Imagine 40,000 square feet of space on the sides of buildings, in any shade of jaundiced yellow, hospital gray or faded beige. Well, there’s a wealth of just such space in downtown San Jose, exactly why local muralist Erin Salazar is organizing a network of professional artists to paint colorful murals on the sides of buildings throughout the neighborhood.
Endeavoring to curate this new outdoor gallery, the group is calling it, The Exhibition District. Several lead sponsors, including the San Jose Downtown Association and the Knight Foundation, are already on board. An initial fundraising gala-hoedown-spectacular will erupt at Cafe Stritch on Tuesday at 6pm, with bands, music, artists and a live auction.
Full disclosure: everyone involved here are friends of mine. But let me say this: We’re not talking about a ragtag group of amateur-hour Sunday Artists. The potential line-up includes highly acclaimed local and international peeps as well as collectives already working within the city. Salazar herself recently contributed murals to the ceiling of Good Karma Vegan Cafe and the wall inside Paper Plane. As a crew, they seem to have a systemic process in place, a series of walls that have been blank and ignored for years, and even a few property owners who seem enthusiastic in allowing them to go forward.
“I think one of the most beautiful things, and one of downtown San Jose’s assets, is what it doesn’t have yet,” says Salazar. “There’s an enormous potential. A virtually unlimited potential. We’re able to see what other places, like L.A., Oakland or San Francisco, have done and then cut the fat and do it right the first time.”
Such an optimistic attitude is refreshing to hear from a local working artist. It was not long ago when the prevailing attitude among local artists and musicians was to equate life-success with leaving San Jose as soon as humanly possible. It was also not long ago when the city government’s attitude was that San Jose doesn’t need artists—(San Joseans are mostly suburban car cultists and gasoline junkies who want tidy lawns and that’s why people move here, dag nabbit!)—but now certain city employees are actually listening to artists and realizing otherwise. Rocking conversations have emerged.
As a result, part of what Salazar aims to do with the Exhibition District is to function as a go-between for artists and San Jose’s dysfunctional bureaucracy. And she wants to slice through the endless hick-town ego jockeying and professional jealousy between the various cultural institutions around town.
“We want to be the Switzerland of art,” Salazar tells me, over peppermint tea and canned jazz at La Lune Sucree. “We want to do our best to get past all of [the bureaucracy]. … We want to go through and cut all that red tape, so that way, when we get an artist, and it’s an awesome artist, [we just want him or her] to get there and get to work. Because the system is broken when it comes to commissioning artists. And San Jose has dropped the ball for so long in not even realizing that artists live here.”
Of course, it’s quite easy to be skeptical. It’s great that City Hall now seems to realize that artists are usually the ones making a neighborhood more interesting. And it’s great that a few local property owners seem to agree. But we know what normally happens in situations like this: Conniving real estate creeps tend to view artists more like manure for the seeds of gentrification. In cities everywhere, the real estate creeps lurk in the shadows, secretly watching artists transform a bland neighborhood into something awesome. Then the real estate creeps pounce and slaughter what everyone worked so hard to create, just so they can then replace the artist culture with blandness that just happens to be more expensive than the original blandness.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still applauding the Exhibition District. Just seeing first-hand how murals have transformed other neighborhoods around the world from Winnipeg to Berlin, I can only suppress my inherent skepticism with harmonious fanfare. Let the colors bleed!