New hope for arts nonprofits


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

"Twitter moved in literally behind our building," said Jessica Robinson Love, executive director of CounterPULSE. Faced with higher rents, they started preparing for a move to Oakland.

But now a nonprofit with resources to match tech is on a mission to help displaced arts organizations find permanent homes.

In a packed press conference just outside The Luggage Store on Market Street, 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 Sixth streets, while 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 1990s.

"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 contributed just over $300,000 toward helping the nonprofits find a new home, a small fraction compared to the $5 million committed by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. The new nonprofit then bought the properties, a new strategy of pooling funds to save arts organizations.

"The bottom line is, nonprofits can't compete on a commercial real estate market," Love said. While the move bought them some breathing room, the reprieve is temporary.

CounterPULSE must 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 need for renovation at the Turk Street site. Formerly the Gayety theater and Dollhouse, the site was littered with broken glass and piles of trash and remains in disrepair.

The Guardian took a tour of the site with Love, and she saw through the crumbling plaster to what could be. Leading us downstairs, she showed us where performers would practice. On the top floor, she envisioned a space where visiting artists could stay for the duration of their exhibits. "It's magic," she said.

CounterPULSE already has agreements with SROs to perform for tenants, and street art is a part of the package, too. They're a progressive arts group, she said, "from food justice to prison reform, from housing advocacy to rental rights." She views the arts as a way to bring together community, by giving them a safe place to be at night, and a reason to celebrate.