Features & Columns

ImagineSJ Kickstart Ideas
for Arts and Entertainment

San Jose artists know the scene and what's missing, so what do we do now?
IMAGINAIRES: Brainstorming panels hosted by ImagineSJ hope to kickstart more ideas for arts and entertainment.

Last week, the anti-man-about-town attended another installment of ImagineSJ, a giddy nouveau-marketing exercise designed to install local arts practitioners on panel sessions in order to foster discussion about the cultural issues of the neighborhood.

The first installment two months ago focused on the "San Jose music scene," as if everything was somehow reducible to one and only one "scene." Nothing even remotely new or substantive was offered, as it was the same conversation thousands of us have already had in every bar, restaurant and party over the last 20 years.

That is, panelists articulated San Jose's massive sense of underachievement, why there aren't enough of the right venues, why aren't bands and audiences more supportive and/or willing to work for each other, what is the magic silver bullet San Jose needs to transform itself overnight into a world-bashing urban epicenter we can all brag about, and so on and so forth.

To make a long story short: 20 years ago a bunch of rock & roll types stood around and had these conversations. Nowadays it's a bunch of hip-hop people standing around and having these conversations. The party is the same, but the faces have changed. It felt like a situation comedy of absurdist theater, entirely designed to benefit the marketing company and no one else.

After an August installment on food and drink, which I missed, the third installment of ImagineSJ transpired last week at Cafe Stritch and focused on the visual arts scene. This time around, the environment seemed much more "grown-up," which makes me hope the series is evolving.

Gallery owners like Cherri Lakey and Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez took turns speaking with working artists like Sam Rodriguez, Roberto Romo and Pilar Aguero-Esparza. Again, nothing was said that many of us haven't already talked about for half our lives in this town, but this time some interesting discussion did percolate.

Appreciation and interest for the visual arts are at an all-time high around these parts—finally, after decades of uniform sprawl and suburban apathy. Every artist still struggles to live here, though, thanks to real estate greed and political indifference. On that front, Lakey was the only one who spoke with any sense of urgency. Stopping short of saying we should ride the property owners out of town on a rail, she offered scenarios unfolding in Los Angeles as a comparison. Certain parts of L.A., Lakey said, had problems with deadbeat landlords leaving their properties empty for years. Property owners didn't give a rat's ass about their communities and were fully aware that they—the self-serving property owners—were precisely the ones making entire neighborhoods shittier places to live.

So, the city brought the hammer down, threatening to take the properties away via eminent domain if the selfish landlords didn't finally do something with their blighted holdings. As a result, professional working artists and galleries, temporary or not, were allowed to rent various buildings, which then kickstarted the revitalization processes and—voila!—people started moving into the areas, new units were built and new microcosms of awesomeness emerged.After Lakey finished her rant, she asked, and I'm paraphrasing, "Why can't the Roscoe P. Coltranes in San Jose City Hall figure out something similar?"

While I agree one thousand percent, I also consider the degree to which the real estate bullshitters sway power around this town. I can't see anything really changing for the better in that regard. Real estate bullshitters don't usually care about some stupid music or arts scene. In their minds, "culture" doesn't need to be part of any San Jose property owner's vocabulary.

As the panel session came to a conclusion, one person near the back stood up and interrupted the proceedings. She berated everyone and asked why a bunch of artists, yet again, were sitting here and talking amongst themselves and to no one else. Admitting she was aware of the thriving arts community here, but also aware of San Jose's reputation as a cultural wasteland among everyone else in the world outside San Jose, she asked, and I'm paraphrasing, "Why aren't the artists networking with some heavyweights, some high rollers and/or power-brokers in Silicon Valley?"

Would that be another forum in which to generate ideas? No one seemed inspired enough to answer.