Connected to San Francisco by the world famous Golden Gate Bridge and neighbored by the Napa and Sonoma Valley vineyards, San Rafael is the largest city in Marin County with a bustling downtown and history as a central hub for transit. In the 1990’s, at a time when large and small businesses were forced to close their doors in Downtown San Rafael, a group of artists took it upon themselves to ignite creative placemaking in their community.
They began hanging their works in vacant storefronts and abandoned buildings, including the property now home to Art Works Downtown, a local arts center that promotes art as a vital part of public life in San Rafael, Marin County and beyond. These artists would eventually spark a slew of studio openings and independent businesses, and today the Downtown San Rafael Arts District serves as the hub of local business and community life.
A San Francisco native, Elisabeth Setten is no stranger to the Bay Area housing climate. After earning her degree on the East Coast, Elisabeth returned to the City and began her search for a new home with her husband. When she found it impossible to purchase her own single family home, she purchased a fourplex property and began renting out and managing the empty units. As working artists, she and her husband quickly recognized property management as an opportunity to supplement their income.
When applying for the executive director role with Art Works Downtown several years later, Elisabeth was one of the few candidates with a strong background in real estate. With her experience as an artist managing properties to support her income, her pragmatic perspective aligned perfectly with Art Works Downtown’s programs to provide affordable studio, housing, and exhibit space for artists.
To strengthen the creative fabric of the San Rafael community, Art Works Downtown’s programs also provide business opportunities and professional support for artists and arts organizations. As executive director Elisabeth manages their affordable housing and commercial spaces, and the galleries and 1880’s Opera House that operate out of the building headquarters. Art Works Downtown features 28 working artist studios serving 32 artists, and hosts approximately 42 art exhibitions in its galleries annually. Art Works Downtown also hosts an Artist Membership Program serving hundreds of Bay Area artists.
Studio artists are encouraged to participate in the monthly Art Walk hosted by Art Works Downtown every second Friday of the month by opening their studios to the public. This monthly event engages the many local business who host art and music receptions in their spaces, enlivening Downtown San Rafael and bringing more than 10,000 people through its streets and businesses each year.
Elisabeth assisted with the application for the California Cultural District program in partnership with the City of San Rafael, a longstanding proponent of the arts and culture community. The City’s Economic and Development Department understood and supported the value of creative placemaking and its impact. Elisabeth now sits on the Downtown San Rafael Arts District (DSRAD) steering committee, a collective she advocated for in the interest of serving the arts and culture community from a holistic view rather than through the Art Works Downtown lens.
The Downtown San Rafael Arts District represents the many unique voices and diverse creatives in San Rafael. The DSRAD steering committee is supported by the City of San Rafael, the San Rafael Business Improvement District, and Arts Works Downtown; the California Film Institute – home to the Mill Valley Film Festival; the Falkirk Cultural Center; and Youth in Arts, providing visual and performing arts training for children and a gallery for young artists, among other organizations including the County of Marin. The Marin Cultural Center is also involved with the DSRAD steering committee to support their shared goal of enriching and advancing the arts and culture community for the County of Marin.
In the fall of 2018 the Downtown San Rafael Arts District launched an array of arts programming centered around the shared theme Latinx, inspired by national movements including Spanish Heritage month and National Arts Education Week, as well as the City’s 30th Anniversary of the Día de Los Muertos celebration in November. Attendees of all ages enjoyed a vast range of arts perspectives and voices from Latin America through exhibits, film screenings, family programs and more.
While they continue to plan and produce arts and culture programming and events, Elisabeth says one of the biggest benefits of the Cultural District designation is their newfound sense of community.
When asked to share her favorite piece of advice, Elisabeth shared, “There is strength in community. The best thing we’ve done here in San Rafael is come together collaboratively instead of trying to work independently. Listen to the different voices in your community, and take the time to truly represent those voices thoughtfully.”