Interview w/ Community Arts Stabilization Trust Director Moy Eng
These are troubled times for artists in the big city. Following the fire at the Ghostship artist collective in Oakland which claimed the lives of 36 people, a community is reeling, people are scrambling to help, grieve and search for answers.
This awful accident has brought national attention to the lack of affordable and safe housing in our cities. On one hand no one can bear to let another fire like this happen and take the lives of more of our citizens, on the other hand, evicting starving artists from unpermitted work and living spaces will only cause more pain and distress in our communities. Displacement is not the answer, and landlords have begun evictions already.
With these thoughts in mind, I spoke with a woman who is an expert on preserving safe, legal, and permanent spaces for artists. She is the Executive Director of San Francisco-based Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST). A nonprofit that preserved SF Luggage Store Gallery and got the creative incubator known as CounterPulse, a permanent spot.
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CAST along with NCCLF are the organizations responsible for organizing the 1.7 Million dollars of arts funding that the Mayor of Oakland announced this week through Philanthropic funding from the Kenneth Rainin and Hewlett Foundations. The fund is called Keeping Space – Oakland and it is dedicated to technical and financial assistance for Oakland arts and culture organizations that are facing displacement. Keeping Space will offer grants up to $75,000 to help at-risk organizations acquire real estate to serve as permanent art spaces. This grant money is for organizations that are incorporated or who a fiscally sponsored project of a tax-exempt corporation.
If you are independent, or simply part of an unofficial collective you are much more alone. This is part of what I wanted to talk about with CAST. About finding solutions for the artists community out there who may have no organization to turn to. Who live in unsafe or unpermitted conditions not because they want to skirt the law, but because the housing crisis and cost of living has forced their hand.
Oakland officials, landlords & the arts community have work to do to resolve this crisis.
Interview with Moy Eng, Exec Dir of CAST
BAS: In light of recent events, namely the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, many artists are afraid. Afraid that the collectives they live in aren’t safe, but also, and maybe more so, afraid that the city is going to send out their goons to evict them. (A perfect example of this is the closure of well known artists collective in Baltimore)
Moy Eng: This was a horrific fire, The victims of the tragedy and the community at large are still grieving and dealing with the enormous impacts of it. I can’t imagine what the families are going through or the first responders, who had to go in there and do their grim jobs. We need time to grieve. There is also understandable fervor and fury, calling for the city of Oakland to act to enforce codes and improve the safety of live/work arts spaces, and that may of course lead to more displacement of artists. We have to buy time to figure out a thoughtful path forward, and solutions that take into account safety, affordability and the creative communities’ needs.
B.A.S: So much of the funding is going to property for galleries and for work spaces which is great, but what about housing for artists themselves? What is being done make sure artists can actually live in the bay area?
M.E.: That’s a great question, which is salient in this situation, the question of housing has never been far from the conversation inside CAST, you need artists who live and work in the city. Where we are all at now is a catalytic moment, because of the horrific tragedy. It brings up the needs of artists, and this may be a moment to bring together the private and public sectors to address safe, affordable housing for artists specifically.
I’m starting to hear about landlords who are serving eviction notices in warehouses, which would make a tragic situation even worse – our friends and colleagues becoming homeless without clear possibilities of finding long term, affordable, housing.
So how do we begin this process, what are examples of concrete steps to take to bring real, long term housing to creatives?
It might be helpful to bring together city officials, non-profits and artists in a coordinated forum to find a path for live/work places that are up to code or can be brought up to code. That’s the fire department, planning and building agencies, cultural policy experts, and artists and arts organizations, as well as the building and real estate community. And last but not least, the philanthropic community, Together we can raise the level of safety and foster what we need: safe, affordable spaces to maintain cultural soul of Oakland.
This will be private money that artists rely on, philanthropic orgs who foot the bill, and not public money?
I hope it will be both. I hope we have a moment to take a coordinated response to elevate the need for safety, urban planning and fire safety in a way that is more nuanced, so that it truly supports the creative community.
What about the idea of sending in safety inspectors to help artists collectives without fear of retribution? Just like how we want ‘illegal aliens’ to feel safe calling the police without fear of being deported, can we have a constructive way to help artists be safe without throwing them on the street?
If you send in a city official, they may have to close an unsafe building simply as part of their jobs. Maybe there could an amnesty period of time, where artist tenants and landlords can get rezoned or brought up to date on code requirements without punishment.
But, as of today, the city of Oakland hasn’t sent out an enforcement team (in oak & sf) so that tells us something, it signals to me/us they are thinking about the right steps forward before just acting hastily.
We, like you, are concerned about artist safety. While we cannot bear another tragedy like Ghost Ship in Oakland, we also hate the idea of more artists being displaced if there are wide government crackdowns in artists collectives and the underground scene. Forcing more artists on to the streets and out of the bay is not the answer.
I agree with you, we have to take a breath, grieve, and do some thoughtful thinking about the way forward. The answer is in creating and preserving long term, permanent, affordable real estate for arts organizations and artists. I am a pragmatic optimist; I believe we can find thoughtful ways to preserve our creative community going forward.
Why is art important to the bay area?
Arts and culture are at the heart of any city or community, . and is distinctive to each city. And, this distinctive arts and culture component is what attracts people to live and work in a particular city or community and what inspires them.
CAST is a non-profit that helps to buy buildings for arts organizations thereby preserving places for arts organizations to exist correct?
I heard some big, evil, developer was going to buy up the building that the Luggage Store Gallery was in, and CAST swooped in and saved the day, care to comment?
(laughs) What CAST did was purchase the building at 1006 Market St. in which Luggage Store Gallery is housed, using funds provided by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. We also purchased the new building at 80 Turk Street, which now houses CounterPulse at the same time. What we do is bring together proven models and strategies in creating affordable space from other sectors and use them to preserve space for creative organizations. In a sense, we are trying to break the intractible cycle of displacement that occurs when real estate prices go way up.
So how does that work for the Luggage Store? Do they own the building now? ( a legendary sf space for art in the heart of san Francisco)
What we did was purchase the entire building. We then worked with Luggage Store Gallery in renovating its building; provided a below market rate lease and 7 years to raise the money it would cost for Luggage Store Gallery to buy the building themselves. It enables CAST to take a building off the market, freeze the price, and give time for arts organizations like Luggage Store a chance to acquire a permanent home.