'If People Are Coming Here, They Trust Me': Hill Street Country Club On Pause
Several weeks ago, the Oceanside art space, gallery and community hub Hill Street Country Club closed, again, for in-person appointments and programs.
"It's been almost three weeks since we decided to close," HSCC cofounder Dinah Poellnitz said. "It was right after Thanksgiving."
Art spaces that also serve as education resources or as retailers are not clearly grouped into the "museums" category in the California State county risk level tiers, and many local art spaces have remained open for individual (or single-household group) appointments for viewings or sales. Under the new stay-at-home order, museums are not permitted to be open. Retail must be metered at 20 percent capacity, and libraries follow retail guidelines.
At the start of the pandemic, Poellnitz — who runs HSCC with cofounder Margaret Hernandez — wasn't ready to open the space or take any risks with in-person gatherings. But as the arts community responded to this summer's protests against police brutality, the group began to make changes.
In early June, artist Kelvin Lopez pitched a Black Lives Matter printmaking project and subsequent workshop in the space. It was an instant "yes" from Poellnitz.
"Kelvin was the first artist during COVID to build my trust to reopening the space," Poellnitz said. She pointed to the importance of trust during this pandemic. "If people are coming here, they trust me. If they trust me, I have to honor that. That was my approach to slowly doing more."
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Since then, HSCC has hosted several exhibitions. Kelvin Lopez held a solo show, "Où Vont-Ils? (Where Do They Go?)" in July. An exhibition of Cal State University San Marcos student art on climate change, "The Reuse Project," graced the walls through August and September. In late September, local photographer Johnny Nguyen opened "Normalize Radical: A 10 Year Photo Retrospective of Street Activism."
In early November, they opened a community Día de los Muertos community altar. Finally, an exhibition of works by Mexican-American artist and printmaker Juan C. Beaz recently opened in a solo art exhibit, "Hijo de la Chicharra." Beaz's work is currently on the gallery walls while closed, and some works can be viewed online.
In addition, they've kept up ongoing community programming projects like Mobile Arts Workshops — small project kits created by artists to deliver through the Oceanside Public Library, as well as the development of a Zine Library. They’ve hosted virtual performances, readings and workshops, too.
"Part of me not being open is me resting," Poellnitz said. "The next two to four years are going to be really rough for a lot of people."
HSCC is planning to support food distribution and other ways to support artists and vulnerable individuals in the north county region, partnering with other organizations to dispense mutual aid.
"It’s all interconnected. I have artists who can’t pay their rent. So, don’t you think they need rent forgiveness? Who gives the rent forgiveness? Not a donor. Not someone who bought a piece of art. That's something that we can't do on our own. That's governmental," Poellnitz said.
She also empathizes with businesses and organizations who make the choice to stay open.
"I'm a realist now. I feel like people are trying to survive. And if you lose your business, it's gonna be very difficult — I know how hard it is to start a business and not being a person of money, and I know how long it takes to get your business to a place where it has visibility and people are engaging with your business," Poellnitz said.
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The pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way artists and arts organizations operate. With Hill Street Country Club, Poellnitz has noticed that the community is engaging differently — and on deeper levels.
"I have an audience that’s listening more. I have an audience of listeners, versus someone who just comes to the space to look at art really quick and be part of the scene. It’s evolving. People want to participate in civic conversations about art and the art making process. I have more artists talking about their personal stories when they do workshops with us. People are more relatable; there’s a lot of empathy building. I love that, because that’s the vision behind art for me," Poellnitz said.
Juan Beaz's "Hijo de la Chicharra" exhibition is scheduled to run through January 9, when a new group show, "Remedio Casero," curated by Alejandro Arreguin Villegas will be installed. The gallery will reevaluate in the New Year and hopes to reopen for appointments when COVID risks change in the region.