Castro Art Walk helps local businesses' revival

  • by J.L. Odom
  • Tuesday August 22, 2023
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Art House SF owner Max Khusid with works by Tsholo Montong (photo: JL Odom)
Art House SF owner Max Khusid with works by Tsholo Montong (photo: JL Odom)

For anyone who's visited the Castro recently, one thing is clear: The historic LGBTQ district is no longer stuck in the pandemic 'mud' that had slowed if not altogether halted many small businesses' efforts to stay afloat, financially and community-wise.

A strong indication of the district's turnaround and resurgence is the Castro Art Walk. Held the first Friday of every month from 5pm to 8pm, the self-guided walking tour steers attendees to neighborhood art galleries, art-focused spaces and other small businesses on Market, Castro and Noe Streets and at adjacent locations, such as 18th and Scott.

"The pandemic really kind of gutted the Castro, and a lot of businesses closed," said Steffan Schlarb, gallery owner of the Castro's Schlomer Haus. "By no means has it completely reversed, but it's trending in the right direction, which I think is important and a response to the fact that more people are deciding to open up businesses here."

Thanks in large part to the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District's (CQCD's) awarding of more than $100,000 worth of grant money to small businesses, vacant and boarded storefronts were brought back to life, with name signs, fresh coats of paint and window displays, their insides renovated and stylized. Several of these revitalized and newly opened establishments, such as Schlomer Haus and fellow Market Street gallery Art House SF, are now actively participating in the art walk.

"Art is appreciated a lot more in person, so I decided to open this spot," said Art House SF owner Max Khusid. Khusid opened his gallery door to the public in April 2021. The gallery showcases diverse, original art from around the world.

Both Khusid and Schlarb are on the current Castro Art Walk team of organizers along with three other Castro gallery owners: Kalie Capadona of 2358 MRKT; Mike Gonzalez of MAG Galleries; and Joseph Titi of The Artist's Gallery. All five galleries routinely show exhibits for each of the monthly art walks.

"We try to make sure that there is that core group of galleries so that it's very much gallery-forward," said Schlarb.

Jason Mecier's Lil Naz X portrait and Nat Saia's rainbow flag fabric quilt "Cinched Margins" at Schlomer Haus Gallery. (photo: JL Odom)  

Haus of art
Schlarb, who identifies as a queer man, has been involved in the Castro Art Walk committee for about four months. Schlomer Haus, a contemporary gallery he co-owns with husband Brandon Romero, showcases queer, underrepresented and emerging artists.

"I think the idea behind the art walk is really to draw attention to the Castro as a kind of cultural destination and, specifically, as an arts district," Schlarb shared.

The committee initially met in February 2023 with the intention to resurrect the neighborhood event from its pandemic-induced hibernation. The first of the 2023 Castro art walks took place in April. Since then, one has followed each month, with the next art walk scheduled for September 1.

Schlarb said, "We meet regularly to discuss the goals for the art walk, how the last art walk went, ideas for ways to keep it fresh. A large part of it is the community element of the galleries — that we are all Castro-based galleries and we want to support each other and support the broader community and the arts community."

The committee members consider retail establishments that would like to be involved in the art walk and ensure that the event maintains its vision as rotating arts programming that showcases original art.

A moment from a recent Castro Art Walk  

Attendance-wise, the Castro Art Walk numbers have been promising, indicating an uptick in visitors per art walk. Khusid shared that the April walk brought out 30-40 people, with that total increasing each month.

"We've been really pleased," Schlarb shared. "People are coming from other neighborhoods and kind of cluing in that it's happening and that this is a destination. That's also important for all of us that are involved. We want to show that this is a vibrant, active neighborhood."

Khusid credits the Castro Merchants Association, Castro Art Walk's sponsor, for helping to promote the event via printed postcards and social media advertisements. The nonprofit, which aims to unite and support Castro local businesses, is made up of merchants like Khusid who are based in the neighborhood.

Since May 2023, the art walk has consistently drawn a three-digit crowd. Notably, around 600 people attended the most recent one, which took place on August 4. These numbers serve as proof of growth but also as reassurance.

Good boost
Said Khusid, "We've had quite a good boost. It tells me people wanted that kind of event. I think everyone wants to get back to real life after the pandemic."

The art walk gets people outdoors and gives small businesses the opportunity to sell artwork, merchandise and other services in-person, connecting with local buyers face-to-face. At the same time, it exists in defiance of the unfavorable San Francisco narratives that have infiltrated the media.

Steffan Schlarb with pink floral art by Marcel Pardo Ariza, "Más Flores Para Nosotres" at Schlomer Haus Gallery.
photo: JL Odom  

As Schlarb noted, "There's a feeling in a lot of national news media that maybe San Francisco got too big for its britches during the tech boom and that there was a reckoning that needed to happen to kind of put us back in our place."

He specifically referred to The New York Times' "San Francisco's Art Market Struggles in the Shadow of Los Angeles" story, published in August 2022, which described the city's art scene as struggling and suffering.

"What a lot of those kinds of articles and pieces miss is that for an art scene to be vibrant, the community needs to be involved in it and support it. In a lot of the galleries —the smaller galleries— the work reflects the community," he added.

The galleries participating in Castro Art Walk show the work of a diverse array of artists, changing out exhibits each month or every two months.

As Khusid shared, "Most of us decided to align our schedules so that we open a new show on the art walk day. It took a few months, but I think that's pretty awesome. It means that when people come [to the art walk], it will be the first time they see a show."

For the upcoming Sept. 1 Castro Art Walk, Khusid and Schlarb said the same exhibitions that were featured in their galleries for the August art walk will be on-view. Art House SF will show South African artist Tsholo "Splash" Motong's "Faces of Sowefo."

Schlomer Haus will show "What Remains," featuring original pieces from local artists who transformed remnants from the 2023 Pride Parade into art, with 100% of the proceeds going to Queer LifeSpace. Schlomer Haus will also feature other works by Rakeem Cunningham, Yasi Alipour, Colin J. Radcliffe and Kevin Sabo. Both gallery owners plan to showcase new exhibitions for the October art walk.

As Khusid noted, "One thing I love about our Castro Art Walk event is how we came together. I think it's rare when five art galleries cooperate. We're all businesses, but we put our competitive side aside and we meet every month to discuss what we can do better about this event."

The Castro Art Walk team is on a mission to support and give a platform to not only local businesses but to local artists as well, with the shared aim for the art walk to continue to expand its reach, for the Castro neighborhood and community to thrive—and for people to be inspired.

Said Schlarb, "There's a lot more here culturally, and I think people are becoming more aware of that."|

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