The artists that work, and basically live, inside the Santora Arts Building in downtown Santa Ana believe their historic structure is a place for expression without barriers.
It is not a place, they say, for a church.
Sitting under the painted-glass ceiling panels of the 84-year-old building, the anchor of the city's Artists Village, about 40 artists and community supporters voiced their fears last night for the future of the Santora. Earlier this week, they had discovered that the property is being sold to Irvine-based Newsong Church, and is currently in escrow.
The church's founder Dave Gibbons, who we profiled in a Weekly cover story, believes the move is an organic one for his congregation–church members have long volunteered in Santa Ana with children, artists and the homeless. “It's part of our natural rhythm to love those who are often marginalized,” he tells me by email. Newsong, which has locations in Los Angeles, Mexico City, Bangkok, London and India, is a Christian church with a large Asian American make-up, and emphasizes “loving those who are not like you.”
“We're misfits and we're all about loving other misfits,” Gibbons adds. “The artisans at times can be left out of important conversations. We believe these creatives lead us into the future. We passionately affirm the artists, innovators and creatives . . . We partner and pride ourselves in collaborating with the community to create a place of beauty and life especially for those who are often seen as the outsiders.”
But many of the artist-tenants feel stung by the “misfit” term, even offended. “Is that how they see us?” asks Alicia Rojas, president of the United Artists of Santa Ana, which hosted the meeting. “Do they see this as a place that needs to be changed or a place they want to join?”
She adds, “There's always concern when religion wants to mix with art. We don't know if our way of life, our freedom of expression will be upheld. Will there be censorship of a type of art or music? Are they open-minded about homosexuality? Are they open-minded about who we are?”
Don Cribb, considered the grandfather of the Santa Ana arts movement, believes there is no time to ask questions. “The alligator is already in the swimming pool,” he says, referring to the fact that escrow is expected to close in July. “You need to stomp around this block and say, 'We don't want you.'”
The group discussed possible ways to fight the sale–protesting during downtown Santa Ana's monthly Art Walk event, raising their concerns at the May 7 City Council meeting, staging an “Occupy The Santora” demonstration and circulating a petition.
“If the church had approached us before they went into escrow, that's when we could have had a discussion,” says Tim Rush, a member of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society advisory board. “That would have been the time to sit down and have tea and cakes. But the train has left the station. They're saying, 'Hey, we're in escrow, you're sure to love us, have a nice day.'”
Rush explained that churches don't have a great history buying landmarks in town. “Look at the Fox West Coast Theatre [acquired by the Christian Tabernacle], and ask yourself, does this bear any resemblance to its former glory as a cinema house? It's an abortion. Look at the Odd Fellow's Hall. Look at the Masonic Temple, which was sold to the Church of Scientology. This isn't a good direction. . . . Think how [a church is] going to alter the makeup, the character, the nature, the flavor, the vibe in this building.”
Newsong put out a press release on Tuesday announcing its plans to buy the Santora. Church officials declared that they wanted the building to “serve as a regional and even an international hub for the creative community,” though there were no specifics on how the space would be used. “At this stage of the process, we aren't rushing into any particular plans for the building until we really get to know and understand the heart of the current tenants and community stakeholders,” stated Shaun King, Newsong's director of communications.
But an internal Newsong document addressing questions about the building states that “as space becomes available due to normal tenant transitions, we will consider the development of a 300+ seat meeting facility that could accomodate weekend services as well as training during the week.” Opponents fear that this would lead to parking problems and may not be structurally sound. It also may not be legal because the Santora is the National Registry of Historic Places, which puts major restrictions on any attempts to alter the space.
Some artists say it would also affect their daily work. Artist Joseph Hawa paints in his top-floor studio about 40 to 60 hours a week. “How can I work with 300 people chanting and singing?” he asks. “This place was made for art. It was not made for a church.”
Gibbons, currently in Korea, says he knows some believe religion will clash with the secular nature of the arts district, writing, “I can understand their fears. I have the same ones. For too long, religion has been combative versus synergistically collaborative.”
“Over time,” he adds, “my hope is that the community will see our intentions by what we do more than what we say.”