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CounterPulse Within Reach of Building Purchase in TL

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After 2 years of performance art venues getting kicked in the teeth, this story is a beam of light on a dark stage.

CounterPulse.  ”80 Turk St” Photo by Scott Fin (2019)

CounterPulse is on the verge of owning its own building in the Tenderloin, after nearly 7 years of raising funds, the arts non-profit has accumulated $5.5 million of the $7 million needed to pay off the building completely. and is poised to raise the final $1.5M this spring from the public.

CounterPulse has been hosting artists-driven shows and community gatherings for 30 years, they’re a piece of San Francisco’s theatrical and experimental art culture.

“Clarissa Dyas in Meet Us Quickly with your Mercy by Flyaway Productions” Photo by Austin Forbord (2021)

How has a small, experimental art theater managed not just to stay in San Francisco, but to renovate AND have the opportunity to own the theatre in perpetuity…after a pandemic?  It sounds like a fairytale, but it’s not.  It’s due to innovative ways of thinking around preserving the arts in San Francisco using public/private models.

A major contributing factor is the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) established in 2013, this brainy and practical non-profit focuses on buying spaces in the city and subsidizing the rent for artist-driven venues.  CAST bought the building at 80 Turk Street years ago, giving Counterpulse a runway to raise the funds needed to buy the theater from the non-profit, in an orderly and guided way.

“At a time when commercial rents were soaring and pockets of San Francisco were being transformed, CounterPulse was an ideal arts partner to pilot our first real estate projects,” reflected CAST CEO Moy Eng. “Our goal is to create permanent spaces for arts and culture to endure, so to see CounterPulse accomplish what they have these last seven years and reach this moment is thrilling.”

It’s a model for preserving small and medium-sized venues in a city and real estate market that would otherwise swallow them up.   San Francisco gives more money to the arts per capita than any other city in the US, and it’s a big reason why San Francisco’s #1 industry continues to be tourism.  It’s also other major cities are taking notice of San Francisco as a model for preserving cultural heritage.

If we let the silicon valley companies buy all the buildings in San Francisco, the whole city would look like a cheesy, Salesforce billboard.  We need our historical theater district, we need our independent art galleries, we need our non-corporate owned bars and restaurants, we need our public art and muralists, we need our museums and parks, because those are the things visitors come to see, and what makes San Francisco and beautiful and special place.

There are many examples. Back in 2015 the Arts Commission through a $2 million grant to the Northern California Community Loan Fund (NCCLF) and Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) was able to offer financial and technical assistance to arts non-profits facing eviction or rent increases. NCCLF and CAST have recently announced the grantees receiving direct financial assistance through this fund. They are: Boxcar Theatre, CounterPulse, Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, Inc. Root Division and Women’s Audio Mission. Organizations receiving technical assistance on their lease negotiations and/or affordable space searches include: Artists’ Television Access, ArtSeed, Aunt Lute, Cartoon Art Museum, Center for Sex and Culture, Dance Mission, Galeria de la Raza, Meridian Gallery, Presidio Performing Arts Center, SOMArts, Stagewrite, The Roxie, Theatre Flamenco, and World Arts West.

Counterpulse Director Julie Phelps at 80 Turk St. Photo by Grey Tartaglione (2022)

But the innovative CAST model only works if you’ve got a theater willing to fight to raise the required money and sell tickets too.  Enter Julie Phelps, now Artistic & Executive Director at CounterPulse.  I asked her if raising 7 million dollars in 7 years was a challenge, she replied that her operating costs are over a million dollars a year too, so “yes” it’s a challenge.

“It was a dream and we are so close to making it come true. Experimental, interdisciplinary arts need a permanent home in San Francisco,” said Julie Phelps, CounterPulse’s Artistic and Executive Director. “We are an example of how communities can benefit if the arts are equitably resourced in community development initiatives. We’re asking our community to rally behind us, support the arts in the Bay Area, and push us past the final threshold to buy our building.” 

”80 Turk St” Photo by Cesar Rubio (2017)

The campaign has raised nearly $1.2 million in the last six months thanks to lead funding from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, Lucy Milligan Wahl & Andrew Vaillancourt Wahl, and the CounterPulse Board of Directors, with additional support by the John & Marcia Goldman Foundation.

Here’s Phelps explaining: 

The theater still needs to raise 1.5 Million dollars before July in order to buy the building.  They’re hosting their annual Innerspace Art Party & Auction on Saturday, May 7, 2022 to help do that, and are currently asking for donations.

Phelps compared the theater’s current journey to Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh soaring over the ocean, initially back in 2016 there was a great deal of press and fanfare to get the theater project off the ground, but now the project is idling off the coast and needs help to come in for a landing…or else…

Dramatic metaphor?  Well, this is a theater we’re saving, so think about helping out!

Donate to Counterpulse here.

Curious as to how Counterpulse secured their space, check out this talk with Julie Phelps, Moy Eng, and Michelle Meow:


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