San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts Suspends Programs, Lays Off Curators

Jenny O'Dell's recent solo exhibition at Intersection for the Arts, "Infrastructure," with longtime Visual Arts Program Director Kevin B. Chen in the foreground

Jenny O'Dell's recent solo exhibition at Intersection for the Arts, "Infrastructure," with longtime Visual Arts Program Director Kevin B. Chen in the foreground

Photo by Scott Chernis

San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts announced today that it will dramatically restructure its organization, suspend programs, and lay off key staff by the end of this month.

Included among those furloughed are Visual Arts Program Director Kevin B. Chen, Outreach and Community Engagement Program Director Rebeka Rodriguez, and Theatre Program Director Sean San José, as well as all communications staff. Intersection Incubator, the organization’s fiscal sponsorship program, supports 125 smaller organizations annually — it will remain intact. Intersection will continue to provide a performance platform for Incubator Program and Innovation Studio. Randy Rollison, presently Program Director Artist Resources, will assume the role of Interim Director.

Founded in the 1960s “as a merger of several faith-based experiments that were using art to reach disenfranchised neighborhood youth” and as a community center for conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, Intersection for the Arts is one of San Francisco’s oldest alternative spaces. Next year will mark its 50th anniversary.

Inside Intersection for the Arts
Inside Intersection for the Arts

Intersection’s varied programs include a gallery, a literary series, a Jazz program, artist residencies, and a theatre/performance series. An incredible array of artists have participated in its programs, including Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers, Whoopi Goldberg, Joe Goode, bell hooks, Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker, among many others. Presently San Francisco artist Bernie Lubbell has a site-specific installation in the gallery, on view through June 7. Chasing Mehserle, a new performance piece by Chinaka Hodge, jointly presented by Intersection for the Arts, Campo Santo and the Living Word Project (Youth Speaks theatre company) has performances scheduled through May 24. All current programs are slated to conclude on schedule. Summer programs will be announced in June.

The news of Intersections’ troubles comes at a time when many San Francisco arts organizations are struggling, even amidst the city’s recent development boom. Community arts and education organization Root Division announced that it will need to relocate by the end of June, after receiving notice earlier this year that its rent would substantially increase. Recently Union Square non-profit Meridian Gallery was narrowly spared immediate eviction after its landlords demanded a year’s rent and security deposit paid in advance, totaling $100,000. According to Meridian’s website, it presently has an extended lease through June.

Over the years Intersection for the Arts, Root Division and Meridian Gallery have all provided extensive youth and community education programs, as well as important venues for experimental and politically provocative contemporary art. Each represents a core organization within San Francisco’s vital grassroots art community, the health of which has rapidly diminished in the last year due to shifting models for non-profit arts funding and escalating real estate values.

Intersection_Ants in the City

“With the specific shifts in the economy and culture of San Francisco, it has been increasingly difficult to operate and sustain a community-based nonprofit arts organization like Intersection,” noted Kevin B. Chen, Intersection’s visual arts curator for the last fifteen years, in a farewell email sent to members today.

In response to these “specific shifts” last November, the Board of Supervisors resolved to create the Working Group on Nonprofit Displacement, which was tasked to allocate funds for safeguarding the city’s cultural heritage against displacement. The board placed $2.515 million on reserve for recommendations made by the working group; earlier this year Supervisor John Avalos further amended this figure with an additional $2 million earmarked for the nonprofit arts community. Requests for proposals for a third party intermediary to manage these funds are anticipated to be released in June, with the hope that funds will start being distributed sometime in the fall. Even as the city is making an effort to support the non-profit community, it is unclear whether or not these efforts will happen soon enough at this rate to protect some of the city’s most vital arts organizations.

Below is the press release from Intersection of the Arts:

Dear Friends of Intersection for the Arts:

We are writing on behalf of the Board of Directors of Intersection for the Arts to inform you of difficult but necessary decisions that we have taken to confront fundamental challenges to the organization. For nearly 50 years, Intersection has existed as San Francisco’s oldest alternative arts space, weathering a myriad of challenges, successes and evolutionary changes. We now find ourselves at another major turning point. Our financial situation is deeply challenged, and it has become apparent that the current business model is no longer sustainable.

Our financial situation has always been fragile. Like many non-profit, grassroots arts organizations, it has been a perpetual struggle, dependent on “angel donors,” “heroic” leadership and unpredictable trends. The move from our long-time home in the Mission to an improved facility in SOMA was a significant effort to address this issue, but it was increasingly clear that they were not enough to build the financial foundation we need not merely to survive, but to grow and thrive.

Recognizing that the organization needed fundamental change to sustain its contributions to community life, the Board embarked on a deep organizational examination that led to a substantial rethinking of our role in the community and a refining of our mission.

As of June 1, therefore, the following changes will occur:

  • Except for a limited amount of funded projects already in the pipeline, Intersection will no longer produce its own work but will continue to provide a platform to present performances by Incubator Program and Innovation Studio members and resident artists.
  • Resident company Campo Santo will transition to a strictly fiscally sponsored project and Sean San Jose, currently Intersection’s performing arts program director, will continue to lead the company.
  • The Visual Arts, and Education and Community Engagement Programs will be put on hold.
  • Unfortunately, long-time program directors Kevin Chen, Rebeka Rodriguez and Sean San Jose will be laid off, as will a number of support staff, and various contractors will be released.
  • Randy Rollison, Program Director Artist Resources, will take on the role of Interim Executive Director.
  • The Board, staff and key Intersection stakeholders will actively engage artists, community leaders, and funders to test the programmatic elements and economic viability of this emergent platform concept.

This restructure, though painful, is necessary not only to address Intersection’s current financial situation, but to serve as a catalyst for an entirely new kind of artist and community engagement model that can sustain a healthy organization through an arts-centered entrepreneurial approach that relies on multi-disciplinary and highly collaborative partnerships in the Bay Area.

In the meantime, performance programs that were scheduled throughout the summer featuring the work of Incubator and Innovation Studio members will continue. And as living testament to our work in our neighborhood, community visual arts projects by Evan Bissell, Ana Teresa Fernandez, Wendy McNaughton and others are still alive and active in the streets of San Francisco.

Intersection’s Incubator Program, with more than 100 fiscally sponsored projects working in performance, music, visual art, community engagement, arts education, artist services and advocacy, will continue without interruption. While not as visible as our visual arts, performing arts and community engagement programs, the Incubator program has nurtured thousands of artists since it began in the 1970’s who have gone on to show work in our gallery and on our stage as well as at other regional, national and international institutions. Many current and former members have evolved into some of today’s most vital Bay Area arts organizations and play an important role in maintaining a healthy arts ecology, among them Litquake, Cutting Ball Theater, Youth Speaks, Erika Chong Shuch’s ESP Project, Felonious, Mugwumpin and StageWrite to name a few.

The Innovation Studio and the Community Rentals Program will also remain unchanged.

None of these decisions have been taken lightly, and the necessity of laying off long-time staff members and releasing key contractors is particularly painful. These are the individuals who have made significant and lasting contributions to the organization and the artistic life of the entire Bay Area. They are valued members of the Intersection family and we are grateful to them for all they have given and regret terribly the impact this will have on their lives.

We believe that Intersection’s long history, its impact on San Francisco artists and the arts community over the years, and its existing partnerships and programs provide a sound base for us to build a sustainable, impactful model that honors the past and looks toward a healthy and productive future. Our goal over the next few months is to craft that model and re-emerge in the fall with a new business plan that will sustain the organization’s ability to use an arts-centered approach to building engaged, inclusive, and economically and culturally vigorous communities.

We know that for many of you this is sudden and unexpected news. We still don’t have all the answers or details worked out but we believe we have a solid foundation upon which to rebuild the organization.

Of course, we can’t do this alone. We need you to be an active part of this process. We will continue to keep you informed of our progress and plans and hope to convene a public conversation in the very near future. In the meantime, we want to know what you think and invite you to email us at transition@theintersection.org and share your ideas, thoughts, memories, comments, criticism. Even better, attend one of our upcoming summer programs, and, if you want to support our work through this critical transition, please make a donation. https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/intersectionforthearts

Intersection has always been a community based organization and you are a vital part of that community. We hope we can look forward to your continued support, patience, and perseverance as we take these difficult but necessary actions to build a sustainable foundation for Intersection that will last another 50 years.

Sincerely,

Yancy Widmer, Chair, Board of Directors

Arthur Combs, Interim Executive Director

  • Dkdr

    I can’t imagine intersection without Kevin…

  • Jolene

    Kevin, Rebeka, and Sean are the heart of Intersection. Without them, there is no Intersection.

  • mmortati

    This is so awful. I felt sick when I heard.

Author

Christian L. Frock

Christian L. Frock is an independent writer, curator and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work focuses on the intersection of art and public space. Invisible Venue, the curatorial enterprise founded and directed by Frock since 2005, collaborates with artists to present art in unexpected settings. Frock's writing has been featured in art ltd, Art Practical, Art&Education, Daily Serving, FillipSan Francisco Arts MonthlySFMOMA Open Space, and NPR.org, among other publications.

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