Vanishing Space

An update on the challenge facing San Francisco nonprofit arts organizations

Juan A. Domí­nguez

The so-called new economy, driven by an explosion in technological innovation and new communication tools, has especially affected California's San Francisco Bay Area, where web-based start-ups are overabundant and everything seems to be preceded by an "e". Perhaps because of their innovative nature, technology firms often locate offices in marginalized neighborhoods or abandoned industrial zones. At first this trend seemed to revitalize former nadirs of economic activity with new neighborhood restaurants, cafés, and other service-oriented businesses. Soon, however, it began to affect individual artists, who occupy “live/work” spaces in converted warehouses, garages, and other hitherto forgotten spaces remaining from the industrial era. Driven by a boom and interest in technology stocks, an infusion of investment dollars gave these “dot-coms” the ability to pay higher rents. With this, technology firms increasingly obtained and remodeled unused or long vacant buildings, later actually taking over space already in use and driving out the tenants — typically artists and arts nonprofits.

Complicating this trend in the city and county of San Francisco, an ordinance allows the conversion of older buildings or the construction of new ones in industrial areas for studios-with-living-quarters. These live/work spaces require no easements, parking, or open space. The ordinance was originally designed to benefit artists and to promote the conversion of unused spaces for their benefit. Renamed “lofts,” these spaces soon became popular among younger urban professionals. A broad interpretation of this ordinance has actually fueled a frenzy of new construction activity where live/work spaces are now built in empty parcels in industrial zones and sold at over-inflated prices to the work force created by the new economy. Because they are cheap and quick to retrofit or build, lofts can clog up a neighborhood faster than traditional buildings could.

Besides the impact on individual artists, this has also displaced small businesses (auto shops, garages, metal shops, even night clubs and other establishments that counted on being in areas unpopulated at night) as new upscale home owners complain about abutting activities and attendant noise. Lately, even well established businesses and organizations of every type (doctors' offices, social service nonprofits, retail stores, restaurants, light industry, etc.) are being displaced as landlords seek higher dollars by terminating existing leases and rental agreements in the hope of doubling or even tripling their earnings.

Within the compact city limits of San Francisco, nonprofits now find they cannot compete with this demand for space. This year several stable and healthy arts nonprofits have lost spaces long in use as office, class, rehearsal, even performance venues. The usual scenario involves a cultural organization being driven out by a landlord either selling to a multimedia business or terminating long established month-to-month rental arrangements. The blame has been directed mainly at the “dot-coms,” and, while they may have been the catalyst for the crisis, they are not always responsible. Some nonprofits report losing space as landlords take advantage of failings in timely rental payments. Some artist leaseholders have even opted for higher returns by turning cultural space over to commercial endeavors. In one case an arts nonprofit drove out several others when its need for a larger facility led it to acquire a building long used for a variety of performing arts activities.

This situation has escalated in the last few months, and funders and community members receive weekly reports of additional nonprofits about to lose long-held spaces. Understandably, the space crisis has led some to impassioned reactions, including picketing, protests, massive attendance at public meetings, circulation of petitions and ballot measures — even a sit-in reminiscent of the 1960s. Recently an intrepid visual artist hung a large cartoon-like painting over an overpass that crosses a major street leading to the city's Mission District, perhaps “ground zero” for much of this activity. The cartoon, which depicts a young white couple dining, includes the caption, “Dine the Mission, now with cleaner whiter tablecloths” — clearly a reference to the anger felt by some in the arts community that they are being displaced by a wealthier, less diverse crowd.

While some community members have reacted in an agitated manner, local grantmakers have been searching for answers to the crisis. To clearly grasp the impact of the space crisis, a group of Bay Area funders and arts leaders, with funding from the Hewlett Foundation, have commissioned a study to survey the current space needs of nonprofit cultural organizations in San Francisco. Experienced consultants were contracted and a survey instrument was developed and disseminated to arts nonprofits and individual artists — to any arts organization willing to be polled, in fact — about their existing situation and future plans. The study's focus is on the current crisis and how it is affecting each group/artist. The goal is to collect data from a wide variety of arts nonprofits from large multimillion-dollar groups and midsize companies to the smaller, often culturally-specific organizations (which, it is suspected, are most at risk.) The grantmakers hope the results of the study will not only shed light on the current status of arts organizations' space use and needs, but also suggest future strategies. Community interest in the study is significant. A public town meeting, held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in May 2000 to explain the study and invite participation, was expected to attract fifty to sixty people and instead attracted over 200 artists, grantmakers, representatives from local government, nonprofit arts managers, community organizers, and the media. A final report is expected in September.

In a related effort, an online survey is being conducted by CompassPoint (formerly the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, a training, consulting, and research center). Funded by the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, Goldman Foundation, San Francisco Foundation, Charles Schwab Corporate Foundation, San Francisco Partnership, city agencies, and the United Way, the survey strives to identify the needs of local nonprofit organizations, develop an online data base, formulate a strategy, and develop new facilities for San Francisco-based nonprofits groups.

Other grantmakers are also seeking alternative properties that could be easily converted to nonprofit use by cooperating arts organizations. Included in these efforts is an attempt to identify city-owned or controlled property that might be appropriate for conversion to nonprofit use or, alternatively, to identify and set aside “blighted” districts with special regulations where preference in space allocation would be given to nonprofit arts organizations. While no solutions to the current crisis are yet in sight, this cooperation among grantmakers and arts leaders has engendered a new dialogue among groups not typically given to collaboration or even communication.

Already relationships have been forged among seemingly disparate arts groups. In one case, a theater/presenting organization went to great lengths several years ago to purchase its own building. As various long-term leases in its newly acquired facility expire, the organization now finds itself with extra space. The group, which has a reputation for nurturing and developing top-quality performance and theater works, has offered a displaced dance company a permanent home in one of its newly available spaces. Elsewhere, a multi-arts performance venue has offered to share its considerable theater and studio facility with yet another displaced dance organization; the two groups have begun the intricate negotiations to accomplish this. In one of the most exciting developments in this dialogue, an energetic and independent artist-run multi-arts center in the Mission District has held a “Space Summit” involving hundreds of artists, community activists, and arts groups and is exploring acquiring new space with a coalition of organizations.

To conclude, although highly developed, the Bay Area's nonprofit arts scene remains fragile. Traditionally it has relied on inexpensive housing and discounted labor. With the loss of one of these, the nonprofit model is wobbling. Although a solution to the serious space challenge facing San Francisco Bay Area arts organizations is elusive, grantmakers, in conjunction with others, have taken active steps to study the interrelated problems and begin to identify solutions.

Juan A. Domí­nguez is program manager, Grants for the Arts, San Francisco.