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by Frank Ladra
The slowly evolving and potentially declining state of San Francisco’s art community is hardly a new topic of discussion around the water cooler these days. As elevated real estate costs continue to drive gallery curators out of the city, some artists have risen to the challenge, drawing upon creativity and survival instincts in an effort to outlive the trending tech revolution.
Nestled in the Mission District, Project Artaud Corporation is a living and working space in a three-story structure that once served as a tooling factory for the American Can Company beginning in 1925. In 1971, a group of artists moved into the then vacant building and named it after French theater artist Antonin Artaud. Since attaining legal ownership of the property in 1989, the members of Artaud have developed an internal governing body that maintains and supports the space as an artist-only community.
“The idea is to keep [the residences] accessible to artists of some type,” said Jane McElhiney, whose husband, Bill McElhiney was within the first artists to inhabit the space in the 70s. “Whether it is performance, music, visual arts—the entire gamut—we’ve got it all, not just painters.”
According to McElhiney, as people moved in throughout the years, the space mutated—walls were added or removed to create individual spaces, forming six unique wings and leaving each space completely different than the others. Each living area is owned by the occupant, and if he or she decides to move, the remaining residents of that wing determine through an intense application process who is offered the space next.
“We try to keep [the process] as open and fair as we can,” said McElhiney, who admitted the collective has turned over only two residences in the past 10 years.
“People don’t give up their spaces very often because you can’t get anything for this price anymore,” said McElhiney, who reported the median age of the more than 70 Artaud residents around their late 40s or early 50s.
McElhiney said she has encountered several neighbors who are fearful of forced eviction because they cannot afford increasing rents. She is somewhat optimistic that local legislation will somehow find a way to rescue the city’s artists.
“Eventually the tide will turn and people will get bored with being here because that’s the way people are,” said McElhiney. “Then there will be places for artists again.”
In the interim, many San Francisco artists have joined in the mass migration to the East Bay, where until recent years, property values were significantly lower than those of the city. Galleries and studios began popping up in unexpected neighborhoods, and community organizers took notice of a new art movement.
Aggregate Space Gallery is a 3,000-square-foot space in West Oakland that was built piece-by-piece by artist duo Conrad Meyers II and S.D. Willis after they struggled for six months to find a workable space to continue creating art in San Francisco.
What they found instead was a changing cityscape, where suburban families were now inhabiting refurbished commercial spaces in urban neighborhoods and becoming increasingly perturbed at the sound of tools echoing through shared walls. Even realtors cringed when the prospects of noisy art installation and assembly were proposed, despite well-crafted, preventative construction planning.
In 2008, when many nonprofits were failing and the economy was struggling to stay afloat, Meyers and Willis were graduating from San Francisco Art Institute, where the bustling diverse program left them unprepared for the reality of silence a career in art was offering.
Through hard work and dedication to their passion for art, they began to form networking connections with other local artists and collectives, like community arts and education organization Root Division.
“As graduates, we tried to get solo shows and break into some unknown art scene that we thought existed, but there was nothing there,” said Meyers. “Root Division sustained our art careers and our social networking in the visual art world when we didn’t see any opportunities beyond that.”
What most inspired the duo about Root Division was the ability to build a community in a space by introducing a bunch of strangers with different skills and personalities, but one common drive—to create art.
“Everybody has a story about how they managed to make it here as an artist,” said Meyers. “Most artists that stay successful in the Bay Area are extremely independent and are very good at many things; they have a lot of expertise.”
Meyers and Willis have drawn on that principle of expertise in forming networks in the Bay Area. Starting as a giant, empty warehouse, Aggregate Space has been transformed slowly over many construction projects that have been executed mostly through a negotiated form of trade with other skilled artists and contractors.
“[To imply] bartering insinuates some sort of formal agreement, yet these trades were informal, usually involving people with whom we’ve established a close relationship,” said Willis. “Understanding their skill set, each party has demonstrated what they can do.”
This type of partnership is also gaining a lot of support from other local groups who see the necessity for a more informal community dependent more on support than financial gain. With art preservation as their main focus, Oakland Art Murmur uses public programming and community outreach to increase awareness and participation in Oakland’s budding art establishment.
“Art is something important for an urban environment and it is difficult for artists that don’t have backing to make that happen,” said Meyers. “Art Murmur is an institution built from a desire for artists to work together for the greater community.”
From July 4 until August 9, Root Division, in collaboration with Aggregate Space and Adobe Books Backroom Gallery, featured a multi venue exhibition called Survival Adaptations, which explored responses to the current economic climate of the Bay Area.
Aimed at showing how artistic communities and individuals adapt and survive in the changing environment, Survival Adaptations compared the instinctual migration and survival techniques to animalistic nature, dictating that “in order to survive and thrive in specific environments, animal species have developed a host of amazing characteristics that help them find food, protect themselves, [and] cope with tough environments.”
The show was designed to engage discussion around current hot buttons like housing relocation, gentrification, and the “beauty and infrastructure that ties San Francisco and Oakland together,” according to the gallery’s promotional release. Gallery attendees were asked what the economically driven relocation of cultural administrators, institutions, artists, and residents of racial, economic, and age diversity means for the future of San Francisco.
“It’s good to have an event to round out the conversation and change what happens in the art scene,” said Willis. “We want to change change the conversations from “What are we going to do?” to “This is what we are doing now.”