SLO arts groups set sights on California cultural district designation

Jan 2, 2018

A recent New York Times article named the San Luis Obispo Mission and Bubblegum Alley as “the top tourist draws in San Luis Obispo.” Local arts groups hope that someday the downtown might earn an official state designation as a “Cultural District,” highlighting more than history and kitsch. 

On a Thursday night in December, during the popular weekly farmers’ market, people checked out the art at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art’s Pop Up Gallery, in a temporarily vacant storefront on Higuera Street. Angela Tahti, executive director of ARTS Obispo, was on hand to give a tour of the pop up gallery and explain the possible parameters of a new district focused on culture.

“The idea of the cultural district is to feature authentic areas of the state,” Tahti said. “We have such a large and diverse state, with more artists per capita than anywhere in the United states.”

That’s according to the California Arts Council. Recent legislation allows the Council to establish a competitive application system for certification, and to provide promotional support for state-designated cultural districts.

“ARTS Obispo is the state’s designated local partner, so we would likely be the applicant for the Cultural District program on behalf of a number of organizations interested in being a part of that,” said Tahti.

Local arts groups could benefit from being included within a designated cultural district, Tahti said. Just by declaring a designated cultural district, a city can attract federal, state and private funding. Tahti believes that funds follow a plan.

“We can capitalize by naming a downtown area a cultural district and shining a light on all the cultural assets we have, bringing more people into town who appreciate our community, and they will let other people know to come to it,” Tahti said.

In 2017, the California Arts Council certified 14 cultural districts around the state, including Balboa Park in San Diego, downtown San Rafael and an area in Truckee. The next round of applications is due in 2019, and Tahti hopes the timing will be right for San Luis Obispo.

San Luis Obispo welcomes artists downtown - visual, musical, and performance groups - professionals and beginners. The idea of a cultural district is not new, and it is included in a long-range plan recently adopted by San Luis Obispo’s city council.

“The Downtown Concept Plan is a conceptual plan that basically lays out a vision, or the desirable way the community would like the downtown to look going into the future,” council member Carlyn Christianson said. “It’s not a legally required plan. It doesn’t require a property owner to do a specific thing with their property, but it gives them an idea of what we’d like to see.”

Within the Downtown Concept Plan is the idea of a cultural district, in the area around Monterey Street, between Mission Plaza and Nipomo Street. The History Center is there...plus the Children’s Museum and the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, which is running a capital campaign for a new building on the existing site. SLO Rep - formerly the Little Theatre - hopes to move to a new location within that area.

There are costs involved. The plan for the cultural district calls for redevelopment of a few streets, giving pedestrians priority. The streets might feature unique paving patterns, and encourage outdoor seating, public events and festivals. The city council will be weighing in soon.

“We do have a meeting in January on how we’re going to approach spending money on our capital improvement projects,” Christianson said. “Everything from bridges and roads, the police department fire department, Laguna Lake dredging, implementing our Downtown Concept Plan, anything and everything that is a capital improvement. We have far more capital improvement projects than we’ll have the money for. So we want to prioritize that and spend wisely and plan for it wisely.”

Whether it is established by the statewide program, or from a city-sponsored initiative, members of the San Luis Obispo arts community are hopeful that a downtown cultural district will someday become a reality.