sustain them financially, or are the majority mere months away from being priced out of the ’hood? Negotiating values in the creative sphere is notoriously challenging. Typically, new art only becomes really profitable by passing through a handful of highly filtered channels: the elite galleries, high-profile auction houses, and international art fairs. With the Funk Zone on track to become a desirable “cosmopolitan sub-destination,” (thanks to Nathan Vonk for that handy term), is the status required to make the work of living artists in Santa Barbara substantially more valuable finally within reach?

Both symbolically and practically, the Funk Zone stands at the heart of the struggle for the future cultural identity of Santa Barbara. As has been the case in other cities, what happens in the scramble over such contested territory will create the culture that follows in its wake. In other words, whatever happens next, we are likely to live with it for a long time. It is still too soon to tell whether we will get a gallery-rich West Coast version of Miami’s Wynwood, or just a wine-scented variation on lower State Street, because, as far as what art has to do with it, the Funk Zone story is just beginning. As one of the last remaining hipster jewels of the South Coast, the Funk Zone could become part of a powerful 21st-century renaissance, but for now, the trickiest bit revolves around the whole concept of “curating” the neighborhood. Isn’t something cool supposed to just happen? There are precious few opportunities for uninhibited self-expression in contemporary life, and exactly none of them involve the Santa Barbara Architectural Board of Review process. If keeping the artists — and the funk — in the Funk Zone means holding the space, then that’s what will have to be done. Now where’s my sweater?


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