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Why Sushi Went Belly Up

Above: Artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña and members of his collective La Pocha Nostra at a 2008 event at Sushi.

Audio

Aired 6/29/11

During the 1980s, a downtown arts organization brought cutting-edge artists to San Diego. Thirty-one years later, Sushi Performance and Visual Art is closing its doors. Angela Carone looks at how Sushi thrived and eventually died.

Sushi Performance and Visual Art was once the place to see provocative art. Artists would perform nude, act out disturbing scenarios and self-mutilate. It was the '80s, the heyday of performance art. And, for a long time, Sushi was the only venue in San Diego to see this kind of work.

"They were peerless. Things happened there that you knew as an 18-20 year old emerging artist were happening in L.A. or New York," says Brian Goeltzenleuchter, a San Diego artist who recently curated a contemporary art series for Sushi.

Earlier this month, the board of directors voted to dissolve Sushi. The organization is broke and can’t afford to pay staff or rent. The reasons are complicated, but the recession didn't help. Years of instability, stints of operating without a permanent home, and the changing times also had an impact.

Indra Gardiner is president of Sushi’s board of directors. "It never had a solid foundation. It was always something that was on the fringe or on the edge and while that fit with what it did, it doesn’t fit an organization that’s trying to create stability and a legacy," she said.

Sushi may have lacked stability, but it certainly had an impact on the San Diego arts scene. The organization's first 15 years cemented a reputation for presenting groundbreaking artists who would grow into national prominence.

LA performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, who performed at Sushi Performance and Visual Art. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

Above: LA performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, who performed at Sushi Performance and Visual Art. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

Theater critic Anne Marie Welsh often wrote about Sushi, whose early shows took place in a downtown warehouse.

"What really struck me coming in there was WOW! Look at this place," Welsh said. "There was a neon sign flashing cocktails on one side and on the other a pink neon sign flashing art and all these strange and interesting people came to see this bald-headed woman with a rat running down her sleeve and a tattoo on her shoulder, but making very intelligent points about the environment and how we’re killing mother earth."

The bald woman was L.A. performance artist Rachel Rosenthal. She is one of many cutting-edge artists who performed at Sushi in the '80s and '90s, along with Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Whoopi Goldberg, Culture Clash, Laurie Anderson, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and John Fleck (the latter four comprise the controversial "NEA Four"), and hundreds of other performance artists and dance companies.

A number of things fell into place to make Sushi viable those first 15 years.

It was driven by the vision and passion of one woman, founder Lynn Schuette. She lived in the space, did all of the curating, booking, marketing, grant-writing, and cleaning. Schuette was well-connected and chose artists to present by working her network. "I would talk to artists. They knew who was doing good work and they would introduce me to them," Schuette told me. We sat at her dining room table. The walls of her home were covered with her own paintings and artwork documenting Sushi's past.

According to Schuette, Sushi’s largest single source of income in the 80s was always ticket sales.

Anne Marie Welsh remembers going to shows and finding a line snaked around the corner: "A line of all different types of people. Old people, young people. I was amazed actually. Lynn touched a variety of audiences, including, of course, the Latino audience, so she had a very wide reach."

Schuette attributes her reach to press coverage. There was a robust media environment in those days. The L.A. Times had a branch in San Diego and The U-T had a healthy arts desk, not to mention smaller newspapers who sent critics to cover Sushi shows. The press created a buzz, and people who would not typically see performance art went to Sushi.

But this didn't impact the way Scheutte programmed her space. "You know it never occurred to me to find out where the middle of the audience was. I was there to promote provocative art and the audiences grew with that."

Sushi also survived on government funding.

The National Endowment for the Arts supported individual artists in the '80s and Schuette was a skilled grant writer. Artists and dance companies could get money to tour through grants. But then the culture wars of the 1990s happened and Welsh says a wave of conservatism killed this funding source. "Support for poorer institutions like dance companies and individual artists just wasn’t there any more. They were considered too dangerous."

Schuette estimates that grants and public funding (through the NEA, for example) fueled 25 percent of Sushi's budget in the early days.

In 1995, Schuette left to work on her own art. Sushi lost the downtown warehouse to Petco Park, leaving them homeless. And the next 15 years were full of instability, with five different directors and a series of unstable boards.

In 2008, after its second bout of homelessness, Sushi reopened in a new space in the Icon building on 11th and J, just as the recession hit.

Philanthropic giving plummeted. Pat Libby is the director of the University of San Diego's Non-Profit Institute. She says philanthropic giving by individuals is the largest source of money that goes to non-profits and "it went down significantly in two years, in 2008 and 2009. There was the steepest decline in philanthropy in five decades."

Foundations made grant guidelines more stringent, favoring organizations with educational components, which Sushi did not have.

And getting corporate funding was always hard for an edgy organization like Sushi, where performances left audiences crying or caused some of them to walk out. Board member Indra Gardiner: "I can’t name a corporation or a business in town who’s going to say, 'yeah, that’s the kind of thing we’re going to put our dollars behind is making people uncomfortable.' "

Sushi held it's formerly successful Red Ball fundraiser - twice - and neither met fundraising goals.

Sushi built its reputation on subversive performance art, but fewer artists are making that kind of work today.

San Diego artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter says popular culture adopted a lot of the shocking things artists did in the name of art.

"Compare those to anything you’d see on MTV, "Jackass" or anything you’d see at a Marilyn Manson concert. The idea that popular culture had taken shock and so called controversy and ran with it suggested to a lot of artists that that type of performance art maybe had run its course."

Sushi never recaptured the magic of those early years, but it leaves behind an important legacy. It matured San Diego’s art scene, by stretching its edges for both artists and audiences.

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