Erin Salazar Christina Campbell
Erin Salazar (Christina Campbell)

Women to Watch: Erin Salazar

Women to Watch: Erin Salazar

Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.

Erin Salazar grew up in the Mojave Desert, the daughter of a teacher’s aide for high risk youth. When she left Southern California at 17 to pursue an arts degree at San Jose State, “I’d heard that it had a good arts program and it was far enough away from Hesperia so I didn’t have to go home for minor holidays. It was just the right distance away,” Salazar says. “At the time, I thought San Jose was a beautiful, cosmopolitan city.”

Today, her passionate affection for San Jose takes the form of her work beautifying its neighborhoods with murals. As the founder and executive director of the Exhibition District, Salazar is on a mission to fill 40,000 square feet of blank space in downtown San Jose with art, receiving support from both the San Jose Downtown Association and the Knight Foundation.

Salazar started as a muralist herself, taking on commissions so modest she was sometimes paid with free beer and food. Then, in 2011 and 2012, both of her parents died, and Salazar began thinking of her own mortality. “I thought I could be more impactful working for other people," she says, "than just working for myself.”

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Did you have a mission statement in mind when you started the Exhibition District?

I started building this concept around creating economic opportunities for artists. City beautification was secondary to that. Artists are so quick to devalue the work they do, and so I wanted to make sure that artists were getting paid.

What’s the hardest part of this work?

For me personally, it’s definitely the paperwork. I’m a creative person, and so I have to force myself to read about tax law and all this other stuff. Also, it’s tough finding the time to beat the street and get more work up.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

The Exhibition District has two different arms now. One of them is outside, and then there’s this secondary one that we just started. It’s called Local Color, and it's about the reactivation of buildings that are going to be torn down. The owners let us have the keys [before then]. We’re just trying to create a beautiful prototype for a larger community. My hope is to get a semi-permanent space, so artists have a place to practice. I call it “asset-based community development.” I was in a fellowship with National Art Strategies. I was really inspired by the idea that we need to define communities according to their assets, rather than their deficits. So in 10 years, I want to run an art space.

Erin Salazar.
Erin Salazar. (Christina Campbell)

What do you find most challenging about being an artist in the South Bay?

You have to fake it 'til you make it. There’s so much money flowing about here, but it’s so far above what we’re able to access as artists. So it’s about trying to get people to value art. That comes with more exposure to what goes in to the craft, so people see the work that goes into this, the value. We have to work a lot harder because that value isn’t there yet. We lack exposure, because the region has been dubbed a wasteland. We have to get away from that. We have to re-brand.

What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?

Definitely more opportunities in public art. Getting more women to think big, and work big, and get paid. I want to be woman-centric in building my company. I want to help women get out of the sketchbook and onto the wall.

Curious about who else made the list? Check out the Women to Watch series page, including photo galleries, interviews and videos. Do you know a Bay Area artist who is doing amazing things? We want to hear from you! Highlight her efforts using #BayBrilliant.

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