San Diego artist and instructor Elissa Lieberman vividly remembers the last day she taught her teen painting art class in her beloved Sorrento Valley studio, a beloved niche art school.
“One Sunday evening in early March, during my figure drawing meet-up group, coronavirus was treated with some humor as we shared antibacterial wipes,” Lieberman said. “I didn’t realize it was going to be the last class before COVID-19 turned life upside down.”
Five months later, the San Diego Art Loft is officially closed. Lieberman said the closure came after a series of struggles that involved the April storms that flooded her space, the inability to qualify for any government assistance and the challenges that have risen with the controversial Assembly Bill 5, which limits the work independent contractors can do.
“After years of feeling I had accomplished so much in my career — being a professor, running a museum art school, and owning and operating my own art school, applying for unemployment and family assistance was humbling,” Lieberman said. “(But) reopening the business would require capital I simply don’t have.”
Before opening the San Diego Art Loft, Lieberman taught college level art classes, managed the Art School at the San Diego Museum of Art, and taught in many local art schools in addition to taking private clients and maintaining her own studio career. When she finally opened her dream studio, she taught up to 10 classes per week with four to eight students. She also mentored students preparing a college admissions portfolio.
“The space itself and the environment I created drew people from all walks of life and I was able to create a community of artists and art students,” Lieberman said.
When the stay-at-home order was announced, students encouraged her to teach classes via Zoom, but it proved to be a challenge. She did and still does have private students throughout the week.Then April came, and the rain flooded her business, Lieberman said.
“I would estimate my losses at at least $40,000,” she said. “The handful of private zoom students would not make up even a fraction of this.”
To help cover her losses, Lieberman said she considered applying for the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, but would only be eligible if the business was to continue. Unemployment insurance was slow to come as well. As of August, California’s Employment Development Department was backlogged with more than 1 million claims stalled in the system.
On top of all of this, Lieberman said she’s unable to work as a freelance artist elsewhere because of the restrictions related to AB 5.
“I am not sure California is working for people who must freelance teach and I will always need to teach,” she said. “California’s AB 5 law has made it illegal to be a contract art instructor meaning I cannot teach or reopen a school and hire teachers.”
Lieberman said she isn’t sure what’s next for her but will try to focus on mentoring other artists. But she’s hopeful for the future.
“Perhaps the Art Loft was not meant to continue,” she said. “If I leave San Diego, I have left behind a legacy. I will always root for San Diego to be a city for artists. I did my best to make that happen.”
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