arts Blog

The Arts in Boomtown: San Francisco’s Space Crisis

Tensions around space and housing amid San Francisco’s red-hot real estate market are about as high as, well, the high-rises currently being constructed in the city. Discouraging are some of the reactions fueling the mounting pressures, eager to pin the blame on one party or another. The majority of mainstream media coverage has contributed to the situation by offering only superficial accounts of the issue. Simply said, there’s a lot more to the equation than “hipsters,” artists, and the tech industry.

Boom & Bust

The space crisis is not exclusive to nonprofit arts organizations and its effects are far reaching to be sure. This issue is not just about affordability; it’s about availability. Ellis Act evictions, generally implemented to change the use of the building, are on the rise as the city grows further out of reach for families, long-time middle-income residents, and other vulnerable populations. As a generally low-income group, artists and nonprofits are often among the first to feel the pressures of an ascending market. San Francisco is already the city with the nation’s highest rents and many artists have migrated to the East Bay. No coincidence, ArtPlace America named Downtown Oakland, as one of its Top 12 ArtPlaces of 2013.

Yet among the arts organizations that remain in San Francisco, the space crisis is increasing in urgency, especially for the smaller ones. Nonprofits are facing evictions, renegotiations of their leases, and a lack of viable alternatives within the city. In the absence of outside real estate expertise, navigating the tumultuous market of San Francisco is close to impossible for these organizations, a great number of which are under-resourced and understaffed to start.

New Strategies

A.C.T.'s The Costume Shop photo credit: Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography

A.C.T.’s The Costume Shop
photo credit: Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography

The adage may be true: All organizations have a lifecycle. However, many of those faced with space-related challenges in San Francisco are not failing by other measures. Some even receive operations funding from the city government. Women’s Audio Mission, for example, has been on a long and exhausting hunt for a new space. As the only professional recording studio and music production training facility in the world run entirely by women, they are trying to meet growing demand for their successful programs.

Other organizations are testing collective strategies. Having relocated to the Central Market District in recent years, Center for New Music, PianoFight and A.C.T.’s The Costume Shop constitute tenant organizations whose spaces have become community hubs through encouraging membership, co-working, resident ensembles and service sharing with independent groups. In Oakland, Ragged Wing Ensemble will open collaborative arts space, The Flight Deck, in spring 2014 and similarly institute a sophisticated tiered membership program.

New Models

While operating a space (let alone owning) is certainly not the best course of action for every organization, the prospect represents enormous security and longevity for some institutions. At the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, we’re proud to have played a part in creating the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), a new organization whose mission is to secure space and work with arts organizations to develop their capacity to purchase permanent facilities and navigate complex real estate issues.

CAST was announced publicly in November 2013 at a press conference hosted by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. Just over a year old, CAST has purchased two buildings in the Central Market District on behalf of the Luggage Store Gallery and CounterPULSE, two established arts and cultural organizations in the Central Market neighborhood. The model CAST has adopted allows organizations to either purchase their facilities from CAST at a below market cost within a seven- to ten-year period, or eventually move to a better suited, alternative space.


CAST Press Announcement November 13, 2013. Left to Right: Jessica Robinson Love (CounterPULSE), San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Supervisor Jane Kim, Eric Rodenbeck (CAST), Darryl Smith (Luggage Store Gallery)

CAST Press Announcement November 13, 2013. From leftt: Jessica Robinson Love, CounterPULSE;  San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee;  Supervisor Jane Kim; Eric Rodenbeck, CAST; Darryl Smith, Luggage Store Gallery.

Through my work at the Foundation, I’ve played a small role in supporting CAST, as it gains its legs as an organization. Reflecting on my experiences, what I find most striking about CAST is not so much its innovative model, which I hope is obvious, but the depth of collaboration it represents.

For example, Elvin Padilla of the Tenderloin Economic Development Project played a foundational role in cultivating key relationships between property owners and arts organizations. The Northern California Community Loan Fund (NCCLF), largely the mathematical brains behind the CAST model, also provides ongoing, integral project management expertise. The City of San Francisco has supported too, through offering funding for capacity building to CounterPULSE and the Luggage Store Gallery as they enter this exciting yet challenging period of fundraising for their facilities.

The list of important organizations involved is long and includes Helicon Collaborative, Ventura Partners, Intersection for the Arts, Jensen Architects and CAST’s own dynamic Board of Directors. CAST really has taken a village and it will continue to need more support to effect significant change and successfully assist arts organizations with their facilities needs at this time, in this city.

A Glimmer of Hope

CAST is not the panacea for all of the facilities-related issues facing arts organizations in San Francisco. There will be more organizations that will leave the city based on financial and availability issues and there will be plenty of scapegoats to blame. However, within CAST I see a glimmer of hope amid the legitimately angry noise the space crisis elicits. I see hope in the public and private partnerships that have enabled CAST’s success and hope in the recognition of the problem overall. Optimism aside, we have much work to do together yet.

Katie Fahey
Associate Program Officer, Arts

Read more about the Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s commitment to CAST.
Read the official press release from Mayor Edwin Lee’s Office.

Email questions or comments to


Sign Up for News & Updates

Receive newsletters and occasional updates about the work of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and our grantees.

* Email Address:
Arts Updates
Education Updates
Health Updates
All Foundation Updates
*  Enter the letters shown above:
* - required

You have Successfully Subscribed!