New pilot program helps arts nonprofits find new homes

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Executive Director of CounterPULSE, Jessica Robinson Love, tours a group through the new home of the nonprofit.
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Just a few months ago arts nonprofits CounterPULSE and The Luggage Store were facing an uncertain future. New tech neighbors drove their rents sky high, and the groups that for years were venues for struggling artists were struggling themselves.

“Twitter moved in literally behind our building,” said Jessica Robinson Love, executive director of CounterPULSE. Lacking the deep pockets of a tech company, they readied for a move to Oakland. 

But now a nonprofit with money to match the tech gentrifiers is ready to spend, and its sole mission is to help displaced arts organizations find permanent homes. 

In a packed press conference just outside The Luggage Store on Market, the foundation-funded Community Arts Stabilization Trust announced Wednesday that it would purchase two properties for the longstanding Mid-Market nonprofits. Risky renters no longer, both nonprofits will soon own their own buildings, shielded from the ebbs and flows of rent surges. 

Flanked by Mayor Ed Lee and Sup. Jane Kim, CAST said The Luggage Store will stay on Market and 6th, and CounterPULSE will move five blocks away into an old porn theater on Turk Street. The two arts nonprofits have been in San Francisco since the early ‘90s, bringing up dancers and visual artists alike. 

“Yes, rents are rising because of our success,” Lee said to the crowd. “But this will be a city for the 100 percent.” 

The city gave just over $300,000 toward helping the nonprofits find a new home, a small fraction compared to the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which committed $5 million to CAST. The new nonprofit then bought the properties, a new strategy of pooling funds to save arts organizations. When and how the program would expand is still unclear, but there is a definite need among nonprofits for property stability.

“The bottom line is nonprofits can't compete on a commercial real estate market,” Love said, a topic we’ve covered before (Losing our conscience, Oct/15). Now they can breathe, but the reprieve is only temporary.

CounterPULSE needs to raise millions of dollars to pay CAST for the property, which it hopes to do before moving into the space in 2015, Love told us. The amount isn’t exact yet because it’s still applying for a number of grants that could mitigate the costs. 

The long wait before moving is due to the extensive repairs needed at the 80 Turk St. site. Formerly the Gayety theater and Dollhouse, the site was littered with broken glass and piles of trash. Construction crews have cleared a lot of it out, but the place is in disrepair, with cracked walls and silhouette paintings of nude performers gracing the glass above the entrance.

The Guardian took a tour of the site with Love, and she saw through the crumbling plaster to what could be.

JessicaRobinsonLove

Jessica Robinson Love looks out the window at the Tenderloin neighborhood from CounterPULSE's new venue. 

Spreading her arms wide in the old porn theater, she described the walls coming down to make space for dancers like CounterPULSE has never had before. They have only one room in their current building. 

Leading us downstairs, careful to point out loose wiring and jutting floorboards, she showed us where performers would practice. On the top floor the light shone in and it was a bit easier to imagine what she saw -- a space where visiting artists could stay for the duration of their exhibits.

“It’s magic,” she said. 

As she grinned wide, she looked out the window of the second floor to the milieu below. The neighborhood is on the edge of the Tenderloin, and outside was the usual crowd.

Would there be a place for them in this new space for artists? Or would they be displaced, like CounterPULSE was? 

They already have agreements with SROs to perform for tenants, and street art is a part of the package. They’re a progressive arts group, she said, “from food justice to prison reform, from housing advocacy to rental rights.” 

In her eyes, the arts are a way to bring together a community. She wants to give them a safe place to come out at night, and a reason to celebrate. 

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