“‘Nobody cares about your shitty arts organization.’ Those were her exact words,” recalls United Artists of San Diego chief executive Tatjana Zogovic, who goes by the name Tasha Zogo. She’s referring to a phone call she got a few months ago from local arts writer Kinsee Morlan then of CityBeat, currently of Voice of San Diego.
“The establishment sees us as a threat because we’re not part of their small, tight circle of cronies,” Zogo says. “We make them nervous because we’re telling the truth about what’s been going on in the San Diego art community.”
Zogo’s claims that a handful of elite, local arts organizations, not least among them San Diego Art Institute, keep philanthropic and government money away from struggling artists.
“The establishment groups are ignoring artists while taking money from philanthropists and the government in the name of art and doing nothing but making the establishment and companies that put on street fairs richer,” says Zogo. “Meanwhile, artists are slaves to their day-jobs, and they’re forced to pay big money for booths at street fairs, where they’re lucky if they sell a single painting or sculpture.”
Street fairs, says Zogo, enjoyable as they may be to the public and as lucrative as they are for event producers, “keep artists in the dark ages.”
A multimillion-dollar downtown space that no doubt has developers and entrepreneurs salivating sits between the two camps of San Diego’s bickering arts groups. That coveted space has been vacant for nearly two years — since before the city’s central library got its rakish new, dome-topped digs adjacent to Petco Park in 2013.
“We have a vision for the old central library,” says Zogo. “It’s going to be an incubator — a kind of lab where educators, entrepreneurs, and artists can all come together to make a better community. We see art, science and economic opportunity all together under one roof. We want the surrounding neighborhood to be part of our vision too.”
United Artists of San Diego’s proposal is now before Civic San Diego, the city’s quasi-governmental nonprofit organization overseeing redevelopment of the nearly 145,000-square-foot former central library building. The group’s idea sounds a lot like the kind of project mayor Kevin Faulconer says he wants to see take shape inside the vacant building, which has become an eyesore in East Village.
“This is a real opportunity for the city and one of the ideas I’m personally excited about is an incubator lab,” Faulconer told the Union-Tribune. “It would attract brilliant minds to come together and new companies could grow out of it and spread.”
Though a sizable group of San Diego artists and community leaders say they want the old central library building, on E Street at Eighth, turned into a community-driven arts center for exhibitions, education, and live performances, there’s no guarantee an arts program will be included at the site at all. “If the arts do not end up with a place in the revitalization of the old library, it will be another example of failure by the old establishment and the people at the top like Kinsee Morlan and Dana Springs,” says Zogo. Springs is the executive director for the City of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture.
“They do almost nothing to help the larger community of artists,” Zogo continues. “Why aren’t they out front shouting from the rooftops, ‘Give the old library to artists!’?”
If Morlan and Springs won’t shout from the rooftops, Zogo will and is doing just that — at least figuratively. Even if her organization’s plans for the old library aren’t adopted by the city, she’s already shaken San Diego’s arts establishment up.
Morlan bristled at being lumped in as part of the establishment, noting that she works at an alternative weekly— “the very definition of antiestablishment.”
“Everyone knows the community wants art and educational opportunities in East Village,” says Morlan. “All communities and neighborhoods need those opportunities in order to thrive. I just don’t think Tasha Zogo is the right person for the job.”
Morlan, who recently took a new arts-writing job as Voice of San Diego’s engagement editor, says she regrets what she said during her phone call to Zogo. At the time, she was on maternity leave, holding her newborn in one arm, her cell phone in the other hand, all while trying to tend to her upset two-year-old. She says Zogo demands immediate attention when she decides on a plan. She says anyone who doesn’t respond promptly and affirmatively to Zogo will soon know her wrath.
“How about just a little patience?” Morlan asks. “I mean, come on, you can’t expect me to just drop everything because you sent an email. I mean, these people started slandering me on Facebook because I didn’t reply according to Tasha Zogo’s timetable.”
One of United Artists of San Diego’s members, and one of Zogo’s most ardent supporters, showed me screenshots of Facebook posts meant to illustrate Morlan’s alleged favoritism to artists who are “in” San Diego’s so-called arts establishment, and hostility toward those “on the outs.”
However, those screenshots as well as group emails did as much to illustrate the upstarts’ hostility toward the establishment as they did the opposite.
“Why would I call you?” reads one post to Morlan from a United Artists of San Diego member. “You obviously have mental problems.”
But another post from the San Diego Artists Facebook page — which was purportedly established by the city’s Commission on Arts and Culture and was handed over by Dana Springs, who once moderated the page, to Kinsee Morlan — seems to confirm one of Zogo’s complaints. In fact, the post seems to confirm at least anecdotally that there is a tendency among established members of the local arts community to limit, even stifle, local artists trying to make a living by selling their creations.
“Please refrain from posting these types of things,” Morlan’s post begins, continuing with a three-bullet list of no-nos on her San Diego Artists Facebook page. “Show event/announcements, art-for-sale announcements, self-promotional content/friend-promotional content.”
The post closes with an invitation for artists to email such art-promotion content to Morlan’s old CityBeat email address.
“I didn’t know why Kinsee is so hostile and aggressive to local artists and people like me who just want them to succeed,” says Zogo, 34.
Zogo took even greater offense to another of Morlan’s Facebook posts. “Sometimes you have to stop trying to be the nice guy. And then you just pull out all the stops and call a spade a spade (or, in this case, a crack-smoking wacko).”
“I was kind of in shock when she started that phone call by asking me ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ I thought we were two professionals having a public debate, an adult conversation about the arts,” Zogo says. “When she said ‘Nobody cares about your shitty arts organization,’ I just looked at the phone. I didn’t know what to do other than say goodbye and hang up.”
Reiterating her regret for losing her temper with Zogo, Morlan tells me she has been writing about San Diego’s arts scene for the past ten years, including blog posts for the San Diego Reader. She says she’s the last of her breed in town and there’s a lot of pressure on her as the last dedicated arts editor in the city.
“There used to be a lot more of us writing just about art in San Diego, but I think I’m the last one standing as far as major publications in the city,” she says. “That means I have to be all things to all artists. I do my best, and it’s not easy to be in two places at once. I haven’t figured out how to do that.”
There’s no excuse, says Zogo, for Morlan, Dana Springs, and the so-called San Diego arts establishment to ignore her and the 75 or so struggling San Diego artists she claims to represent.
If San Diego has an arts czar, Springs is that person. As such, she declines to criticize United Artists of San Diego or its leader Zogo. “I am supportive of any effort to elevate and enrich San Diego’s arts and culture sector, whether it’s artist collaboratives, arts programming in adaptive reuse or grant-making to arts and culture organizations.”
Springs says the City of San Diego will distribute nearly $10 million in funding to about 150 local arts and cultural nonprofits this year. Springs says the dozens of organizations the city supports through her commission — United Artists of San Diego is not one of them — taken in aggregate, employ hundreds of artist.
“I am proud of the significant investment the City of San Diego makes in the arts and culture sector year after year,” she says.
Large-canvas oil painter Danielle Nelisse is a member of United Artists of San Diego. She has no doubt that genuinely talented artists have been neglected under Springs’s watch.
“Yes, I believe we have an entrenched arts establishment in San Diego,” says Nelisse. “I say this having lived and worked in San Diego, not only as an artist, but in other professions.”
A lifelong artist, Nelisse is also an attorney, sometimes private investigator, “death penalty specialist,” alternative sentencing expert, grant writer, nonprofit board member, and labor negotiator for the municipal employees union. Yet she says she’s no different than just about every other artist in San Diego having to work day-jobs to support their artistic endeavors. She believes funds to support art in San Diego go just about everywhere but into artists’ hands.
“It is my opinion that an entrenched arts establishment not only results in a lackluster artistic industry, but also in a loss of economic activity,” says Nelisse. She points to a recent statewide study, which however duly or undeservedly, all but skips over San Diego’s relatively skimpy contribution to the state’s massive $270 billion “creative economy,” as one piece of evidence against the local establishment’s yawn-worthy support for its struggling artists.
“Many cities are experimenting with different ways to provide funding directly to their artistic communities,” Nelisse says. “For example, the City of San Jose is one example of a city that recently made some changes regarding who gets funding.”
Indeed, San Jose has a program that puts micro-grant funds of $2000 to $5000 directly into the hands of local artists or creative-economy businesses. “I am not aware of the City of San Diego providing funding directly to the artistic community, but perhaps the time is right to do it now,” she says.
Fat chance, according to Zogo. She says she can’t even get Springs or Morlan to come to a United Artists of San Diego event or exhibit.
“I have been trying to convince them to come to our events for a year,” says Zogo. “Come on, guys, just get out of your North Park bubble and see what else there is besides your ten or so establishment friends who you always talk about and support.”
There was a point, says Morlan, when she would have been “more than happy” to come to one of United Artists of San Diego’s exhibits. But, she says, when the group’s members began lambasting her, Springs, and folks at the San Diego Arts Institute, a bad taste was left in a lot of mouths.
“You can’t just go around yelling at everyone and saying how Tasha is the only one able to do anything for local artists, while the rest of us who are really doing our best to showcase local talent and support artists all over San Diego are worthless,” she retorts.
But Morlan’s choice of of words during our phone interview lends some credence to Zogo’s contention that when it comes to San Diego’s arts establishment, you’re either “in” or you’re “out.” “There might be a way Tasha can come back in if she wants to apologize and treat people with some respect,” says Morlan.
That doesn’t seem likely. Zogo, while exceedingly passionate in her promotion of local artists, is also bombastic when it comes to leveling giants. “They are all corrupt — all of them,” she says.
“Tasha has a passion to fight for the rights of the artists of San Diego,” says Jason Rogalski, a conceptual artist and painter. “I appreciate that, but rather than focusing on collaborating, she seems to lash out at both individuals and organizations if they challenge her sensibilities or appear to be a source of competition.”
Rogalski concurs with Morlan’s contention that Zogo has appointed herself to be the region’s only qualified advocate for struggling artists.
“The challenge is that she has a very limited scope as to what the artists’ real needs are and how the art world actually works,” says Rogalski’s partner and fellow artist, Brandie Maddalena. “...[C]ommunity leaders have tried to support and even mentor her in her leadership. However, in what seems to be sophomoric arrogance she responds to those leaders, many of whom have dedicated their lives to our art community, with venomous disdain and accusations that dangle in the realm of slander.”
But Maddalena and Rogalski give Zogo credit for putting artists like them front-and-center in the eyes of the local arts establishment for the first time in a long while. “Tasha did make a positive impact, because the local artists are back in the forefront of the conversation about the arts in San Diego,” Maddalena says. “It’s a shame it took a toxic volunteer leader to bring us back up.”
Zogo’s response? “Ask them,” she implores. “Ask them to name one, just one world-famous painter from San Diego, contemporary or otherwise. They’ll come up with some illustrators or graphic artists, but not one painter or other world-famous visual artist.”
We did. Not a single source was able to name a world-famous painter from San Diego. Some named famous artists from other disciplines, but no painters.
“How can that be?” Zogo asks rhetorically. “I know it’s not because we don’t have enough talented artists here. No, it’s because the people at the top support their favorite little cliques. That does nothing to promote, support, or reward real talent.”