Bell Arts Factory: City block of troubled Ventura Ave. in
Ventura now a shining light
Published:  August 22, 2014

Reduce, reuse and recycle is the mantra at the Bell Arts Factory of Ventura, those attending the August Good Morning Santa Paula learned from its president.

Jim Rice spoke at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting where the arts, and the art of bringing community together, was addressed by Rice and Ventura Avenue historian Moses Mora.

The vision of Bell Arts Factory “is to bring people together to celebrate art, education, and community. Through this vision, we will provide opportunities for individual creativity and community collaboration, and build a stronger, healthier Ventura. It’s more than art.”

And more than an art studio: the Factory covers an entire block on the Avenue, long thought of as a troubled area.

“Like Santa Paula we have a proud history,” said Rice.

While traveling to Santa Barbara Rice ran out of gas and found himself in Downtown Ventura: “I fell in love with Main Street first,” and stayed a week to explore.

He met Seana-Marie Sesma of Santa Paula, at that time the owner of a Ventura wine bar, and Rice said he decided to open a business.

“Yes, I decided to build a $4 million restaurant in the worst of economic times,” but when the business was not successful Rice became involved in area music festivals he met the Addison family, the owners of a massive building used as a mattress factory.

The family was willing to try something new with their property but an arts group that had formed to share the building - Rice was a board member - was facing “A tough time... and not defining what you are,” is counterproductive as it leads to confusion and, in turn, a lack of support.

Rice took over to start anew with a new board: “We had a job to do,” including creation of a “solid business plan for growth and sustainability... to show it was such a good and noble cause,” that there was value for others to invest in the concept.

The factory was cleaned, a business plan created and with a 40 percent vacancy rate Rice told the board “first thing” rents would be raised for future tenants.

“You have to create value, not give it away,” a strategy that almost doubled the vacancy rate.

“It’s now a sustainable operation... and we can go out and do good.” 

The nonprofit first only had Rice and Mora as employees who “Set upon a mission to get out of debt and run a good business,” that included calling upon friends in construction to help with renovations and other needs.

The building at 432 N. Ventura Ave. was even expanded to occupy a full city block with the purchase of a next door duplex.

More than 32 artists are working at the Bell Arts Factory, “an interesting place, a vibrant place. We became a community organization that does art,” not the other way around, in “The most neglected area of Ventura ... and we became a shining light.”

Bell Arts has never been vandalized, never broken into but rather is respected and looked upon as a “community center... people walk in my door all day long that want help or need help.”

Poor kids receive art and music lessons, traditional arts are created as well as nontraditional creations.

Rice said, “Our place is noisy, people running around,” a location where even gang, alcohol and drug intervention is available.

“It’s an interesting organization,” he noted, “we pretty well say yes to everything... “

Funded by the city and other supporters, programs continue to expand and now include a Kids Garden Brigade; soon the factory will have a market to sell produce.

“We open our hearts,” said Rice, “we open our doors... we believe collaboration is what we have to do to survive and we’ll partner with anybody that wants to do greater good.”

From an anti-bullying art show to a exhibit by and about Vietnam veterans, showing autism through works of those that are autistic or wheelchair bound, internationally recognized artists also display at the factory.

“Art, if done correctly, evokes emotion and emotion evokes action and action evokes change... we use art as a way to deliver a message,” and make Ventura Avenue - and hopefully the world - a better place.

Mora, a county native, said he is proud that the community of Santa Paula supports the arts including the Murals Project, “world class, to think that such a small community like this would do that is amazing... 

“We have a lot of be proud of,” and Mora said other cities have contacted the factory - a countywide venue - wanting to know how they can establish something similar.

Rice noted that four years ago when the city of Ventura discontinued the popular Art Walk “we took it up... part of our job is to drive people,” figuratively and literally, “from the downtown and we partner with the city and the Museum of Ventura County,” including on First Friday of the Month activities at the Factory.

“We do an open house, have music and a food truck, open all the galleries from 6 to 9 p.m., it’s a good family experience.

“One of the most rewarding things for me,” Rice added, “is First Friday.”

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