Construction is set to begin this summer on a Dogpatch arts hub that will give gallery owners, the latest casualties of San Francisco’s booming real estate market, a bulwark against skyrocketing rents. Dubbed “Minnesota Street Project,” a warehouse at 1275 Minnesota Street is being converted into affordable space for 10 permanent galleries, a large, open atrium for rotating exhibitions, classrooms for an arts nonprofit and ground floor retail.
Jensen Architects is redesigning the 35,000 square foot warehouse—most recently used as a furniture repair shop—into a contemporary art space. Potrero Hill already bears the architect’s imprint; Jensen designed the California College of the Art’s Graduate Center, an aluminum scrim and corrugated steel façade that’s intended to blend with the area’s industrial flavor.
Eleanor Harwood is one of a handful of gallery owners who’ve signed onto the project. “It’s a smart move in the sense that things are moving there and decentralizing,” she said. Harwood curated Adobe Books’ backroom gallery for several years before opening her own space at 25th and Alabama streets in 2006. “We’d love to stay in the Mission, but there just aren’t buildings like that in this area,” she said. Harwood isn’t being pushed out. Rather, she’s drawn to the benefits of a “readymade” community taking root at Minnesota Street. “Sharing resources and gallery space with other arts organizations creates an economy of scale that makes it cheaper for everyone,” she explained.
The project’s success hinges not just on the largesse of its philanthropic co-founders, Andy and Deborah Rappaport, but on a flexible business model in which galleries rent small permanent places while sharing access to a large flex-space. Like a house-share, the complex’s cooperative nature will help keep costs down to half or even a third of market rate. That, coupled with three-year leases with annual caps on increases, amounts to a kind of voluntary rent control.
Dogpatch’s industrial legacy—much of the neighborhood is still zoned production, design and repair (PDR)—also helps keep costs down. PDR zoning allows for arts uses, but “specifically excludes most tech company office uses, although there is no zoning police and there are currently many violators,” Andy Rappaport explained in an email. “So while PDR real estate is far from cheap, it is still meaningfully less expensive than properties already zoned UMU (multi-use),” he said.
Zoning rules aside, the Rappaports’ goal is simple: they want galleries and arts organizations, which they believe make a vital civic contribution, to stay in San Francisco and be self-sustaining. They’re not looking to turn a profit, but hope that the project breaks even over the long-term. It’s a novel investment in the arts and, if it works, could be a patronage model adopted in other expensive cities where galleries are being priced out.
Rena Bransten, Themes and Projects – formerly Modernbook – Toomey Tourell Fine Art and Jack Fisher galleries have signed on. They’re among a long list of galleries that have left, or are in the process of leaving, 49 Geary. Once synonymous with the City’s downtown art market, 49 Geary has struggled to retain dealers, who have to compete with growing tech companies for precious commercial real estate. After fleeing 49 Geary in 2013, Jack Fisher Gallery resettled along a micro-gallery row on Potrero Avenue. Fisher now wants to open a satellite site at Minnesota Street.
San Francisco Arts Education Project, a nonprofit that rents instructional space in more than 20 San Francisco public schools, will move some of its operations to Minnesota Street. “The way the real estate market is; it’s not friendly to us,” creative director Emily Keeler said. “The Rappaports wanted to have a nonprofit in their space. They realized that they wanted someone like SFArtsEd. And as talks progressed they decided, maybe it should be us.” Keeler enthused about the exposure to the art market that students will get at Minnesota Street. “The project is almost entirely for galleries. We’re going to be the only nonprofit. The rest of the people there are going to be in the business of selling art works,” she said.
In a cultural climate in which capital-intensive technology is often perceived as being adversarial to artists, the Rappaport’s intervention could signal a new relationship between the two camps. Andy Rappaport made his fortune investing in tech companies with the Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm August Capital. The retired empty-nesters moved to San Francisco from the Peninsula a few years ago.
The Rappaports have backed progressive causes and raised funds for center-left political candidates. Deborah, an art collector, serves on the boards of the Berkeley Art Museum and Headlands Center for the Arts. Andy has waded into trendier waters, lending his support to Noise Pop, an indie rock festival that was headlined by the New Pornographers this year. The Rappaports’ own art collection includes works carrying a social or political message and, fittingly, “works that explore how new technologies can be used for artistic expression,” according to Andy. Much of the work in their collection is by local artists and was purchased from Bay Area galleries.
Minnesota Street Project grew out of conversations the couple had with Catherine Clark, a personal friend, whose eponymous gallery on Utah Street anchors the Hill’s micro-gallery row. A member of the San Francisco Art Dealers Association, Clark has facilitated connections between the Rappaports and would-be Minnesota Street gallerists. Though her own gallery is staying put, Clark is spearheading efforts to organize the arts-rich neighborhoods of the Mission, Hill and Dogpatch into a combined arts district. “When we landed in Potrero we felt like it was important to come together by branding the neighborhoods as an arts district, despite the various real estate jurisdictions.”
The name DoReMi, which takes two letters each from Dogpatch, Potrero Hill and the Mission, remerged from a brainstorming session of art professionals. Southside San Francisco now abounds with galleries, murals, arts organizations and museums, including Southern Exposure, Galeria de la Raza, Eleanor Harwood, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco Center for the Book, Workshop Residence and the Museum of Craft and Design. When completed, Minnesota Street Project would be the “crown jewel” in the DoReMi topography, according to Clark’s vision.
But with venues spread out over terrain that’s interrupted by highways 101 and 280, it won’t feel like a typically compact gallery crawl. Clark, who also owns a gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, is undaunted. “The highways are only perceived to be barriers because we’re a fairly car-bound culture,” she said. “It’s more of a psychic change.” To prove its walkability, Clark, wearing six-inch heels, led San Francisco Chronicle reporter Sam Whiting on a walking tour starting from 16th and Utah streets that covered all three neighborhoods, crossing a footbridge slung over 101 and pausing to gawk at murals along the way.
Art and real estate have long had an ambiguous relationship in San Francisco. Arts organizations are often identified as the harbingers of gentrification rather than its victims, especially in the Southside neighborhoods. As activist Rebecca Solnit pointed out in her 2000 book, Hollow City, construction of the Yerba Buena Arts Center effectively banished the last vestiges of the working class from South-of-Market when it was finally completed in 1993. The live-work lofts that proliferated in SoMa, the Hill and Dogpatch during the late-90s dot-com boom were another flashpoint of controversy. Though nominally geared toward retaining artists in those deindustrializing neighborhoods, they were actually targeted at upscale buyers. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned new construction of live-work units in 2001, but not before hundreds of Trojan horse “artist lofts” too expensive for the creative class to afford had come onto the market, hastening the gentrification of those neighborhoods, according to Solnit’s analysis.
Clark didn’t hesitate to implicate artists as the “first wave” in the classic gentrification narrative. But conditions have changed. Now galleries, and even nonprofits, are on the defensive. “Yes, artists are a part of the gentrification process, they’re the first wave. But they’re also the last line of defense.”
The irony isn’t lost on Andy Rappaport, either, but he emphasized the need to act fast to retain and strengthen the existing art scene. “We actually had the reverse concern when we started: that Dogpatch has already seen so much cost increase that it would be too late for us to do what we are doing there,” he said. “Our fervent hope is that our work will inspire other like-minded investors to purchase or lease PDR properties with the express purpose of keeping rents sufficiently low for arts uses.”
High rents aren’t the only threat to the future of galleries. In recent years an explosion of art fairs that attract international crowds of buyers, notably Art Basel in Miami, have siphoned sales away from traditional, brick and mortar galleries. “[Art fairs] have become a vehicle for putting work in front of a wider audience than any one gallery can put together in a specific geography,” Clark said. “I’ve often remarked that we’re writing our own eulogies” by participating in art fairs.
Then again, like the Rappaports, Clark is banking on the lasting appeal of the gallery experience. “Art fairs aren’t the same as the gallery experience. And thank God for that. That experience will sustain us through all kinds of disruptions in the industry.”