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Take Bold Action to Stem Artists' Exodus, Arts Commission Tells City

By Jorge Casuso

The Arts Commission this week voted to send a strongly worded message urging that the City Council take swift measures to stem a massive exodus of artists from the city.

The commission voted Monday night to send a document listing "strategies to preserve and enhance affordable artist housing and studio space." The proposal cap a 19-month process during which Santa Monica lost more than half of its 156 live work and studio spaces.

"We know the status quo isn't working," said Commissioner Gregory Spotts. "We're losing artists daily. We should be bold. We can recommend bold action."

The proposal, which is scheduled to be presented to the council September 19, emphasizes the need for short-term solutions to stem the accelerating exodus, which is being fueled by a heated real estate market that is displacing artists to make way for dot.com and entertainment businesses.

As a top priority, the commission is urging the council to lease work spaces at Santa Monica airport to artists at lower than market rates. According to the commission's direction, fine artists and performance artists would "be awarded priority over the city's current position, which favors maximum yield of rent."

The commission also will ask the council "to select a specific site owned by the City to develop live/work and day studios."

Longer-range recommendations include adopting a zoning ordinance to encourage the creation of artist spaces, assigning a City Department accountable for implementing the recommendations and extending for two years the commission's Task Force on the issue.

"This is an emergency time in our city," said Commissioner Suchi Branfman. "I don't know why we don't have an emergency task force."

The commission also voted to urge the council to set aside some of the Civic Center land the City purchased from the RAND Corporation for $53 million to develop spaces for artists.

"The proposed new Santa Monica Civic Center represents the best long-term development site for artist live/work projects," according to the staff report. "This usage is compatible for the planned Civic Center as it would greatly contribute to open space activities and the overall 'village' feel desired for the complex."

The strongly worded recommendations were made after advocates for the arts criticized the City staff report as a weak document that lacked the urgency the crisis demands.

"I don't get the feeling that staff understands what we're talking about," said Bruria Finkel, a former arts commissioner and driving force in the city's arts scene. "We're losing artists daily. I don't see staff telling the City Council, 'There's a fire and we have to put it out.'

"The city's not friendly to artists," Finkel said. "Nothing in the recommendations says artists are important. Artists must be protected and defended and encouraged to live here."

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