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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My Thoughts on the Oakland Ghost Ship Fire and the Plight of Artists in our Society

I had a case of writer’s block this week. I just couldn’t get going on the two beautiful coffee table books I was going to write about. There was something bubbling just below the surface and it took me until this morning to tap into it. This blog is about art, literature, creativity and the gentle souls who are called to a life in the arts -- people whose contributions generally go unrewarded, unrecognized, and are even disparaged or ridiculed. Thirty-six (and counting) of those souls perished this week in the horrific tragedy of the Oakland Ghost Ship Fire.

Photo of interior of Oakland Ghost Ship from Oakland Ghost Ship tumblr page

Often branded as flakes, losers or slackers, these are courageous people who turn their backs on corporate life, the slow death that a 9-5 job represents to them and the comforts that a regular paycheck bring. They live authentic lives and sacrifice greatly to do so. Instead of being rewarded for their bravery and the work that enhances all of our lives, they are forced to live marginally, often in dangerous environments.

I’ve never been to the Ghost Ship and I don’t know anyone who has perished or is missing, but I have been one of them, know many like them, and have spent time in those environments. The Ghost Ship was a rich labyrinth of repurposed furniture, art, kilims, hanging lanterns, speakers, guitars, clocks, turntables, old pianos and pipe organs, scrap wood railings, impromptu sleeping lofts and intimate seating areas, ideal for long languorous conversation – in short, a greenhouse for creativity.

This should not have been a place where so much vibrant young life was extinguished.

Click here to see photographs of the Oakland Ghost Ship before the fire.

Click here to donate to the Fire Relief Fund for Victims of Ghostship Fire.

We all know, or should know, the role that artists play in revitalizing down-trodden neighborhoods. Artists go to those neighborhoods because it’s the only way they can afford to live and do the work they are compelled to do. After much hard work and sacrifice by artists, the neighborhoods suddenly become fashionable. Shops, restaurants and hipsters follow -- and inevitably the artists who breathed new life into these neighborhoods are forced out in search of affordable and often unsafe digs.

Case in point is the Santa Fe Art Colony in Downtown LA. Funded by the Community Reinvestment Act, the Colony has provided rent-restricted live/work space to artists for 30 years in what was an industrial no-man’s-land. Now the area is booming with high-end art galleries, shops, restaurants and there is construction everywhere. Sadly, the CRA restrictions are due to end soon at the Santa Fe Colony. The rent increases will force many of the artists out.

Click here to sign a Change.org petition to help save the Santa Fe Art Colony.

I often felt conflicted as director of a commercial art gallery. My heart was always with the artists, and I was uncomfortable in my role as go-between with collectors. Offramp Gallery wasn’t selling art at huge prices, and most of our collectors were good people who understood the circumstances of the artists. But there were those, one in particular (you know who you are), who relished trying to get that price down another five or ten percent, even while sitting in the artist’s humble studio, oblivious, salivating at the bargain he was taking away to his new mansion in Pacific Palisades.

Another way artists are being regularly exploited is by being asked to donate works for auctions. They're already living at the poverty level, and then are asked to give their work away to raise money for various causes. It should be a standard practice for artists to receive a percentage of the proceeds (kudos to organizations that are already doing this), instead of donating 100%. Artists aren't greedy people, they're struggling to pay the rent.

Let’s support art and artists in real ways. I’m not talking about headline-making auction prices, mega-galleries and the fou-fou see-and-be-seen art fairs. Click the links above to donate and support. Go on studio tours, support lower- and mid-range galleries, try to understand what artists are doing and why they are living the way they do. They deserve better and we need to see that they get it.

Send me your art-related stories and links to your causes and I will report on them.


  1. You are such an intelligent writer! Thanks for this!!

  2. Thank you so much for your wise comments here! I have been thinking a lot about similar studio / art spaces here. We all wish we could find decent, affordable spaces to create - and it is almost impossible to do in this region.

    1. Sad that it often takes a tragedy to bring the problem to light. Thanks, Jane

  3. Thank you for your eloquent words. Hopefully they inspire others as they have inspired me!

  4. Thanks for your insight, knowledge and caring words.

  5. Thank you Jane for your article here. I am an artist with a life time's worth of experience creating art. I love being a Creative and a masterful Healing Arts Therapist. However I would like to clarify something many might not have considered. Some of us did not simply "turn our backs" on corporate jobs. Some of us had life threatening illnesses or brain dysfunctions, break downs from ongoing stress, that suddenly against our will catapulted us out of the security of a regular paycheck with short but paid vacation hours and medical coverage. I would never have willingly entered into the sketchy unpredictable of being a freelance artist. I became one out of necessity. It is my most evolved skill and ability. But I did not chose this route because I thought it would be fun or a good idea. I am a creative and would have been forever, quietly on my own time in the background to making a living. What happened instead, is I have been unable to secure other work... even low paying work. it is not out of being a rebellious spirit that I am an Artist, it is out of necessity, there were no other open doors of employment for me. I am scraping by in an area where my rent increased 350% in last 6 years, and 500% over the past thirty years. Those are not viable terms for people like me. The ghost Ship Fire was heart wrenching lost of brilliant creatives just like me, except I am still in a safe house, that may not last much longer as I can not keep up and I am way too far behind in affording the cost of life. MagnificentMurals.com

    1. Hello Tajime -- Thank you for sharing your story. I'm so sorry that you are in such difficult circumstances. I think you point to a broader problem -- it is unacceptable that there are so many marginalized people in the richest country on earth, and that we now face an administration that wants to further widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. Greed and profit rule the day. Privatizing healthcare, education, prisons, etc. to become profit-centers is a travesty. Now they're after Social Security and Medicare. I could go on and on. I also know first hand the stigma attached to mental illness and how easy it is to fall between the cracks. I wish I had some magic advice for you. I don't. But know there are people who care. Best, Jane

  6. Dear Jane-- What you say is empathetic and true. Tragically the artist's lost in the Oakland fire were victims of the difficulty of putting a life in art together in our country. But the work artists do especially in these difficult times-- is essential! The work of artists-- to think for themselves and to encourage others to do the same.

  7. Long ago I looked around at reality, i.e. the supply and demand curve in our society.
    Tugged between art and education I reluctantly chose education, 35 years of it. Lots of stress later I turned full time to art when many my age were in their last decades of an artistic career. Regret? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. And yet, I'd do it the same way again; suffering poverty has little appeal, even for the brave!

    My heart goes out to the artists in the S.F. area fire but at the same time, more exit doors would have been a really clever idea. I suspect that if OSHA were to inspect all artist studios many would be shut down; I've seen so many artists using toxic materials badly; stuff so dangerous it would have made Cesare Borgia envious of their ability to poison people.

  8. San Francisco's KQED is collecting and writing heartbreaking memorials for each of the 36 artists. Learn who they were and how much they contributed. Also at KQED, Gabe Meline's "It Could Have Been Any One of Us" is a moving reflection on these artists spaces. https://ww2.kqed.org/arts/category/remembrance/