When you think of San Diego does the art scene come to mind? Why not?

When you think about San Diego and culture, what comes to mind?

The beach, right? Sun, surf and sand. And that’s a culture – one of the country’s most enduring over the past 50 years – but is it culture culture? Not really.

And even if it were, San Diego can’t claim beach culture for its own. The Beach Boys, Dick Dale and Jan & Dean hailed from L.A., which was also the setting of the beach party movies of Gidget and Frankie & Annette, those avatars of surf culture.

So where does that leave San Diego? It’s not that America’s eighth-largest city doesn’t have culture. It does. It has museums, Balboa Park, a symphony, opera, ballet, vibrant Latino and Asian communities, hipster neighborhoods and even a world-class zoo.

But there’s never been a San Diego sound, aesthetic, artist, movement, scene or vibe that’s captured the nation’s attention, nothing uniquely identifiable as San Diegan. The movie most identified with the city is “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” a salute to leisure suits, blow-dried hair and Sex Panther cologne.

Detroit, Memphis, Nashville, Portland, Boston, Seattle and New Orleans are half the size of San Diego or smaller, but they all have nationally recognizable cultures.

So why doesn’t San Diego? It could be the overwhelming presence of the military. While the armed forces certainly have their own culture, it’s insular and not often associated with the arts. It could be the conservative-by-California-standards local politics or the large number of wealthy retirees. It could even be the fault of the weather: What artist wants to hole up in a garret when he could be at the beach?

Whatever the reasons, San Diego is seen as a bit of a cultural vacuum. But there are entrepreneurs with plans – big and small – to change that.

A big I.D.E.A.

Pete Garcia is not an artist. He’s a developer who wants to turn a significant chunk of San Diego into a district for designers, architects, artists, techies, students and other creative types. Garcia and partner David Malmuth have formed I.D.E.A. (Innovation+ Design+ Education+Arts) Partners to redevelop 35 blocks on the eastern edge of downtown.

Fully developed, the district could contain 3 million square feet of offices and design space, 600,000 square feet of retail and restaurants and up to 2,200 apartments.

Garcia recently took an ID8 Nation reporter and photographer on a walking tour of the area, a tour that began at the NewSchool of Architecture & Design, a for-profit institution that the developers see as an anchor of the district. The school is the bright spot on the tour. The mixed-use neighborhood is poor and the homeless sleep on the sidewalks.

“This area has the right bones,” insists an undeterred Garcia. “We believe we have the right ingredients. We’re now at the point that we have to put our shoulder to the boulder and push it uphill.”

San Diego is unusual in that, while it has a sizeable population living downtown, many of those residents head out of the city to work. The I.D.E.A. district would be an employment center that would let residents live within walking distance of their jobs, Garcia says.

Two years into a 15-year project, the group controls a single vacant block on which it plans to erect a mixed-use building by 2016.  Garcia, who developed the Hybritech biotech campus in La Jolla in the 1980s, likened his proposal to the Pearl District in Portland and San Francisco’s Mission District and said it would change downtown San Diego.

“In our careers right now, we want to do something transformative,” he said.

Street art

While Garcia and Malmuth dream of a transformed downtown, Zack Nielsen makes sure people look at art, whether they want to or not.

At night, he keeps the curtains open in the front room in his house, the better for passersby to see the vivid abstract painting hanging on the wall. The work is by a local artist and Nielsen hangs it there for two reasons.

First, it encourages the painter, who walks by regularly on his way to a coffee shop down the block. Second, it’s another chance to put art in front of people.

“I’ll light it up at night so people going by can see it,” he said.

Nielsen doesn’t look like an art promoter. His outfit of T-shirt, shorts, skate shoes and baseball cap is classic SoCal Bro. The stocky 32-year-old might still skateboard through his Golden Hill neighborhood, but he’s on a mission to transform San Diego’s arts scene.

He runs Sezio, a nonprofit that provides resources, exposure and support to emerging artists and musicians. In February, Sezio held a show at a former parachute factory. Thirty local artists transformed the empty structure into a wonderland of wall-sized installations. In 2010, he organized a bike ride/art tour of citywide graffiti installations that were part of an exhibit organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Sezio is not alone. Other groups, such as the Open Arts Collective, Yeller, Art Fist CollectiveSpace 4 Art and The Bakery, promote alternative art, music and design, sometimes in collaboration with each other. Though it’s the eighth-largest city in the country, the alternative arts scene is relatively small and close-knit, Nielsen says.

Though he has collaborated with the local Art establishment, Nielsen is dismissive of it as too conservative and unimaginative.

“They know how disconnected they are from any youth interested in arts and culture and they know we’re in touch with them, so they want to work with us,” he said.

Two blocks away in Golden Hill is the cramped garage-turned-studio of Neko Burke, a graffiti artist, sculptor and furniture designer whose work has been exhibited in Tokyo, London and New York. He’s a big, friendly guy in a Padres cap with tattooed arms and a “what the hell, it’s just art” manner. He looks like the professional carpenter he used to be.

Like his buddy, Zack, Neko (the name he uses in his art) is critical of the San Diego art scene as too conservative and unwilling to embrace nontraditional art. So why is the 33-year-old still here?

“I’m stubborn and kind of a jerk and I have a really hot girlfriend,” he says. Then he laughs.

Their San Diego has little interaction with the tourists’ San Diego and that’s fine with them. “The great thing about San Diego is the neighborhoods, not the beaches,” says Nielsen.

Neither Nielsen nor Neko is optimistic about their chances of getting much funding or respect from San Diego’s mainstream art institutions.

“We need to put museum in our name – Sezio Museum – and then we’ll get money,” says Nielsen, shrugging it off.

“We would much rather have 75 people show up and have a show they’ll remember for years than sell 500 tickets to a show no one will remember the next day,” he says.



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