Presentation to the Municipal Arts Society of New York Summit 2013 – Creative Investing in Communities: Sustainable Strategies for Arts Development

Do No Harm.  This was the first piece of advice (or maybe it was a request?) I received upon arriving to the Tenderloin with the charge of doing arts-based community development five years ago.  The counselor in question was Richard Livingston, managing director of San Francisco’s venerable EXIT Theatre, which has been operating in the Tenderloin since 1983.  Over the years Richard has carefully and strategically positioned the EXIT for long-term sustainable growth and is one of the city’s smartest strategic thinkers in strategies for arts development, so I took his advice/request to heart.  Without Richard there wouldn’t be a home for Christina Augello, the EXIT’s founder and artistic director, to bring thousands of theater patrons to the Tenderloin year after year, all sustaining the arts and boosting the local arts-based economy.   Together Richard and Christina have created a sustainable model for arts development.

In addition to the considerable skills and talents of Richard & Christina, the EXIT capitalizes on one key advantage not available to most other San Francisco art organizations: their two facilities in two different buildings are on the ground floor of residential developments owned and operated by prominent affordable housing developers.   A savvy negotiator, Richard locked-in a below-market rental rate going out decades for the EXIT on Eddy Street.  Having demonstrated a successful operating track record there, Richard was approached by the nonprofit housing developer of a new complex around the corner on Taylor Street before they finalized their development program; they cut a deal where the developer built out the shell of a new street level black box theater as part of their new development; Richard took it from there and did all the internal build out. The EXIT on Taylor now leases this space to the widely acclaimed Cutting Ball Theater.

Lastly, Eddy and Taylor streets have been tough blocks for property owners to find ground-floor commercial tenants.  This puts art groups that can demonstrate operational capacity at a strategic advantage.  During my years of working with affordable housing developers, both for-profit and non-profit, I observed little if any advance planning around ground floor commercial spaces.   If the site makes sense, open a dialogue early to get in before final design/development decisions are made; a soundly managed community-oriented art organization could be just the ground floor solution many affordable housing developers are looking for.

New Facility Goals: The Efficacy of Predevelopment

There are situations where owning is preferable to renting.  The answer to this choice depends on many variables, a few of which include: timing; staff and board organizational capacity; strategic planning; site location; site control; coordination with your operating funding supporters; capacity to undertake a capital campaign and so on.

Credible predevelopment work is step one to any new art facility development effort.  The 950 Center for Arts & Education (Center) is a response to the huge and now especially urgent need for adequate and permanently affordable facilities for small and mid-size art and education groups.  The effort to build the Center began with a thorough analysis of several critical factors: site capacity; land use/zoning; financial modeling; organizational capacity; etc.

Where can funding support for these studies come from?  Let’s take a quick look at this City of San Francisco’s recent Request for Proposals:

RFP for Central Market/Tenderloin Economic Development and Arts Grants

P-590 (11-07) 5 of 24 September 25, 2013

C. Enhance the Creative Arts Community (in partnership with the SF Arts Commission)

Up to $175,000 is available for grants for predevelopment and construction activities for catalyst arts facilities under development in Central Market and the Tenderloin. These funds are a combination of OEWD funds and SF Arts Commission’s Creative Space funds and are subject to additional criteria.

Objective 1 – Predevelopment: Pre-planning for the development or acquisition of arts facilities. Funds may be used for overall plan development or specific components, such as: feasibility studies, design/architectural and engineering consultations, financial and management analysis, market analysis, site analysis, needs assessment, permits, capital campaign preparation, project management, etc. New developments aimed at providing shared arts programming space for multiple arts organizations may be considered if they can demonstrate stable, San Francisco-based arts community leadership, confirmed partners, and a fundraising plan. 

It’s all right here: design/architectural, engineering, financial and management analysis, market analysis, etc.  Assemble your team of the best consultants you can find.  Be transparent and clear with your funders on what you’re trying to achieve.  If you’re a third party developer – a community development corporation like the Tenderloin Economic Development Project – some funders will ask for demonstration of an agreement with the art groups and/or property owners before investing to support your studies.  These can take the form of Letters of Interest for the art groups and no cost options with property owners for a period of time they will take the property off the market to allow for your studies.

Beyond the technical there’s the human factor.  You will need one person who can shepherd the various spheres of resources and influence to get all parties on the same page: the end game is to build space that the organizations can sustain.  Sound operating support/earned revenue coupled with uncertain facility/site control and you have a problem.  Solving the facility/site control problem without ensuring the proper operating support/earned revenue program and you’ll have a different problem which will reveal itself sooner or later down the road.  The 950 Center for Arts & Education is now at a place where this all-important “rowing in the same direction” is being established so operating funders help vet what we’re going to build.

You’ll notice that this RFP is a result of a collaboration between the city’s arts commission and economic development department.  Herein lies another sustainable strategy solution: leverage resources for maximum impact.  Former NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman realized as much when he worked a deal for the National Endowment for the Arts to partner with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on various initiatives.  HUD’s budget, needless to say, dwarfs the NEA’s, and in the end the fate of what we aspire to do is determined by the availability of resources or lack thereof.

On the issue of resources, in San Francisco I’m known as an advocate (or agitator, depending on your point of reference) for equitable development policies from a city hall that is realizing enormous revenues (a good thing) from a real estate boom triggered by a rapidly growing tech sector (potentially a great thing, if we leverage the benefits beyond, say, new parking meters for our struggling neighborhood).   This advocacy will continue because the Tenderloin’s needs remain great and the essential capital funding for important projects is within the city’s ability to deliver, but it doesn’t negate the fact that 950 got its start through predevelopment funding provided by the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, San Francisco Grants for the Arts and most recently the San Francisco Arts Commission.   Most of mid-Market/Tenderloin art stabilization/capacity building efforts got an initial push-off from the collaboration between these economic development and arts departments. 

Shock Absorbing with Principal Truths

Leadership changes.  Political leaders come and go.  Staff and board members come and go.  Foundations change the paradigm.  Site control is secured; site control is lost.  The one benefactor who could single-handedly make it all happen just died and her kids have different philanthropic interests that don’t include your project.   Technology changes, and with it changes ideas on permanence of space and producing art; what does “placemaking” through the arts mean when we can produce and consume content anywhere with little portable devices?  These are all challenging and often unexpected seismic shifts that greatly impact sustainability considerations.  You will need to frequently remind all stakeholders (and yourself, sometimes) of the “Principal Truths” that matter enough to endure all of it.

Here is one “Principal Truth” in the Tenderloin.  These are the kids from the Vietnamese Youth Development Center (VYDC) outside of their storefront space on Eddy Street, right next to the EXIT Theater.  For many years these kids have had to deal with compromised facility and difficult street conditions involving rampant drug trafficking and alcohol use outside their front door.  The same can be said of the Tenderloin Boys & Girls Club on Jones and numerous other art and education organizations without adequate facilities for their programs.  950 Center was principally inspired by the motivation to build a space accessible to these groups where they will be able to interact and collaborate more effectively with their peers.  Four years later after many challenges this remains, for me, a “Principal Truth” of 950.

MAS Elvin Padilla VYDC

Here is a second “Principal Truth”: the critical need for Civic Placemaking.  Let’s take a look at where the Tenderloin is from this satellite photo:

satellite shot

The Tenderloin is a very low-income/extreme poverty community with a very extensive inventory of protected affordable housing surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in the country.  Over the past two years several of the biggest names in tech and related industries have moved in with thousands of new residential units for higher income households under construction.  Opinions vary on whether these new additions to the local landscape are positive or not; personally I think their arrival offers a fantastic opportunity to do inclusive, diverse city building.

The site of the 950 Center is smack in the middle of it all.  The Center, part of the exciting mixed-use development 950-974 Market, is at a supremely visible and accessible location where these very divergent worlds collide.   This is what makes it an especially important site to build bridges through the arts.   Indeed, placemaking through the arts is more vital than ever for the future of the Tenderloin & mid-Market.

Do places still matter in the digital age?  Here in New York City I remember as a kid taking the subway from arson-plagued East New York Brooklyn to Columbia University in Upper Manhattan.  I loved looking at the grand stairs leading up to the majestic library; I could feel and was inspired by the presence and power of it.   The same was true during visits to Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, home of the Brooklyn Central Library and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch.   The great libraries.  The farmers markets, art centers and other great civic meetings places.  Perhaps more than ever in the face of the atomization of civic engagement we need places that can build and hold together our civic fabric, places that can bring us together and inspire.

950 is in part an attempt to solve the problem of increasing social stratification, the gulf between peoples.  On this point it would appear that New York City and San Francisco have a great deal in common as both cities face one of the most pressing challenges of our time: the great but inequitable creation of wealth, otherwise known as the disappearance of our middle class.  In both cities the bridge building, placemaking power of the arts can offer one powerful solution, with the benefits realized by everyone.  As my friend Nan Keeton, Director of External Affairs at the San Francisco Symphony, insightfully observed, 950 is not just for the Tenderloin’s disadvantaged; all of San Francisco needs 950 and projects like it.

I think Nan is right. We should expand the question of sustainability to go beyond the arts; we must contextualize the arts as part of the urgent question of the sustainability of our cities for all of its citizenry.

Do No Harm, Revisited

We never finished addressing the advice/request of Do No Harm.  In the end, how do you discern what it means to Do No Harm?  When does it mean we mustn’t disturb the status quo?  When does it mean we must take action to not lose a truly rare and important opportunity?   Each community’s circumstance will differ.  Each organization, staff and board needs, capacities and visions will differ.  Our obligation to them as constituents we serve is to offer the best information possible in order for them to make responsible, informed decisions for their future.  Check your blind spots.  Incorporate regular sobriety check-points.  We have to balance, with one hand, the inspiration and passion that drive us to do this vitally important work with, on the other hand, an unsympathetic, calculating analysis of what is feasible and sustainable.

So, congratulations on your 5 year lease.  That said, 5 years is a blink of the eye.  If you have 5 years left on your lease without any plans on what happens after you are already in a very compromised position.   Think ten years out at a minimum.   Begin your sustainability planning now.  And remember your principal truths, you’re going to need them.