by lyle e davis
When I want to see the beauty of my work, I look at a Scott Kuhnly painting.
On any given day you’re likely to find Scott Kuhnly at his art easel, in his small art studio on Grand Avenue in downtown Escondido.
He’s been there for years. Just painting. And talking.
He does cars, boats, seascapes, landscapes. He likes scenes of farmlands and the outbuildings; houses, barns, sheds, in various stages of the aging process . . . and he captures them all with intimate and intricate detail, reminding the viewer of days gone by, and memories that had been tucked away into the inner workings of the mind.
Scott Kuhnly is that type of artist.
He’s got a ready, willing, able, and large market of eager patrons for his paintings. They sell for anywhere from $250 and up. I own four of Scott’s paintings.
Down the street a bit is Bob Wright, major domo of the Robert Wright Galleries. Bob has the high end art gallery in town. It’s not unusual to find statuary that sells for $20,000, $30,000. Bob and his gallery have been here for 20 years, through thick and thin.
These days, things are getting a bit thin for good ol’ Art. Not some elderly fella named Art . . but Art . . . as in paintings, photography, sculpture. You know, pretty things.
For years, Escondido has done a mostly successful job of positioning itself in the marketing world as a city of destination, of quaint art galleries, surrounded by Art’s major league players, The California Center for the Arts, Escondido, and the Mingei Museum.
Today though, sadly, that image of a quaint art village is quietly, but quickly, imploding.
The number of art galleries that have closed their doors is frightening.
The Lillian Berkley gallery? Gone. The Shiva Collection? Gone. Artist’s Gallery and More? Gone. (Moved to an industrial park outside of downtown.) Micki’s Art Supplies? Gone. Bill Kasper’s Gallery? Gone. Niles Norquist, a major artist, has shut down his gallery.
Woodcrafters? Gone. Greg Larson’s Gallery? Closed. Even the Mingei Museum Gift Shop store has closed. Apparently it wasn’t worth staffing.
As the various art galleries shut down other businesses followed suit. The Asia-Vous Restaurant is closed. A commercial building at Kalmia and Grand has the entire second floor barren of tenants. (Typically, second floor space is zoned for business while ground floor space is zoned for retail). Other changes, the coffee shop/Internet Cafe known as His Place has sold, it’s now called Lollicup Coffee House. BellaDonna is now called Fashion Boutique.
What’s left of art galleries and studios? Distinction Gallery remains . . . the Municipal Gallery, which is city funded and managed by Victoria Hutchens is still here. There’s Joe’s Glass Shack on Broadway . . . and the aforementioned Robert Wright Galleries and Scott Kuhnly’s Art Studio. Add in the California Center for the Arts, Escondido and the Mingei Museum and that’s about it.
There are differing opinions.
Scott Kuhnly: “Art has taken a dive . . . the economy has a lot to do with it. When gasoline, healthcare and prescription drugs have gone up-the typical art patrons don’t have the extra income anymore . . . and art is something you normally invest extra income in.
I used to sell framed prints 100 per month, ranging in price from $45 to $100. I now sell maybe 10 a month. I’m not hurting as much as some might be though, I’m selling expensive oils . . . $300 to $1500. Those patrons don’t feel the impact of the economy quite as much.
I understand the art market. Most of the upper end art patrons don’t come to Escondido to buy art. . . . they go to Phoenix, coastal resorts, etc. The high end is not dead or gone yet but it’s very small. I do a lot of art shows now but even they have gone down. I did the 4th of July show in Coronado. There used to be 45-50 artists there, this time there were 11.
Among other things, I’ll go to Balboa Park and paint pleinair type work. It attracts a lot of attention and I make sales.
I was in yesterday, (last Friday) painting all day, not a single soul came into the studio all day. It was Cruising Grand Day but it was so hot . . . so far, today, not a single soul (about 1pm Saturday). I chalk that up to the heat.
75% of my customers are repeat. Visitors come to town, stay with my friends . . . they introduce them to Scott and I usually wind up making a sale."
Kuhnly has mixed feelings about the DBA (Downtown Business Association).
“They’ve had some good ideas and I’ve supported them financially. They started out with a good idea. They’d put out little red flags for the different art galleries and display them on Second Saturday, that time of the month when they would focus attention on downtown and the art galleries.
Now they’re at the restaurants and antique places. Even after 2nd Saturday has come and gone the flags stay up all day, all night . . . they are no longer special.”
Editor’s Note: It appears Scott is confusing the Escondido Arts Partnership with the DBA. It was the Escondido Arts Partnership that ran this program.
In additon, Kuhnly adds, “A third of the galleries were either closed or would close early. They were then hard for people to find. They (the galleries) just quit, as far as I’m concerned.”
Debra Rosen, CEO of the Downtown Business Assocation, confirms that.
Kuhnly generally supports the DBA efforts in trying to build traffic in downtown Escondido. He has gotten his feathers a wee bit ruffled however:
“Locally, I would hand out flyers with listings of galleries, highlighted, even arrows to show the easiest way to walk the galleries and which galleries were most worth visiting. Then, the DBA made up a map and they left Scott Kuhnly off, not once, but twice."
Editor’s Note: (Here again, Kuhnly may be confusing the DBA with other organizations. The City of Escondido did a map that ran in the Escondido magazine; There was one by the Arts Partnership, one by the city).
"The Scott Kuhnly studio was the first real art gallery and studio here . . . Bob Wright came in with his fine arts gallery a bit after I set up shop. Now I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t gonna be between Scott Kuhnly and Bob Wright as to who will be the last.”
As to whether the departure of art galleries from Escondido can be reversed, Kuhnly observes:
“I don’t see any plans they have to turn things around from within the arts community. I’ve never had anybody from the City, the Municipal Art Gallery, the DBA, come by and say, “Scott, do you have any ideas?” They’ll sometimes announce a meeting but I always hear about it secondhand.
They were on the right track at one time; But then people came to town and asked, “where are all the galleries?” They couldn’t see them. The people show up and there’s nothing there .. it’s over. They’re not coming back.
There’s enough money here; there are major collectors here in town, with major, big time art collections. This , however, is not a tourist area, it’s never gonna be a tourist area . . . they tried to make it an arts area and I said, “good luck” . . I supported it financially . . . but now, I just don’t see it happening.
Deep down inside, I knew arts were going downhill in Escondido. People buy art a lot when they’re on vacation. I get people from Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla who come up here and buy my stuff, but that’s because they know me and my work. They don’t normally come to Escondido as a tourist destination . . . and, sadly, not that many come to Escondido for art galleries anymore. Even Bob Wright, who has a great fine arts museum, he has to travel to do business. He sells a lot of work in Phoenix, for example. If he and I had to rely on support from just Escondido, or even North County in general, we would not likely make it.
Bob Wright is a good man. He works hard at it. He knows what he’s doing. If he were in any other town of any size he’d have a screaming success. The city needs to recognize we have world reknown artists right here in town and pay attention to them and promote them in their calendars . . . that would enhance the reputation . . . Bob and I could help with that. Bob knows his art. He’s got an excellent fine arts gallery and he works very hard."
What about the Center for the Arts, Escondido?
Kuhnly: “Well, they got off to a bad start at the museum. They hired some gal named Reesey Shaw, made her curator. She asked a bunch of us local artists what they should do and we told her, ‘Put on a Norman Rockwell show.’ She said, ‘I’d be laughed out of the business with a Rockwell show.”
She was never in the business. This was her first job. How she got the job I’ll never know. She didn’t last long.
If you want people to come in, have Rockwell or a Pleinair show, and that’ll draw. This is not New York, Boston, or Los Angeles . . . this is Escondido. The San Diego Museum did a Rockwell show. . . they were scalping tickets, they doubled their membership - I had to renew my membership just to get a ticket. They were packed every day.
Our present curator, Catherine Ferguson, seems to be trying. She schedules shows and exhibits that run three to four months. They had Eileen Whitaker and her husband’s work; they specialized in watercolors. It was a great show but it didn’t get much of a turnout.
About Debra Rosen, CEO of the DBA: “She doesn’t have enough money to work with. Not enough support. A while back she wanted art galleries to kick in $125 per month toward advertising. I see ads put in the local papers that are drawn up poorly . . . it’s all done half-assed.
Debra Rosen: Scott is just a bit off on his information. It was a one-time promotion and we asked for $100, not $125. We had just paid $4000 to promote ‘Discover Escondido.’ We paid $4000 to market that, the city paid $2000, the DBA paid $2000. We then went to each art gallery and said, ‘if you want us to promote something like that, we’ll do it, but we don’t have the money. If each of you chip in $100 we can possibly do it.’
Scott Kuhnly: They are talking about putting on an art show. I can guarantee it won’t work . . . in Grape Day Park? It might as well be in Oceanside. When you do an art show first time it’s usually half assed, they lose money the first couple times . . . they need to attract the artists, don’t overcharge them, treat them like royalty . . then they’ll come back. I make a rule to never participate in first time art shows.
Both the Center for the Arts, Escondido and the Mingei are museums. You can’t really buy art there. They’re more exhibition halls.
To get another perpsective we spoke with Bob Wright, owner of Robert Wright Fine Art Galleries. He’s been here for 20 years. His reaction to why Esocndido has lost so many art galleries recently?
“Certainly the economy is a real thing to consider. It’s not a real drawing factor to the area. The city is not doing enough to promote art. Maybe it’s good to have a turnover, old blood goes out and new blood comes in.
The DBA has greatly contributed with our 2nd Saturday support. They’ve also contributed to special promotions such as Christmas programs with Santa and the horse and buggy on Grand Avenue . . many holidays events. They have contributed a great deal. I think they have a good leader in Debra Rosen. They are out for business . . . some things I would like to see them do more is helping to make Esocndido a destination point for food and entertainment.
The only way this area is going to grow is to permit more eating establishments and night life that will generate more foot traffic . . . more foot traffic means more tax revenue to the city.
We do have a new home furnishings store opening up in Greg Larson’s old location. They have a store over in San Marcos. They are a nice, super couple.
They bring in ‘decorator art,’ and “accessory art,’ not fine arts. That hurts us . . .they buy that instead of fine, orignal art work."
Whatever comes in the downtown business district has to go through the City of Escondido first. They will only give you their support, or tell you you can’t do it becaue of zoning. We’ve known several people who wanted to come in and were shot down because of zoning issues.
For Escondido to be more of a destination point, the city needs to be more lenient in zoning, on parking structures, the whole thing is, businesses are made on dreams; don’t kill the dreams of businesses. Let them come and build, and grow, and succeed. In the process, Escondido succeeds..
The city needs to have a better plan than what they have now. Plus, these crackerbox homes that are being built are not selling, the architecture is not very attractive, so its not attracting the upscale affluent crowd.
I love Escondido . . . I reckon I’ll be here until Scott and I are the last galleries in town.
We spoke with Debra Rosen, CEO of the Escondido DBA (Downtown Business Association).
Much to our surprise she felt that The Paper was attacking the DBA and she responded to our questions rather testily. After we advised her we were doing no such thing, we were merely reporting on a rather strange phenomenon, the exodus of a large number of art galleries, and were trying to get input from a variety of sources, she calmed down a bit and offered the following thoughts:
“The market is changing, galleries are closing in La Jolla, the Gas Lamp Quarter is down as well. Times are tough. Downtowns grow, new businesses come in, some businesses don’t want to change the way they do business. Businesses have to be smart about how they market themselves. I know in the case of Melissa at Shiva Collections . . . she looked for another place to move. She couldn’t find a place that she could afford. She called all over town.
The economy, the increased gas prices, the increased rents, they all play a role. We’ve held workshops to show businesses how they may have to change their ways of marketing. We have changed our strategy and the DBA . . . we have to keep people coming downtown . . . if not for art galleries, then the fine restaurants, or other exciting promotions.
While we don’t have a specific promotion to replace Cruisin’ Grand once it completes its schedule, we have designed a variety of diverse programs which are aimed at continuing to draw people downtown."
Harvey Mitchell, CEO of the Escondido Chamber of Commerce: “It’s probably the economy . . . a combination of high rents . . . the high cost per sq. foot has gone up over the years. I believe the new downtown condos will have an effect, but that will take some time to have an impact. The first phase of Barrett’s Condos sold out in one month . . . that’s encouraging. I’m sorry to be losing these folks but I imagine the stores won’t stay vacant too long. Other types of businesses are likely to move in.
Mellissa Inez Walker, owner of Distinction Galleries, was more direct: “The landlords have just gotten greedy. They’ve doubled the rents in some cases and given short notice, often only 30 days, to move. The artists simply couldn’t afford to stay there, and they can’t find suitable quarters locally to move into. I know a couple of other artists who are planning on leaving for the same reasons.
We have no plans on leaving. We’re doing quite well . . . but I have to spend thousands every month on advertising to let people know about our shows. When I advertise them, I make sales. Many of my sales are from the Internet and our website. We make sales to Italy . . all over the world.
I hope Escondido continues to be an art destination. There are a lot of big stores moving in . . . I just hope half the street (Grand Avenue) doesn’t wind up with vacancies."
Distinction has its own gallery but also sublets to 14 different artist’s galleries. 10 upstairs and four downstairs. “Most of these artists work from their home studios, but come in here to show their work to the public on Second Saturday.”
Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler: I think downtown housing is the next key component that will bring that 18-24 hour presence to the stores . . . the city works very hard with business with zoning issues . . . . my experience is that you can look back - we have been fairly lenient on zoning, we’ve been very helpful with businesses in helping downtown, among others with with parking issues. We’ve waived parking fees, we’re dealing with issues wholistically, not piecemeal. While I don’t disagree with a lot of what Bob Wright and Scott Kuhnly have said, there are a couple of areas that need a bit more in the way of specific information before we can address them. I’d like to know, for example, of specific issues they feel a compatible business was turned down on zoning issues.
Councilman Ed Gallo: I pretty much agree with Lori. The art gallery concepts were great, but they may have been too new, maybe too large . . I don’t know why all the art places are closing . . . it might be simply the high costs per square foot to rent downtown.
Most buildings downtown are 140’ deep and 50’ wide . . . you have to have retail in the front . . . on the side streets and upstairs, you’re usually looking at office space. Some buildings are just too big for retailers to go in.
In the old days, people shopped downtown . . .now, regional malls have drawn people away; so you have to retool downtown, so --- maybe we can do what we did with His Place Coffee House/Internet Cafe. We used 1/2 to 1/3rd for retail, use office space for the back area, where they had a quite successful magzine distribution business.
A lot of old time business owners from 1950’s need to recognize that it is 50 years later, the business climate is different . . . we have to change to meet the new business climate. Downtowns have to change . . . and we’ve made improvements, cutting of curbs . . . working to get the carillon installed, working to get the Grand Avenue sound system approved, working with the DBA and others for seasonal promotions.
If we focus only on art galleries then maybe we’ve focused on too much of one thing. Maybe we need more diversity.
The new hotel will help, not only the Center for the Arts, but downtown Escondido as a whole. There will be major changes in Escondido when that hotel opens . . . and I would urge area businesses to start preparing for that date . . . because when it opens, you’re going to see lots of customers from all over the world . . . and they’re going to want to shop the streets of downtown Escondido.
Jo Ann Case, Economic Development Division Manager, City of Escondido:
When the economy is down, consumer confidence is down, and it naturally follows that discretionary income, which is normally used to purchase art, is also down. It’s not unique to Escondido. Some businesses can survive . . . they find other ways to market and sell. Other’s can’t. If rents go up and sales go down . . . well, that’s a function of the economy, not of marketing. Our auto dealers are way down . . . and they do a ton of marketing. Granted, they are more highly capitalized than a small art gallery, but they are feeling the economic pinch as well.
On the bright side, we have a lot of news businesses moving into town. When the economy picks up, and we are certain it will, demand will come back and the art galleries will come back. Plus, we often see when businesses come back into Escondido they are one of several locations. O’Sullivans is a prime example, with three locations, Fallbrook, Carlsbad, and here in Escondido.
We are pleased that a number of high quality, unique stores are coming into downtown. We are trying to make it easier for businesses to come into downtown with special incentives for downtown restaurants, with our facade improvement program, in which we have invested over $1 million in matching grant funds, up to $10,000.
The economists are suggesting we are, maybe, a year away . . . some homes and builders are pulling back . . . but we think more and more will be coming back into the market, particularly after having seen the first phase of the Barrett Condominium project sell out. And now, phase two is starting and we think that’s going to be successful as well.
So where does all this leave us?
It appears that Escondido has, indeed, suffered a massive exodus of art galleries. The complexion of downtown Escondido will change. Temporarily, at least.
For the time being the center of art will continue to focus on the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, the Mingei Museum, The Robert Wright Gallery, and the studios of artists such as Scott Kuhnly.
We can only hope that as the economy improves that not only will we attract more high quality restaurants and entertainment centers but the foot traffic that develops, and ensuing sales, will revitalize the downtown area. That’s what our community leaders and those in the world of art are both telling us, almost unanimously.
If and when that all happens, we are hopeful that, once again, we will see Escondido regain the reputation as the destination city where one can find quaint art galleries and fine restaurants and night life.
We shall be watching.