California Forum

Ghost Ship fire highlights artists’ needs

A Dec. 2 fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland killed dozens of people during a electronic dance party, after it raced through the building, trapping them inside.
A Dec. 2 fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland killed dozens of people during a electronic dance party, after it raced through the building, trapping them inside. The Associated Press

Artist collectives are being flagged and shut down nationwide in reaction to the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. The Bell Foundry in Baltimore closed to make way for a parking lot. Former residents believe a greedy developer was looking for an excuse to force out those who lived and worked there.

Fingers are pointing in anger at the Ghost Ship collective’s leader, the landlord and at the artists who lived there illegally.

“If they only had a permit.”

“It’s been a hazard for years.”

“It was a fire trap waiting to happen.”

While the reaction was swift, no one worked to improve conditions before the fire. They knew about the problems; they knew the tenants; and they knew that a catastrophic fire could happen; yet no one contributed resources or cash to fix the problems.

Artists don’t choose to live in squalor. The public chooses for them, when you don’t purchase local art, don’t attend concerts, don’t give at fundraisers, don’t attend plays and don’t hire designers.

What we need is a proactive plan to preserve existing art spaces and collectives by assisting with grants and in-kind donations to retrofit these living spaces for safety. Artists want to be safe; they just can’t always afford it.

We need fundraisers to convert warehouses to housing code standards. We need to scrutinize the gentrification of San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. As greed and avarice push artists out of San Francisco, I fear Sacramento will continue to turn a blind eye on our artists’ critical needs.

Rent downtown is skyrocketing. Some of our artists were lucky enough to get into the Warehouse Artist Lofts project, and Clara Midtown serves nine arts organizations but without a housing component. These projects offer space at below market rates, which fosters the belief that our artists have been taken care of. In reality, we have fallen woefully short.

Without supporting the arts in our society, we will fall further behind. I know this firsthand because I have been trying to build infrastructure for the arts in Sacramento for a decade. But I’ve encountered one excuse after the other when it comes to delivering for the arts.

My most recent attempt was to convert the old Marshall School into a live/work/play/teach space known as INDIEhäus. My team bent over backward to deliver a project that would generate millions in revenue. We held ancillary benefits for the city and the Sacramento City Unified School District. We believed that if we went with a nonprofit mission and built in benefits for the school district and community, we would be selected.

In the end, I was basically told: “Your project was a great idea, but money talks. Your competitors have more money.”

I heard the news while I was in Los Angeles negotiating funding from a major distributor in Hollywood for a 12-movie pipeline proposed at INDIEhäus. The school district opted for quick and easy money over arts-education and residual income that would have lasted decades.

Today, I am looking at rundown warehouses to convert again. And now, I am asking myself, do I want to create another project only to have it shot down again? Amazing projects like Art Hotel 916 and Verge gallery took tremendous support to get off the ground. They have enriched thousands of lives.

Yes, there were mistakes in developing Ghost Ship’s home, but they created a space that was lauded by many as innovative, wildly creative and one great art project. Living outside of restrictions and regulations, they carved out a space for art to thrive. Imagine what they could have inspired if they had a safe place to live and work.

Christina Marie is a filmmaker, arts advocate and executive director of Capitol INDIE Collective. Contact her at cj@thechristinamarie.com.

Summit

Discussion about artistic infrastructure in Sacramento.

When: 1-3 p.m., Jan. 14

Where: Clara Midtown, 2420 N St., Sacramento

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