In recent years, the Santora Arts Building – the iconic centerpiece of Santa Ana’s downtown Artists Village – had fallen into a state of disrepair under the ownership of local real estate tycoon Michael Harrah.
Ceilings leaked, carpets were threadbare and grime festered on the bathroom tiles. Yet while the building languished, a spirit of underground political activism and community-based arts and culture thrived in its basement.
The hub was Studio Del Sotano, the domain of artist Matthew Southgate and the birthplace of movements like Occupy Santa Ana and the United Artists of Santa Ana, which has tried to fight the wave of downtown gentrification.
The Santora basement also became home to a bohemian, marijuana-laced scene with regular open microphone nights that welcomed a range of performers, such as singers, sword swallowers and stand-up comedians. The backdrop to the performances was a surreal, two-dimensional projection of the Santora painted by Southgate and other artists.
“It was the only thing we had in the entire county for that kind of free expression,” said Theo Hirsch, the artist who brought open mic to the Santora.
Then, about four months ago, Jack Jakosky, a Newport Beach-based commercial property owner and arts patron, purchased the building and immediately launched a sweeping rehabilitation project. His workers fixed the roof, installed new carpet, refinished the building's grand hardwood stairway, and repainted from the walls to the ornate pillars of the upper foyer.
And while he was at it, Jakosky also whitewashed the Santora Underground.
He started by painting over the basement mural. Then, late last month, he evicted Southgate and artist Kathie Warren, another longtime tenant. The evictions unleashed a flurry of pent-up emotions among artists.
“The Santora is the only community grassroots space for artists, and it’s been lost, completely lost,” said Alicia Rojas, one of United Artists of Santa Ana’s founders.
Southgate says Jakosky has wiped away the magic of the place and uprooted a gritty urban escape in a county known for its placid suburbia.
“It’s the architecture, but it’s also the mystique that we gave it. And it’s that mystique that he’s raping from the building,” Southgate said.
Others say Jakosky is in the process of bringing long overdue respectability to the Santora in the larger art world, which will eventually pay dividends for the Artists Village.
Jakosky’s Elusive Vision
Jakosky has told many that he considers the Santora an Orange County landmark and wants to raise the level of the art in the building.
But beyond those general sentiments, he has not publicly articulated his plans. He declined comment to Voice of OC, which is a tenant of the building, saying he is “not talking to anybody.”
Snippets of Jakosky’s vision can be gleaned from an email chain with Southgate and a recent confrontation between Rojas and Jakosky during the monthly art walk.
The owner wrote in an email to Southgate that the painting over of the mural was necessary in order to bring “fresh energy, aesthetic, vitality and vision” and a “blank canvas” to the building.
He referred to vacant studios caused in part by “disgusting activities” in the building, but didn’t explain.
Rojas confronted Jakosky at this month’s art walk, an event on the first Saturday of the month when thousands of patrons flood the downtown for dining and a tour of the art scene.
Wiping away tears, Rojas said: “It boggles my mind, the lack of communication.” Rojas said to Jakosky. “You don’t see the value in us. And that’s a slap in the face.”
Jakosky didn’t say much in response, but he told Rojas that he’s bringing graduate students from Cal State Fullerton and trying to “clean things up.”
Rojas took that to mean tossing out some artists is part of the cleanup.
“So we’re dirty?” she asked.
“No,” said Jakosky.
Local musician Colin Price also confronted Jakosky and asked him whether he was going to “Lagunify” the building, a reference to the high-end art scene in Laguna Beach.
“I’m not about Laguna Beach,” Jakosky replied without elaborating.
Southgate, meanwhile, called Jakosky’s move “gentrification mixed in with a little personal animosity. … I think he didn’t want strong personalities and strong people to challenge his vision — whatever his mysterious vision is.”
A New Beginning
While he has drawn the ire of those in Southgate's circle, Jakosky does have fans in Santa Ana's artists community.
Sandra ‘Pocha’ Peña Sarmiento and Victor Payan, directors of the OC Film Fiesta, said the new owner is an ambitious curator with an eye toward raising the building’s arts and culture profile.
They said that Southgate was a worthy tenant and wanted to help him stay in the building, but his tactic of attacking Jakosky isn’t helping his cause.
Sarmiento and Payan say they met with the director of the Long Beach-based Museum of Latin American Art or MOLAA and a Jakosky associate to discuss a possible MOLAA satellite at the Santora. But the museum’s $300,000 annual asking price, among other requirements, was too much.
“It was Jack’s vision to go to MOLAA, and that in itself says a lot,” Sarmiento said. “He values Latino culture. How many other developers can you say that about?”
But it’s Jakosky’s lack of communication about his vision and what it means for community artists who have been in the downtown for years that has most irked local artists.
Warren said that Jakosky told her he liked the building’s “organic” vibe and gave her the impression that she was an “important presence.” Yet within months, Warren, a disabled artist who has been in her space for 10 years, received an eviction notice.
Warren and Southgate both said they were up to date on their rent. They received no explanation for the evictions.
Southgate’s gallery, with his evocative oil paintings and collection of books and vinyl, provided just the right backdrop for some of the city's most high-profile activist movements in recent years.
The activism was born in part because of the fear of gentrification. Restaurants began popping up around the artists, and they became increasingly anxious that they would soon be priced out.
Madeline Spencer — an Occupy Santa Ana activist who branched out and is now a member of Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development, the activists group that lobbied successfully for a government sunshine ordinance in the city — said that she got her start in activism at Southgate’s gallery.
“I wouldn’t be involved the way I am at all if it hadn’t been for Matt,” Spencer said.
One thing everyone does agree on is that the underground will find a new place.
Southgate said he will be showing his art at other locations in the downtown, including the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art and Avantgarden.
And the revolution, he says, will go on.
“Just because the gallery shuts down doesn’t mean that’s the end of our activism,” Southgate said. “We’ll find some other spaces. Undergrounds don’t disappear, they just migrate … or go even further underground.”