The Martha Gardens Art District, both Promising and Fragile
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Artists look for workspace in industrial areas and blighted districts within the urban landscape. Artists and studios create a new aura and cache in the area. Real estate values begin to rise. Redevelopment and gentrification force the artists out. This is an old story that has happened in many cities across the world and San Jose is enduring the same sequence of events.

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The San Jose State Art/Metals Foundry on South Fifth Street

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Inside, SJSU’s Foundry is one of the best-equipped in the nation.

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Julia Jacobson presents her large scale sculpture in the Foundry yard.

Martha Gardens is an area in the Spartan Keyes Neighborhood, just South of downtown San Jose that is partly residential, partly light industrial, with a few old cannery buildings and aging warehouses — remnants of the agricultural history of the Santa Clara Valley. In 1975, San Jose Sate University first established its art foundry in Martha Gardens on South 5th street. Enterprising art students, trekking back and forth to the main campus, discovered spaces available in the old Citadel Cannery Building and American Can Company, a block away. Over a period of twenty-five years, many artists have come and gone through these forty-some studios, sometimes sharing a space, sometimes creating a sub-rosa live-work space in the loft-like quarters. A few of the artists that rent there now are original tenants and have made successful careers in art out of their Martha Gardens studios.

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The Citadel Cannery Building, site of more than thirty artists’ studios.

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Studio of Matteo Serna, inside the Citadel Building

The City of San Jose built Bestor Art Park, on the corner of South Sixth and Bestor in 2005. In 2006, The Martha Gardens Art District became a complete concept when the Core Companies began to build an artists’ low-income live-work complex called the Art Ark next door the park and Foundry, spanning Fifth to Sixth Streets at Keyes. They included a beautiful gallery space that opened in 2007, for resident and neighborhood use. Core Companies gave a substantial sum to the City to seed a Martha Gardens Art Festival and build community for the first three years. It appeared that something unique and exciting was starting to put down roots.

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The Art Ark Complex is seen behind Bestor Art Park.

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The Art Ark Gallery is a spacious well received entity in the Martha Gardens Art District.

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Inside the Art Ark Gallery visitors examine a large drawing by Ema Harris Sintamarian

At the same time that Martha Gardens’ identity as an arts district began to coalesce, so did the City of San Jose’s efforts to see high-density housing and infill on properties in districts in and surrounding the downtown. A few blocks away from elegant and expensive high- rise condos and rentals of downtown, more modest developments, (yet large by existing standards) began to appear in the Spartan Keyes neighborhood and especially in Martha Gardens. Developments like the Brickyard and Works were attractively designed condos and well received by the neighborhood.

But expectations that taxes from development would pay for more and larger parks or athletic facilities, or draw in public or private schools for the growing population were soon quashed. Meanwhile, San Jose State University fenced off all the athletic fields that had once been a neighborhood resource, and parking in front of one’s own house became a challenge. Truck noise, vibration and pedestrian impediments caused by increasing traffic on residential streets converted to transportation arteries worked to further deteriorate conditions in Spartan Keyes.

In 2007 a small group of residents began to work in earnest on the Martha Gardens Festival, thinking that this was something positive the whole neighborhood could rally around. But, in April, 2008, more bad news arrived: The Citadel Cannery had been sold to a developer. The local artists had already been given notice that studio rents would probably go up radically, and that eventually they would be out! The neighborhood immediately began to calculate what the loss of so many artists would do to the whole concept of Martha Gardens, not to mention the careers of artists tied to San Jose and the total number of active artists in San Jose.

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Artist Ben Alexi in his Citadel studio.

The Martha Gardens Festival, under the direction of MACLA’s Lidia Doniz and scheduled for September 20, goes on. The Citadel artists will still be an enormous part of this event which will celebrate the arts with an exhibition in the Art Ark Gallery, open studios, art and ecology cars outside, hands-on art in the park, a sidewalk parade for the kids, music, food and a demonstration pour at the San Jose State Foundry. There will be a mixture of artistic innovation and imagination with a nod to the popular green agenda embraced by the City of San Jose. It should be a super community-builder.

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Natalia Bourd in her Citadel Studio

What will happen in Martha Gardens in future years is the big question. Is there any place close by for the Citadel artists and dozens more who are always wandering through, asking “How can I rent a studio here?” How would loss of nearby studios affect San Jose Sate BFA students who live on a pittance and try to find work-space on top of everything else? (Graduate Students, who are assigned an on-campus studio while in the program, seek these studios after graduation, as well.) Will the new Director of the School of Art and Design find this situation compelling? Do the Galleries in the SoFA area of downtown, realize how many of the artists they employ, include in exhibitions and who are their visitors, are also integral to the Martha Gardens area? Can the City of San Jose, admittedly broke, do anything? Councilman Sam Liccardo, whose district includes downtown and Martha Gardens, has expressed his concern.

In truth, everyone is worried. Surely, between all the vested interests, some kind of community effort can provide a solution. Stay tuned!

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