Art Works Downtown was established in 1996, but in a sense, our history begins with the closing of many downtown retail businesses in the early 1990s.
Our founder Phyllis Thelen was the chair of San Rafael's Cultural Affairs Commission at that time, and convinced the City to let her put artwork in vacant storefronts to make Fourth Street look more inviting. As she explored the various buildings, one in particular sparked her imagination.
1325–1337 Fourth Street was built in 1878 as Gordon’s Opera House. By 1996 this historic building had been in decline for generations. Seeing its potential as a future art center, Thelen and several friends pooled $60,000 to lease part of the structure. At the same time, they founded Art Works Downtown (AWD) as a nonprofit organization. The five original Founders of Art Works Downtown were Joanne Dunn, Joanne Greene, Barbara Stewart, Mary Pat Fuchs, and Max and Phyllis Thelen.
The group first remodeled and rented out 13 studios, and eventually established a storefront gallery. Initially known as the Downtown Art Center, the organization expanded as adjoining space became available. When the entire building went up for sale in 1999, under the leadership of board member Max Thelen Jr., AWD struck an innovative bargain with the City of San Rafael and the Marin Community Foundation. MCF would make both an initial contribution and a long-term loan, and the City would provide substantial redevelopment credits. In return, AWD agreed to rent the building's 17 apartments at affordable rates to low-income tenants. After the Board raised over $200,000 in three months and received a favorable lease through Bank of Marin, AWD's future was secured.
The project has been successful all around. The apartments provide much-needed housing in an area that has become largely unaffordable; the studios are filled with more than 27 working artists; the center now hosts four exhibition galleries; and the storefronts are leased to arts-minded businesses. Thelen’s vision for connecting artists and the community has become a thriving reality.
Decades later, AWD anchors a growing arts district in San Rafael, and has played a key role in the revitalization of Fourth Street. Moreover, the organization's uniquely comprehensive approach—providing not just studio space, galleries, and education, but a complete artistic environment—offers hope for other communities.
As many urban nonprofits cope with dramatic rent increases, and towns struggle to promote a sense of community and cultural life in their downtown cores, the success of AWD offers an inspiration and a practical model to others. Phyllis Thelen's vision has already expanded beyond an old opera house. It still has much more room to grow.
For more information on the History of Art Works Downtown...
Click links below to download past press articles about Art Works Downtown and our people:
- Art Group Buys Building
- Art Works Downtown: Old Hands, New Works (Marin Magazine)
- Marin's Patron of the Arts
- Public Art in San Rafael
- San Rafael Makes Space for Its Artists
- SR Newsletter: Public Art featuring Mark Grieve
- Volunteer in Arts Honored