In the nearly two months since San Francisco’s oldest nonprofit artists’ space Intersection for the Arts announced a “reorganization,” suspended programming and laid off key staff, there has been a lot of talk about the fate of the organization and what it represents for the future of the city’s culture. But these conversations have happened in private circles or online in social media. This last Tuesday, July 15, Intersection hosted a community meeting to discuss its future with the public.
It was a packed house. Indeed, it was one of the most robustly attended, culturally diverse events I’ve seen in the city. Stakeholders of every ilk were represented in this gathering of some 150 people, including members, artists, students, elders, curators, writers, nonprofit leaders, philanthropists, and city employees. Attendance was further enriched by the range of cultural interests, including performance, community arts, visual arts, music, literature, and social justice
In this sense, the evening was a pure reflection of what Intersection has always done best: create community at the intersection of different cultures. Looking around at the many brilliant figures and arts leaders in the room, it seemed that anything was possible.
The meeting was led by a transition team of volunteers, including board members, the former program directors, and former Executive Director Deborah Cullinan, among others. After a brief set of introductions, five breakout groups were organized to gather feedback about the future, based on programming themes of “visual arts,” “performance,” “community engagement,” “shared spaces and new models,” and “fundraising.” The message from the outset was that the community would have the opportunity to shape the future. Though forward thinking, many were bewildered by the absence of a statement about what brought Intersection to its current state.
I floated between several of the groups. In each I heard shared concerns about maintaining the core values of the organization, prioritizing artists and work related to social justice. Whether or not the organization needed a dedicated space was also a consideration, with good arguments in favor of both dedicated space and nomadic programming. Partnerships with different organizations were also discussed. There was talk about the struggle to raise money and how the funding system for nonprofits has evolved in the last ten years. (My favorite comment came from a woman who said that we all need to be “pimps” in this business: Public Individuals Manifesting Power.)
In another session someone asked, after one person suggested curtailing programs, “I am not sure what we are doing here. Are we trying to rebuild or are we scratching things off?” Likening the lack of information around the reorganization to the collapse of the Bay Bridge, she asked, “Why did this bridge fall down?”
Questions about the state of affairs and accountability were asked quietly and repeatedly, though most were reluctant to ask directly. In all fairness, it was difficult to know whom to ask. The present Interim Executive Director Randy Rollison made no statement and is not participating in the transition team. The board members are essentially the last ones standing, but there wasn’t an obvious sense of any one of them taking the lead.
Ultimately, following the breakout groups, Board President Yancy Widmer addressed persistent questions about the organization’s difficulties. The challenges, he said, could be attributed to a “perfect storm.” He summarily cited a lack of unrestricted income, the absence of a significant reserve, the executive director’s leadership transition, as well as anticipated funds and community contributions that didn’t come through this year. “The board spent a lot of time trying to figure out the complexity of the situation and took too long,” he said. (So it would seem, given that Cullinan left in September 2013 after giving three months notice to transition to her new role as executive director at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.)
It is also widely known that the longtime program directors – Kevin B. Chen, Sean San José, and Rebeka Rodriquez, each involved with the organization for more than a decade – were not included in conversations about the precariousness of the situation. They were only informed that their programs were being suspended about two weeks before the situation was made public. In a conversation for this article, Widmer said that the program directors were informed as soon as the board was made aware of the financial difficulties. Despite hosting a modestly successful fundraiser in April, one month before the organization ran aground, there was no appeal to the community until now.
Given the compressed timeline of recent events, it would seem that the present situation is due to the board’s failure to understand the cost of their own delays and how they might impact finances. By failing to hire an executive director — no formal search was ever announced, though according to Widmer, informal conversations had begun in April — the organization was precluded from applying for essential foundation grants that have been reliable cash infusions in the past. (Many will not grant to organizations with interim leadership, for fairly obvious reasons.) It was only clear that the situation was dire by the time it was too late to make public appeals for support. Though it remains touch and go, there is a glimmer of hope being stewarded by the former program directors.
Even as Chen, San José, and Rodriguez are volunteering their time in an attempt to salvage Intersection’s core values, they will not return to their former roles. Each has decided to move on once the organization is stabilized, but they firmly believe that the return of Intersection is imperative. They are the ones who have spearheaded the transition and have been successful at securing $25K in stabilization funds from the city; a significant coalition of local funders is also being brought into the conversation. There is still a lot of work ahead, and securing new leadership is critical, but many believe it can be done. Simply because it has been done before.
Throughout the evening, a few people cited Intersection’s origins in the mid-1960s as a space for artists to gather – highly unusual for the time – and as a community center for conscientious objectors to the American War in Vietnam. The organization has always been engaged in struggle. It only exists now because it has been championed by the community historically.
Calling all “public individuals manifesting power.” It’s time to pay it forward.
“Intersection has had many chapters,” Kevin Chen said in conversation. “Before this chapter, Intersection died in a very similar fashion in the ’90s after slashing all but its literary program. Ultimately, it was a group of inspired people who revived it. The same thing can happen again. There are other chapters to be written.”
Intersection for the Arts will host a second community meeting on August 19, 2014. For more information, visit theintersection.org.