The Redstone Labor Temple building in San Francisco’s Mission District (photo by Robert Divers Herrick, courtesy the Lab)

The San Francisco art scene, once a sizzling hub for radical artists and independent galleries, is rapidly fading away as artists and noncommercial spaces are being priced out of the city. The Lab, an experimental art space in the city’s trendy Mission District, is now in danger of becoming the next culture organization to fall victim to San Francisco’s accelerated, tech-driven gentrification.

The Lab is fighting to keep hold of its space in the Redstone Labor Temple, a San Franciscan historical landmark eyed by real-estate developers with plans to repurpose the building as office spaces. To take matters into its own hands, the nonprofit has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the needed seed money to buy its part of the building, worth an estimated $2 million, before the sale closes on August 1.

The Lab’s fundraiser is a part of a larger capital campaign to purchase the entire building, which houses other nonprofits like Mojo Theatre and Wonder Dog Rescue. The Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), an anti-gentrification nonprofit that partners with socially aware real-estate developers to counter the negative implications of the tech boom has held a yearlong negotiation to buy the building from its current owner David Lucchesi. In May of this year, MEDA signed a $15 million contract with Lucchesi to purchase the Redstone Labor Temple by August 1 and maintain the property as “a center for social and economic justice and the arts,” the nonprofit told Hyperallergic.

But the future of this deal is uncertain. “Appraisals have indicated that there would be $7 million needed for rehabilitation, including a seismic retrofit,” MEDA told Hyperallergic in an email. “Therefore, MEDA is seeking by July 15 a commitment of $1 million from the City of San Francisco so that our investors can rest assured that our organization can make the numbers work.”

Protestors outside San Francisco’s City Hall demeaning funding for the Redstone Labor Temple Building. Photo by Shari Wilk (courtesy The Lab)

Last Thursday, June 20, a group of 100 San Franciscan activists and artists rallied outside City Hall demanding to “Save the Redstone Labor Temple.” The Lab told Hyperallergic in an email that Amy Beinart,
a legislative aide to Supervisor Hillary Ronen, the representative for District 8 in the city (which includes the Mission District), said that Supervisor Ronen put forward a resolution requesting city funding to help MEDA purchase the building. A discussion over the resolution is expected to be held at the beginning of July.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as multiple private developers have expressed high interest in the building. One of the competing developers, the San Francisco Weekly reported, is the co-working company WeWork, which was rumored to have made a $21 million offer for the building.

“We couldn’t pay as near as the amount of these major developers are offering,” the Lab’s director Dena Beard told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “We are asking the city to try to see the public interest in keeping [The Redstone Temple] in community hands,” Beard said. So far, the Lab has raised more than half of its campaign’s $50,000 goal. “There’s nowhere else for us to go in San Francisco, sadly,” Beard said.

The Lab has been a focal point of the Bay Area’s underground arts scene since it was founded in 1984. Throughout its history, the organization has hosted projects with known artists like with Jack Smith, Nan Goldin, David Wojnarowicz, Lydia Lunch, Mike Kelley, and a long list of others. The Lab has also invested in promoting artists from underrepresented communities. Each year, it hosts a number of artists in residence who receive access to facilities and stipends ranging between $25–100,000.

In 1994, the Lab moved to the Redstone Labor Temple in the highly-coveted Mission District. Built in 1914 by the San Francisco Labor Council, the building was the epicenter of many of the labor union strikes in San Francisco over the past century. Its union hall was the organizing space for the General Strike of 1934, home to the first women’s union, and a venue for underground art and theater.

“San Francisco was the originator of the alternative art scene boom in the ’60s and ’70s,” Beard said. “In the 1990s Mission, you would walk every half a block and [see] people performing or doing projects in an art space or a storefront gallery. It was never a huge commercial scene, but there was always a massive alternative nonprofit scene. Skip to now, and there’s absolutely nothing,” she said.

And things are only getting worse, according to Beard. “Of the 500 organizations that existed in San Francisco just five to eight years ago, there [are] less than 200 left,” she said. “Those who are left will probably be closed or evicted in the next two years if we don’t do something.”

“The Redstone is a symbol of the values San Franciscans hold dear, as the longtime tenants support the diversity of culture, arts and more that have long made our city unique,” MEDA wrote to Hyperallergic. “It will take a true community-wide effort from the City, investors and philanthropy to keep the Redstone’s tenants in place at affordable rents, thereby stopping their displacement not just from their building, but San Francisco itself.”

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...