Centro Cultural de la Raza, exterior (photo by Hyperallergic/Jordan Karney Chaim)

San Diego County is vast and varied, stretching from the edge of Orange and Riverside counties in the north, to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and a sixty-mile border with Mexico to the south, creating the nation’s largest southern transborder metropolitan area. As a site of cultural production, the San Diego region is uniquely enriched by its geographic location, cultural milieu, and diverse residents. 

Recently, several of San Diego’s high-profile cultural developments generated national attention, among them the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, which reopened this past April, and the minting of the ICA San Diego in September 2021. This winter, the University of California San Diego’s newly renovated Mandeville Art Gallery is slated to reopen after a multiyear closure. As these institutions attract new audiences, it presents an opportunity to highlight other driving forces that define the area’s art ecosystem. 

With relatively few commercial galleries, San Diego’s contemporary art scene is rooted in its community-centered art spaces. These nonprofit exhibition spaces (along with many long-running community college and university galleries, provide a consistent support structure to local artists through exhibition opportunities, professional development, residencies, and employment.

Doug McMinimy, Dis/Re-member, immersive photography/audio installation, Art Produce, January 2022 (photo by Lynn Susholtz)

For example, the massive Bread & Salt, a former commercial bakery turned art complex, includes a residency program and publishing house, and the education-driven initiative The AjA Project empowers young people through storytelling and documentary artforms. These spaces, and by extension the local art scene, are distinguished by an emphasis on interconnection and exchange beyond the realm of art. Each shares a commitment to integrating art as an expressive outlet into their surrounding communities, as a reflection and celebration of culture, and as a catalyst for collaboration.

Among San Diego’s longest-running Chicano cultural institutions is the Centro Cultural de la Raza. Born out of the Chicano Civil Rights movement in 1971, the Centro remains one of the region’s most important organizations of its kind, continuing its mission to create, promote, and preserve Chicano, Indigenous, and Latino arts and culture from its location within historic Balboa Park. Founded by a group of artists who called themselves Los Toltecas en Aztlán, the Centro became home to the first permanent Chicano murals in San Diego (by artist Guillermo “Yermo” Aranda), and served as a hub of arts activism, giving rise to collectives like the Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF) in the early 1980s.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Dr. Roberto D. Hernández, associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University, emphasized that the art produced, exhibited, and supported by the Centro maintains a spirit of resistance and self-determination. “It’s been about art grounded in a particular political reality of living on the border, of living in a context of racism, sexism, all these different manifestations of power,” he explained. “If we think about the simple presence of Mexican indigenous communities in a context of erasure, our very visibility is already political whether we want it to be or not.”

Art Produce Garden, Make it Yourself Community Art Class, Bookbinding with Sage Serrano, July 2022 (photo by Lynn Susholtz)

The Centro continues to support an impressive array of events, from exhibitions and performances to educational workshops, children’s dance classes, several monthly marketplaces, and a community garden. It has been entirely volunteer-run for the past four years — a testament to its value within the community. “Are we a gallery space? Are we a cultural center? Are we a community center? Well, we’re all of the above,” Hernández says. “We take pride in not fitting into any one of those spaces or those categories. That’s what’s given us the flexibility to do what we do.”

Art Produce, another multifaceted, multiuse art and culture center, is an extension of artist and educator Lynn Susholtz’s public and community-based practice. Susholtz purchased and rehabbed the boarded-up North Park Produce Market in 1999 and it now serves as a cultural hub, where community members can gather and “envision what life in a rich cultural environment could look like,” Susholtz explained. The building houses gallery and studio spaces, community rooms, an art lab, its own offices, a retail tenant, and a sustainable garden. Anyone can apply to Art Produce’s artist residencies, propose an exhibition, or attend its free, all-ages, art making events and workshops. Resident artists and exhibitors are strongly encouraged to propose or develop projects that engage the local community.

When Susholtz moved to North Park 30 years ago, she got involved in neighborhood politics and encouraged other artists to do the same. Art Produce has continued to respond to the needs of artists and community members as the neighborhood changes, always with an emphasis on public engagement. Its gallery is entirely visible from the sidewalk, making exhibitions accessible without even entering the space. “I’m trying to present other opportunities for the neighborhood to engage in art and feel like it’s part of their daily lives,” Susholtz said. “Artists [have been] challenged to experiment with their work and to really learn what community engagement can be, and what it means to their practice and to their teaching.” 

Exterior view of Rizzhel Javier’s exhibition Almost Home, The Front Arte & Cultura, 2019 (courtesy the artist)

In 2007, Casa Familiar, an advocacy and social services agency serving South San Diego for nearly 50 years, launched The Front, an innovative gallery operation that enriches the lives of area residents through arts and culture. Located less than a mile and half from the San Ysidro port of entry, the Front’s programming reflects an evolving transborder artistic community, contrasting news coverage that often reduces discussions of the border to immigration and crime. “There are a lot of other themes and subjects that [artists] are talking about,” said gallery director and artist Francisco Morales. “They’re talking about love, family, and I think those narratives get less attention. I think that is something that is slowly changing. I see younger generations of artists — they are interested, they are activists, but they are also living their youth, and they live this border as a rich experience.”

The Front’s recent exhibition New Native Narratives paired 17 young artists from Tijuana and South San Diego with five local mentor artists to create exhibition-specific work reflective of personal and collective experiences of life here and now. Combining emerging and established artists with an educational initiative and the affirming self-expression of culture is at the heart of what the Front brings to the region.

New Native Narratives, installation view, the Front, 2022 (courtesy the Front)

This year the Hill Street Country Club (HSCC) celebrates its tenth anniversary. Founded in 2012 by Margaret Hernandez and Dinah Poellnitz, who met working at the Oceanside Art Museum, the HSCC reflects and celebrates the cultural and socioeconomic diversity of the San Diego-Tijuana region. “We are a place of liberation, where our artists can say how they feel when they feel it, and not be punished or shamed or told that it doesn’t sell,” Poellnitz said. Poellnitz and Hernandez became deeply involved in local politics, attending municipal government meetings to assess and increase the support for local arts infrastructure. Their experiences reinforced what they already knew: Traditional institutions and exhibition opportunities are often inaccessible to working class and BIPOC artists. “There are so many artists who don’t exhibit or don’t practice art in our community because they simply don’t have a place to let them know that they’re artists,” Poellnitz told me. “We had to organize.” 

HSCC maintains a schedule of experimental exhibitions, collaborative pop-up events, and community programs. Ongoing initiatives include The Social, which comprises monthly group therapy meetings and a related art therapy summer camp program for middle schoolers, and Soft U, a digitally broadcast live music series. Through the HSCC, Poellnitz and Hernandez have created a community-based art model that is nimble, rhizomatic, and deeply personal. “Everything that Marge and I did was from personal experience,” said Poellnitz. “And then when we started to tell that story out loud, or organize behind it, we learned that there was a community that had a similar experience. The purpose of art in our space is to drop seeds of memories and conversations, so people can find out who their community is.” 

San Diego County unfolds a bit like a patchwork quilt; its disparate swathes of culture and socioeconomic status press up against each other, cut through by valleys, canyons, hills, and freeways. Neighborhood fabrics change quickly, even drastically from place to place, which can either enhance the experience of diversity or render it surprisingly invisible. Most conversations about San Diego’s art scene reiterate that it is supportive, but also disjointed.

Attendees at Johnny Nguyen’s open reception for And If I Can Show You, You Would Never Leave Her at the Hill Street Country Club, 2019, with co-founders Dinah Poellnitz (right) and Margaret Hernandez (left) with artist Johnny Nguyen (middle) (photo by James Guerrero, courtesy Hill Street Country Club)

“[Art]work and who is making work is literally spread from Oceanside to San Ysidro. There are all these different pockets of people making art all over the county, but they don’t always call it that,” Arts and Culture Strategist Angie Chandler explained. Chandler’s Culture Mapping San Diego initiative, begun in 2021, redresses the invisibility of the region’s BIPOC art leaders and cultural producers. Using a data-driven approach, Culture Mapping illuminates the essential contributions and the needs of these artists and organizations, while also connecting them with local resources and opportunities for growth. This work is essential to the future of San Diego’s community art spaces and to the larger project of creating a more cohesive, interconnected regional art landscape.

Despite its fragmentation, within the county’s community art spaces, individual and collective identities are coalescing — specific to the particularities of each neighborhood, its history, and its people. A common sentiment among local artists is that spaces like the Centro Cultural de la Raza, the Front, Art Produce, and Hill Street Country Club allow them to truly see themselves, giving them and their neighbors a place to belong.

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Jordan Karney Chaim

Jordan Karney Chaim is an independent art historian based in San Diego. She holds a PhD from Boston University. Her current work examines the intersections of art and community, focusing on emerging artists...