San Francisco Is Losing Its Artists

Dancer blocking the Google bus on April 1, 2014. (screenshot via YouTube)
Dancers blocking the Google bus on April 1, 2014. (screenshot via YouTube)

SAN FRANCISCO — One of this city’s most-discussed recent performances took place on the morning of April 1, 2014. A group of dancers, clad in acrobatic costumes, blocked a Google bus at the corner of 24th and Valencia Streets in the Mission District.

They passed out fake bus passes. (The shuttle buses, which ferry tech workers to their cushy campuses, are resented by many locals because they stop at public transit stops but don’t serve the larger public). They formed human pyramids, shouted slogans, and tossed around exercise balls printed with parodic Google logos. They stopped the bus from moving until the police came to break up the action.

As time goes on, the nature of this action — and others like it, undertaken by several dozen housing and inequality activists from the anti-gentrification group Heart of the City — has taken on an emblematic status for artists in San Francisco during the second wave of the technology boom. Art and performance have been pushed outside, because there’s no indoor space left for these activities.

The Redlick Building, former home of Studio 17 (photo by Robert Donald)
The Redlick Building, former home of Studio 17 (photo by Robert Donald)

Here’s an example. “A couple of years ago, there was a hub of 70 artists in a single building, the Redlick, at 17th and Mission Streets,” said Truong Tran. Until this summer, Tran, a 46-year-old sculptor, was one of those artists — part of a loose group called Studio 17. They held leases on 20,000 square feet of space on the fourth floor.

In 2013, the Redlick building was sold to a new owner, and despite what they described as repeated attempts, the Studio 17 artists were unable to renew their leases this year. They mounted a formidable campaign that drew in much of the neighborhood’s community, but they were unsuccessful. Most of them moved out on June 30.

“Now we’re all scattered to the four winds,” Tran said. “What’s being proposed for that fourth-floor area is that it be turned into a space for a single business.” In San Francisco, it goes without saying that the desired business will have something to do with tech.

Having lobbied the city’s planning commission, the Studio 17 artists still hold out hope that they can come to a solution with the building’s owner. But their story has become a common experience in this city, usually with a sad ending.

Artist Adam Barry and other members of Studio 17 at San Francisco City Hall (photo by Dan Lichtenberg, Slow Clap Productions) (click to enlarge)
Artist Adam Barry and other members of Studio 17 at San Francisco City Hall (photo by Dan Lichtenberg, Slow Clap Productions)

“Within this year we’ve heard from 200 artists who have been displaced from either their studio or their home,” said Kate Patterson, director of communications for the San Francisco Arts Commission.

While it’s hard to know exactly how many artists have left San Francisco in the last several years, there’s a consensus that the city is facing an emergency. In September, the arts commission released the results of its first “artist eviction survey.” Of nearly 600 local artists, 70% had been or were being displaced from their studio space, their home, or both.

“There was a big grassroots effort around the city budget this year from San Francisco’s arts institutions, to get more funding and means of support for artists,” Patterson said. “The mayor increased our budget by 50%, so that we can offer larger grants. We’re in discussions with the planning commission about zoning issues that encourage artist spaces. All of this is inseparable from the affordability challenges we’re facing.” [Editor’s note: Patterson has since told Hyperallergic that her statement was incorrect; the arts commission received a 50% increase for the Cultural Equity Endowment, not its overall budget.]

Patterson makes an important point: the spike in artist evictions is part of a larger crisis within the Bay Area.

Rents in San Francisco have skyrocketed by an estimated 60% over the past four years, according to Kate Hartley, deputy director of the mayor’s office of housing and community development.

The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco was about $3,500 in June 2015. Small wonder that so many San Franciscans have moved to Oakland and other East Bay cities, and that the trend is expected to become a stampede in the years to come.

Like London and Manhattan, San Francisco has increasingly become a city for the very wealthy and those who commute in to serve them.

Elaine Badgley Arnoux (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)
Elaine Badgley Arnoux (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

This has led to a lot of hand-wringing. San Francisco is a small city that still fantasizes about being counterculture, and dreams die hard. Even the most established artists have been affected by the current boom.

Elaine Badgley Arnoux, an 88-year-old painter who’s done portraits for eight San Francisco mayors, was recently evicted from her studio in the South of Market neighborhood. She’d been painting there for decades.

“I was a bit broken down by it, I have to say,” Arnoux said. Despite her formidable connections, she couldn’t find a new space in the neighborhood.

“I drive by the old building sometimes, just to see if anyone new has moved in,” she said with a sigh. “But it’s still vacant while they work their real estate magic.”

Arnoux was one of the lucky ones — through the network of people she knows, she was eventually able to find a new, albeit smaller, space in a different neighborhood. Like that of Studio 17, Arnoux’s story shows how San Francisco’s biggest source of resistance to the loss of studio space has been the community that surrounds, and adores, artists. And while heart-warming, it’s not a permanent solution.

The good news is that there’s also been a growth in institutional resistance. The Community Arts Stabilization Trust is a 13-month-old organization — “we’re a start-up,” said 21-year-old marketing and communications manager Kai Kāne Aoki Izu — with a very specific mission.

“We create permanent homes for art spaces in San Francisco,” Aoki Izu said. “We go into the real estate market, figure out the tax credits and the developmental fees, talk to the contractors and the subcontractors. And we see our work as being very critical to what makes San Francisco unique.”

Using $5 million in seed money from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the trust got its start by buying the Market Street building that houses the Luggage Store Gallery, a 28-year-old multidisciplinary arts programming organization, and a former adult theater in the Tenderloin to house CounterPulse, a much-loved theater group in the South of Market neighborhood.

“Arts and local nonprofits don’t necessarily have the means or the technical knowledge to approach the kinds of complicated real estate transactions that can make spaces more affordable,” Aoki Izu said. “Our board got together and said, this new tech wave that’s coming isn’t going to leave space for artists to continue their work here unless we do the work that’s not fun.”

The trust is going to stay busy.

Save @precitaeyes #keepoureyesopen #noevictions #missiondistrict

A photo posted by Rafael Moreno (@rafa1415) on

In mid-August, landlords placed a “FOR SALE” sign on the exterior of the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center in Precita Park. The building has been the center’s home for the past 35 years. Although the mural arts nonprofit owns one of its buildings, on 24th Street in the Mission, it rents the ground floor of the Precita Park building and uses it for youth art studio space.

“We don’t have any room to expand anywhere else,” said founding director Susan Cervantes.

Precita Eyes has been a crucial part of San Francisco’s arts community for decades, and the neighborhood rallied immediately upon hearing that they were facing “uncertainty.” On the same afternoon that the listing agent was scheduled to hold an open house at the building, the center held a free arts class for children. While the kids painted, their parents — and the center’s neighbors — taped up signs of their own. “This is a community space! Do not buy this building!”

The Mission Economic Development Agency, a community economic development corporation, is planning to bid on the property. If they win, both Precita Eyes and the tenants who live upstairs would be able to stay.

But that’s if they win.

If not, Cervantes said, the center will have to do “more work in the field” — outside, just like the performers who blocked the Google bus. A performance that looked like a lark is starting to look more and more like prophecy.

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