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Sushi's demise a big loss for arts

No more Sushi? Say it isn’t so.

Not since the demise of the San Diego Jazz Festival in 1990 has the loss of a once-vital arts institution here been as painful as that of Sushi, which on June 17 abruptly announced its permanent closure.

A mecca for performance art since 1980, Sushi provided a unique and essential stage for mavericks who dared to repeatedly walk on the wild side. Actors, dancers, musicians, filmmakers, painters, poets and more — Sushi was a welcome multicultural oasis early on and a bastion for aesthetic adventure in the decades that followed.

Sushi Gallery, as it was first known, was originally located adjacent to the downtown library and post office. In an era when few ventured to San Diego’s then-moribund downtown at night, Sushi hosted a loyal cadre of creative seekers and endearing misfits, on stage and off. By doing so it fostered a multifaceted creative community in San Diego, offering a gathering place for free-thinking spirits to meet, exchange ideas and gain inspiration.

Like the jazz festival, which in its mid-1980s heyday presented year-round programing (and which, in 1983, rented Sushi to present a jazz-meets-poetry show that drew an SRO crowd), Sushi tirelessly nurtured and engaged a diverse, multi-generational audience. Without Sushi being in the right place at exactly the right time, that audience that might have never coalesced here, at least not under the same roof.

In its prime, Sushi featured innovators from near (such San Diego-bred or -based artists as Whoopi Goldberg, Diamanda Galas and Don Victor), far (Laurie Anderson, Karen Finley and Guillermo Gomez-Pena) and in between (Tim Miller, Culture Clash, et al).

More recently, in 2009 and 2010, Bonnie Wright’s Fresh Sound at Sushi concert series showcased such visionaries as Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and jazz-and-beyond sax great Oliver Lake. Early this year, perhaps sensing rough waters ahead at Sushi, Wright moved her Fresh Sound series to The Loft@UCSD.

It’s deeply dismaying that Sushi’s board of directors apparently made no public appeal for support or funds before closing Sushi so suddenly. For San Diegans craving creative nourishment from beyond the mainstream in a now-vibrant downtown setting, a no-Sushi diet is an unwelcome invitation to cultural anemia.

George Varga is the U-T’s pop music critic.

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