By Kendra Sitton
For the last 13 years, Queen Bee’s Art and Cultural Center has been a staple for artistic programming in North Park. Since being founded by the Queen Bee herself, Alma Rodriguez, poetry slams, dance classes, music festivals and other community events have all been held in the charming building off Ohio Street.
Like many small businesses, and arts venues in particular, Queen Bee’s has struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic. Bar Pink in North Park and Martini’s in Hillcrest permanently closed before the end of 2020. Rodriguez hopes Queen Bee’s will find a way to survive.
“Financially it was not sustainable to maintain the place,” she said.
In August when the venue partially reopened, the only revenue came through private one-on-one classes.
Meanwhile, she slipped through the cracks of many major grants. Large venues for thousands of people received significant government relief while smaller venues did not. Queen Bee’s main room which has a dance floor for events can hold up to 250 people (not socially distanced).
In addition, each of the artists and event planners she worked with are independent and only rent out the building. As a sole proprietor, she did not qualify for many grants aimed at keeping staff employed.
In an effort to stay afloat, the venue has hosted dozens of virtual events, something that kept their audience engaged but Rodriguez said it did not result in enough income for the venue.
“We’ve gone through a lot of hard times financially. I spent pretty much all my money, my personal savings, to keep waiting and see if COVID will be over by December,” Rodriguez said.
She went through all of the equipment at the place and began selling unused items online as well as hosting weekly markets in order to pay the electricity, water, insurance and all the other expenses of running a business.
“With no income coming in, it was almost like pulling tricks out of the hat every single month. It was hard, but at the same time, it’s been very, very rewarding — the community came together and they’re helping me out,” Rodriguez said.
When the pandemic continued to rage into the new year, Rodriguez knew she needed to find a new way to stay open. She reached out to many of the artists and musicians she had worked with over the last decade to ask them to help fundraise so that the center could remain open.
The GoFundMe she created has raised over $26,000, the majority of which will go towards paying the rent.
The fundraising campaign was coupled with several events, including a jazz night on Feb. 10 that occurred outside with a small audience and was also streamed virtually. Featuring musicians such as Holly Hofmann, Gilbert Castellanos, Christopher Hollyday and Irving Flores, the Feb. 10 jazz night raised $5,000.
The concert was planned by Queen Bee’s new music director, Charlie Arbelaez. The in-person events brought in more revenue than those streamed virtually only. The arts and cultural center had to expand to sell dinner in order to comply with rules that let restaurants but not entertainment venues stay open. This was just one of the hurdles the venue faced in order to operate fully with the music.
Since he first became involved in Queen Bee’s in August 2020, Arbelaez has booked over a dozen concerts with some of the most prolific jazz musicians in San Diego and beyond.
“I’ve completed over 15 successful concerts, where I was able to have an income for the venue and employ dozens of musicians,” he said.
While the center’s musical footprint expanded under Arbelaez, it remains a place for all of the arts to converge in central San Diego.
“It’s not a restaurant or a bar. It’s an arts and cultural center and it houses all of the arts. You’ll find painters. You’ll find dancers. You’ll find musicians. You’ll find recording artists. You’ll find so many different artists that use different means of expression,” Arbelaez said.
Queen Bee’s plays a unique role in the community, something reflected in the many positive comments left on the GoFundMe campaign.
“I’m just very thankful that the community has responded tremendously about keeping Queen Bee’s open because without this, we don’t have much to look forward to because the arts [are] the food for the soul,” Rodriguez said.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.