Artists Struggle to Stay In Southern SF

Juan Martinez

When artist Rafael Bensuaski Vieira arrived to San Francisco in 1997, the art scene and weather inspired his work.

“I craved the fog, the cold weather, the incredible art scene,” Vieira said. “It was great being around other artists.”

Now, he and other artists are struggling in neighborhoods like the Excelsior and OMI (Ocean View-Merced Heights-Ingleside) because of high rents for apartments and studio spaces.

“I was paying $1,400 for a one-bedroom apartment, which was basically a hallway with a room at the end,” Vieira said. “It’s just not worth the price they ask. If I could get double the space for the same price across the bridge, I’m doing it.”

After living in Balboa Park for several years, he and his wife moved to the outer Sunset and then to a 2-bedroom studio with a garage in Oakland. Vieira says his moves reflect “la lucha de la vida,” a phrase meaning “the life struggle.”

“Artists need to know how to hustle because any money that an artist can save really allows for more time to be spent on their projects,” he said. “They've got to have a back-up plan because this is a bittersweet career.”

Most artists in the Excelsior and OMI neighborhoods can’t afford to own a home with only one job. Instead, they are forced to work multiple jobs in order to pay their rent and usually share a studio with other artists.

Painter Jennifer Wildermuth is currently in this situation. She shares a space with two other artists near Balboa Park and is considering working from her apartment instead of paying studio fees.

“We pay $575 right now,” said Wildermuth. “However, one of the artists is moving out because he has a kid and can not afford any other expenses. I am also thinking about moving.”

Another reason why artists are having a tough time is because people don’t associate the Excelsior and OMI neighborhoods with having as strong an art scene like other parts of San Francisco such as the Mission and South of Market.

“The majority of studios and galleries are in the Mission District,” said Virginia Jourdan, a painter and longtime resident of Ingleside. “There are also studios in the Bayview-Hunters Point district and some in the Glen Park area, but very few in Ingleside that I know about.”

Sculptor Ann Capitan agrees. For her, getting people to come to her house was easier said than done.

“I don’t think there are too many open studios,” Capitan said. “My studio at 23rd Avenue is the farthest one out. I had to show people where my house was. People don’t see studios this far out in the city.”

Art Walks
City Supervisor John Avalos plans to change this. He felt the need for District 11, which covers the Excelsior and OMI area, to have a series of events where people could come together.

The creativity and culture of artists in the community inspired Avalos and local businesses and organizations last year to have two evening art walks as free family events. They hope to have two again this year. The District 11 Art Walk and the Ocean Avenue Art Walk were created in order to showcase artists’ work and performances.

“The District 11 Art Walk was in the summer and the response we got was amazing,” Avalos said. “There were 200 people of all races and ages. The Ocean Avenue Art Walk was in December. It was a rainy day, but about 300 people came out to support us at five different locations.”

The art walks also provided residents and visitors with the chance to support commercial corridors in the neighborhoods.

Artist Matt Christenson, who lives in the Excelsior and teaches art at City Arts and Technology High School, participated in the District 11 Art Walk by displaying his work at Mama’s Art Café. He said the event brought much needed energy and excitement to the art community.

“This was a great community event,” said Christenson. “It totally brought people together. There was massive support especially for young artists."

Nesting Neighborhoods
Jed Lane, a realtor for Coldwell Banker, said the characteristics of the Excelsior and OMI neighborhoods are unique because of why people live there.

“More people go there to start families and settle down,” said Lane. “These are working class and residential areas made up primarily of single-family households.”

Lane also said the economic recession, including the unemployment rate, has had a stronger effect on artists in these neighborhoods than the prices of homes.

“These neighborhoods have one of the highest rates of home ownership in the city. Even though the price of rent has not gone down, housing prices in these areas have not gone up and are where they were in 2004.”

What might be affordable for some is still not affordable for Vieira, a conceptual artist who dumpster dives for his media – a method that consists of collecting trash or any other material off the street and using it to create a piece of art that can be sold.

Vieira’s grandfather introduced this process to him when he was a child and called it “treasure hunt.” Some of the objects that Vieira collects and uses are pans, cement, and grass.

“Being an artist can be tough,” Vieira said. “You get rejected and stepped on, but I wouldn’t give up my profession for the world. I would paint with dirt and rocks as long as I could get some work done.”