At the crossroads

A community is left reeling by sudden changes at Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco's oldest alternative non-profit arts space.

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Since the 1960s, Intersection for the Arts has integrated arts, politics and community into its shows -- now that may change.

By Jolene Torr

On May 23, the city's oldest alternative nonprofit art space announced that it would suspend programming due to a fragile financial situation. Indefinitely.

Intersection for the Arts began in the 1960s as a multidisciplinary organization, a coffeehouse ministry seeking to bridge artistic and spiritual ideas, a breeding ground for art and politics. It hosted all the stars of the Beat movement: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima; and it's maintained that same social and political responsibility in its current role, serving as a space where conscientious objectors, radicals, misfits, artists, spectators, and the rest of the community could engage their curiosity.

It was never about the money.

"No one expects to make money from this; that's not why we do it," said Kevin B. Chen, Intersection's visual arts director for the past 15 years, whose job ended June 1, along with those of his fellow longtime program directors Sean San José and Rebeka Rodriguez. "We do this for the same reason we always have," Chen said. "You come to Intersection for spirit. For heart. For ideas."

 

CULTURAL INSTITUTION THREATENED

The sudden decision was a shock to everyone. In addition to the program directors' positions, the communications team would be cut. None of the staff knew of the drastic cuts in advance, nor were they aware of how financially challenged the institution was when they were given their two weeks' notice.

Its financial troubles might appear to be an inescapable fact of present-day arts life in San Francisco: a cultural institution facing the economic and environmental realities of the development boom, another community disrupted by the aggressive pursuits of a new "frontier."

However, rather than an eviction notice or rent increase, as was the case for Meridian Gallery, Root Division, and most recently Marcus Bookstore, this news came from the institution's own board of directors, which said it had to act in the face of a financial instability.

"Intersection's problem is not that it has no funds," explained Vice Chair Lawrence Thoo (de facto board leader Yancy Widmer was traveling internationally and unavailable for comment). "It has quite a large amount of funds, but all of those are dedicated to specific projects. We're cash rich but liquidity poor." That's meant a shortage of cash for day-to-day operations, he added. "For several years, Intersection has borrowed to help meet its costs, but it has become harder and harder to repay the borrowing in a timely manner."

Through a press statement, the Board declared that it had "embarked on a deep organizational examination that led to a substantial rethinking of our role in the community."

But how does the board define the community it's serving? Depends whom you ask.

Thoo views the community as being specific to the place, which includes the Sixth Street Corridor, SoMa, and Mid-Market areas extending to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — though Intersection hasn't always occupied its space in the Chronicle building, most recently relocating from Valencia Street. Historically the organization operated out of North Beach; it originally opened up shop in the Tenderloin. The organization has always been deeply entrenched in its neighborhood, and Thoo says, "Our ability to bring in the best artists to work with the community in a highly participatory capacity is terrifically important, given what's going on presently in the community."

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