Expansion and excitement lie ahead for the Downtown San Rafael Arts District

Amanda Lennon
Jun 19 · 3 min read
A banner inspired by an Isabel Allende quote, created by Youth in Arts students in San Rafael.

Nestled perfectly between wine country and the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll find San Rafael. The city is the largest in Marin County, with a population of 57,000. With a dynamic history of public art and creative placemaking, the city’s downtown area has long been home to a wide variety of arts-related organizations and businesses, transforming the area into a vibrant hub of creativity and inspiration.

Building on an already-vibrant local cultural legacy, San Rafael’s California Cultural District designation was initiated by five anchor partners: Art Works Downtown, the California Film Institute, Youth in Arts, the City of San Rafael, and the Downtown San Rafael Business Improvement District. The partnership marked the first step in creating a structure geared toward ensuring a synthesis of planning and facilitation efforts across the city’s cultural sector.

The Downtown San Rafael Arts District officially launched in October 2018 with a vibrant array of arts programming inspired by the district’s desire to honor the San Rafael Latinx community, also linked to National Arts in Education Week and the city’s own 30th anniversary of its Dia de los Muertos celebration. The District worked in collaboration with Marinarts.org, a website dedicated to listing arts events in Marin County, in order to support their Artes Latinx page for bilingual engagement. These events and initiatives included volunteer assistance from San Rafael’s Canal Alliance, a non-profit immigration resource organization. The Canal Alliance also provided exhibitions and artwork to further the program’s reach and impact.

Fortuitously for San Rafael, the Cultural District designation has aligned with the arrival of the new SMART transit system to Marin County. The new train line runs south from Santa Rosa and Sonoma County to the heart of Marin, then terminates at the major transit center in San Rafael. The route brings both commuters and day-trippers to San Rafael, giving the Arts District the chance to showcase the city’s vibrant cultural scene to a wider audience. Future plans for the SMART train include an extension to the Larkspur Landing Ferry Terminal, opening up easy transit from San Francisco, and more opportunity to increase the reach and accessibility of all the district has to offer.

The future of the Downtown San Rafael Arts District is bright! The Cultural District designation has spurred new creative placemaking projects throughout our district. Our San Rafael Leadership Institute is working on a painted utility box initiative to liven up our sidewalks, the City of San Rafael is planning a large public art piece for our C Street Parking Garage, and the creation of a public sculpture is planned for our new Fire and Police Station. Additionally, arts education non-profit Youth in Arts opened a free community Art Lab in their downtown San Rafael art gallery in April, offering a welcoming space for youth to create.

The vitality of San Rafael also drives numerous events every year, including Italian Street Painting, a beloved performance art event returning to downtown in 2020 where city streets become the canvas for Madonnari (street painters); the star-studded Mill Valley Film Festival; and our beloved monthly Second Friday Art Walk, which links venues along downtown’s Fourth Street, anchored by Art Works Downtown’s tenant businesses, four galleries, and 27 artist studios.

With so many unique organizations, initiatives, and events in such a concentrated space, the possibilities for continued future partnerships are exciting, and seemingly endless. The district’s beginnings have bolstered the community’s passion for the area now proudly known as the Downtown San Rafael Cultural District.


Amanda Lennon is the Program Manager for the Downtown San Rafael Arts District. To learn more about this district and the California Cultural District program, visit www.caculturaldistricts.org.

California Arts Council

Advancing California through the arts and creativity.

Amanda Lennon

Written by

California Arts Council

Advancing California through the arts and creativity.

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