Project Artaud: An Artists’ Village in San Francisco

in by

Project Artaud – pronounced Ar-toe – on 499 Alabama Street is an artists’ village/cooperative/collective. Technically, the project is a nonprofit, but “nonprofit” doesn’t capture the undertaking’s essence, which is hard to characterize, admitted visual and performing artist Anna Dal Pino.

“The difficulty and beauty of Project Artaud is that there is no consensus on the ‘project’s essence,’” Dal Pino wrote in an email to the View. “We are a group of artists with very different voices. Speaking to only a few will not accurately describe us; there simply is no ‘typical’ Project Artaud artist or Project Artaud life.”

According to Wendy Gilmore, Project Artaud’s board secretary and office manager, “It’s hard to realize how much work it is to live in this community when you’re on the outside, and when you’re on the inside it’s hard to communicate that to people on the outside.”

Project Artaud was named for French avant-garde artist, and author of The Theatre and its Double, Antonin Artaud – 1896 to 1948 – who believed art should happen in nontraditional spaces. In 1971, a group of artists rented a decommissioned industrial building, the American Can Company’s tooling factory, constructed in 1925. Project Artaud was born.

Project Artaud’s mission is to “Provide a workplace and materials for tradesmen, craftsmen, artists, and teachers who teach the principles of their respective occupations to underprivileged and problem children and adults in the community. To promote the appreciation of literary, dramatic and manual arts in the community at large. And to promote a new urban consciousness and a cooperative spirit in the solution of urban community problems.”

The building, which takes up an entire city block – Mariposa and 17th and Alabama and Florida – was open floor space when the artists took it over.  Over time that space has been converted into 68 units.  Most are live/work; about 10 are work-only. Project Artaud was the City’s first, and is the oldest continuing, live/work project, according to Gilmore, who is a textile artist.

When members, now numbering 89, moved in they had to create their own spaces, installing walls, bathrooms, kitchens, and other amenities. Visual artist Keith Bjorkman, who’s been a member since 1996, initially settled into an empty space. “For $40,000 I basically built a house,” he said. He fortified it for earthquakes.  Some things needed to be relocated, like the building’s main sprinkler, which no longer resides in the kitchen Bjorkman shares with his wife, Nartan, a visual and textile artist.

Building quirks make Project Artaud complicated. In addition to being artists, members are also landlords. “You can’t just boil it down to there’s a bunch of people who live here and we do art,” Gilmore said. “We do art, but we also have to take care of the building and we want it to be aesthetically pleasing. We have a little park [Jackhammer Park], but we also have three dumpsters because now we have to separate all the garbage, and how do you monitor that?”

In the 1970s when Project Artaud was getting off the ground, people’s concerns mostly centered on setting up living space and art studios. Forty years later, early improvements have deteriorated.  More costly attention is now required for such things as replacing window frames and acquiring a new roof.

Artaud sustains itself through grants, member dues, and rental income. Being a nonprofit, the rents are nowhere near the sky-high prices associated with the City; leases range from $400 to $1,300. The low prices and community feeling attract a constant flow of applicants to Project Artaud. There are currently no vacancies, but when there are, 200 to 300 people will show up for an open house, according to Gilmore.

Becoming a Project Artaud member is a lengthy process involving an interview with the “wing” where the vacant space is located. There are seven wings in the three-story building, which is shaped like an “E.”  The interested party – who must be an artist – has to provide an initial payment equal to what the previous member invested. If the former member spent $15,000 to put in a bathroom, the new member has to pay $15,000 to reimburse the outgoing member. Project Artaud is a limited equity cooperative; members don’t own their spaces and by law can’t profit from them.

Members are required to participate in governance, building maintenance, and work days. There are various committees, such as one that supports Open Studios activities, which is held twice a year in the spring and fall.

Living at Project Artaud provides a certain freedom, Bjorkman said. “The physical space makes it easier to do unusual things,” he said.

“It’s not like a management building. There are big sculptures, metal work, loud music, and art being built in the hallways.” Nartan added, “Also, it’s nice to have six theaters [Z Space, Z Below, Theater of Yugen, Joe Goode Annex, Phil Deal Performance Space, and Mariposa Studios] in the building.”

According to Brian Goggin, a sculptor who’s been with the project since 1994, Artaud offers “a very special nexus of opportunity” as a result of all of the artists who live, work, and care for each other. That support is becoming more important; the average age of a Project Artaud member is 50 years. There are younger members – ages range from babies to people in their 70s – but the project now has to consider aging in place, and how to care for its older members.

The collaboration with other artists that Project Artaud fosters is the best part of Artaud, according to Goggin, Bjorkman, Nartan, and Dal Pino. “My painting is super time-intensive, so though I do shows, sets, and some travel, most of my days are spent painting,” Dal Pino said. “It’s solitary so collaborative work is a treat. Project Artaud is great because it’s full of all different kinds of artists…I feel really lucky to be here at Project Artaud. ”

Project Artaud transformed Goggin’s life. “It’s allowed me to be an artist in San Francisco,” he said.

The next Mission Arts Alliance Spring Open Studios is April 18 and 19, during which Artaud artists will open their doors to the public and showcase their artwork.