Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center throws itself a 25th birthday bash to help fund affordable housing and studio space for emerging artists

By Michael Aushenker

They say 40 is the new 30. This weekend in Santa Monica, you might say 18 is the new 25.

The 18th Street Arts Center — a visual and performing arts incubator that includes studio space and affordable housing for artists — marks its first quarter century with a two-day benefit party and arts sale celebrating the continued success of its unique cultural and economic mission.

The center expects 300 people for Saturday’s VIP party featuring a concert by alt-folk singer-songwriter and former 18th Street resident Phranc, plus self-guided studio tours, video art installations and performance pieces by resident artists.

On Sunday, a crowd 1,000-strong is anticipated for its 5th annual Beer, Art & Music Festival, which includes unlimited tastings from more than 40 craft breweries (including the newly opened Santa Monica Brew Works), food trucks, crash courses in art, open studio tours and live music and performance pieces by members.

Across both days, a benefit art sale hosted in partnership with Saatchi Art features more than 50 unique works by past and present 18th Street artists.

“We play a really important role in supporting artistic diversity on the Westside,” said 18th Street Arts Center Executive Director Jan Williamson, who first came on board as general manager in the mid-1990s.

Originally co-executive director with artist Clayton Campbell from 1996 to 2006, Williamson shepherded 18th Street through several turning points, including 1998’s acquisition of its housing and studio complex and developing its residency and arts education programs. The building was sold to the center under the condition that “18th Street continues to be a safe harbor [from gentrification] and a real community for creativity,” she said.

Prior to her arrival, High Performance magazine publishers Linda Frye Burnham and Susannah Bixby Dakin had founded a place where artists could have affordable studios and from where High Performance, as well as Highways Performance Space, could operate. After that paradigm changed, Williamson—with experience in California museums and as director of operations on artist Tom Van Sant’s GeoSphere —was brought aboard “to figure out the new direction.”

A lot has happened since.

“We grew the organization from a budget of $200,000 to $1 million,” Williamson said. “We’ve built what is now the largest artist residency program in Southern California, hosting about 30 artists from all over the world. We offer affordable studios and we also commission new work by Los Angeles artists and curators.”

And while the 2008 economic crash created challenges, “we were very lucky,” she said: the center received one of President Obama’s economic stimulus grants, and a cycle of multiple grants from different organizations also began kicking in.

Plus there’s the rental income: “Even though it’s low cost, it’s very stable and predictable,” Williamson said, adding that tenants aren’t on the hook for teaching and other obligations.

Musicians are also part of the 18th Street community. John Ellis, a saxophone player placed at 18th Street by the Herb Alpert Foundation, wrote 30 new compositions during his stay and has gone on to tour with his ensemble, Double Wide.

“We really try to hit all communities,” said Anuradha Vikram, director of residency programs at 18th Street.

Vikram, who formerly coordinated the Visiting Artist Lecture Series for UC Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice and whose artists-in-residence experience developed while a studio manager for Claes Oldenburg in New York, joined in January. This year she has been executing residencies set up by predecessor Pilar Tompkins Rivas, who is now at LACMA.

“She really gave me a gift,” Vikram said of Rivas. “She gave me artists I’ve enjoyed working with that I wouldn’t really have known.”

Organizing the art sale this weekend, Vikram is looking forward to the arrival of the first of the three-month residencies she curates: Glendale painter Amir Fallah, who breaks with conventional portraiture by draping subjects in fabric and identifying them by surrounding objects.

For April through June, Vikram welcomes Slanguage Studios’ Mario Ybarra, Jr. and Karla Diaz, Long Beach gallery artists who head an art collective in their native Wilmington.

“I’m very excited about the direction the center is already moving in,” Vikram said. “We’re really graduating from an awkward adolescence of seeing what kind of programs are working, what kind of people are we serving. We are better equipped, economically speaking, to support what we’re doing.”

Within two years, 18th Street plans to expand again — adding eight to 10 studios to its 25 existing spaces, opening a café and “in general making the campus more friendly and accessible,” said Williamson, who is also excited about the pending Expo line stop behind the center.

In 2017, 18th Street will partner with LACMA on an exhibition tied to the Getty-sponsored pan-institutional event, “Pacific Standard Time Los Angeles/Latin America.”

“The kind of distance that’s created between viewer and art object and art practice can be intimidating. Here at 18th Street, there is no distance. Anyone who walks off the street can have that access,” Vikram said.

“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with some really amazing artists,” Williamson said. “Artists are really an important part of our society and our community. To do the things necessary to support them to work at their highest level and support their best works — that, to me, is super-rewarding.”

The “18 is 25” VIP event featuring Phranc is from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, and the “Beer, Art &Music Festival” is from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday at 18th Street Arts Center, 1639 18th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $125 for Saturday, $45 to $50 for Sunday, or $150 for both events. Call (310) 453-3711 or visit