Future Uncertain for San Jose's Priced Out Empire Seven Studios

Juan Carlos Araujo, outside the space Empire Seven Studios has occupied for almost 10 years. A developer who bought the property plans to raze the building in early 2017 to put up new housing. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

The last art show is up on the walls of Empire Seven Studios - at least, in the gallery Juan Carlos Araujo and Jennifer Ahn opened nearly 10 years ago. A luxury apartment developer bought the building near the corner of Empire and 7th in Japantown late last year, and in a story grown familiar to artists all over the Bay Area, the couple has to leave ahead of the bulldozers.

The new landlord has offered some give room. Empire Seven has until the end of February. After that? It's anybody's guess.

Araujo says he's been exploring several prospects, "but so far, nothing has been signed in ink." Ideally, he wants to stay in San Jose.

But the GoFundMe campaign Araujo and Ahn launched has raised about $27,000 -- a fraction of what’s necessary to buy another property in this Silicon Valley town. So while the original goal was buying a property, they'd settle for a place to rent at this point in time.

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A beloved local institution

"Empire Seven is a labor a love," says Kristin Farr, a former KQED Arts writer who is now Deputy Editor for Juxtapoz Magazine. She's also a visual artist. "They've been very good to my husband and me. We've shown our art there a lot."

Farr echoes a chorus of people who say Empire Seven is more than a gallery. For many, it's a champion of emerging talent, and a go-between that brings under-the-radar artists together with established institutions and property owners for all sorts of public works, like murals.

Empire Seven's current location is not in a fancy part of Japantown. Train tracks are steps away. Trash blows up against the front door. The place was a dusty mess when Araujo and Ahn came in with a broom and an idea nearly 10 years ago.

"You can hear the train in the back," Araujo says as we talk. "It's one of the things that sold me on the place. It looked like a diamond in the rough. I took a chance."

A mural by Andrew Schoultz, right around the corner from Empire Seven Studios.
A mural by Andrew Schoultz, right around the corner from Empire Seven Studios. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

"Are we really doing this?" Ahn recollected on a recent episode of the San Jose-based podcast JMS. "Are we really, seriously doing this? It was nothing like it is now, but it all fell into place." The drywall, the track lighting, the clean, white paint: that wasn't here before them.

But Empire Seven is for-profit

The gallery does receive funding from the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs. But there’s only so much support San Jose can offer, even though the city has gone to great lengths to help nonprofit arts organizations like the Bay Area Glass Institute and Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana rent or buy.

Kerry Adams Hapner, Deputy Director of Economic Development for San Jose's Director of Cultural Affairs, suggested that the couple should think seriously about becoming a nonprofit. "Empire Seven is a mission-driven organization with a public benefit. Becoming a nonprofit requires complete reconsideration of a business model and it is not for everyone, but it may enable them access to more resources. "

Others aren't so sure. Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez, Executive Director of MACLA, says "I would NOT suggest that they become a nonprofit organization. People often think that the 501(c)3 tax code structure is the holy grail of 'free money' and access to unlimited grants, but that is not the case. To be a nonprofit, you have be willing to live within the legal structure that governs our industry."

The last show up on the walls, DY*NAS*TY, is representative of the political and artistic aesthetic of Empire Seven. All three artists -- Mesngr, SFaustina and Cristovoe -- came up in graffiti, but work as "grown-ups" now in graphic design, animation and retail clothing.
The last show up on the walls, DY*NAS*TY, is representative of the political and artistic aesthetic of Empire Seven. All three artists -- Mesngr, SFaustina and Cristovoe -- came up in graffiti, but work as "grown-ups" now in graphic design, animation and retail clothing. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

That means a board of directors, by laws, etc, and all of that takes time to establish. It also takes even more time to apply for grants, and then to wait for that money to come through.

So what's Empire Seven to do in the meantime? Araujo and Ahn are talking to the developer pushing them out about a gallery space in the new building. They might rent gallery space from other outfits to mount exhibitions. They might consult. They might pursue all those options simultaneously.

Whatever the case, Helstrup-Alvarez argues it's a great idea for Empire Seven to "continue to build public awareness through their murals, public art projects, or pop-up exhibition spaces."

Araujo is cagey about debt. He doesn't want to take out loans or max out any credit cards. The GoFundMe campaign, he says, should at the least help Empire Seven survive the next few months.

He appreciates all the cash and advice coming his way lately. "You know that you can survive, having all these people behind you."

A familiar sight in San Jose these days, warning of something new and upscale.
A familiar sight in San Jose these days, warning of something new and upscale. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

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