Restoring the City’s Creative Culture
San Francisco has been a creative hub since gold fever brought writers west like Mark Twain, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce. Within the last century, artists and writers flocked to the city, inspired by its beauty. Until 1970, it was a city with no skyscrapers and no industry except tourism. It was cheap to live in. In the rickety old buildings on Telegraph Hill, Beat writers electrified the world with an alternative view of the 1950s. Every great jazz musician in the world couch-surfed in the Western Addition in the ‘40s, ‘50’s and ‘60s. Derelict mansions in the Haight were home to the hippie movement and musicians like the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and others, who had a transformative effect on popular music. Even until the early ‘90s, inventive cabals like the Cacophony Society could launch whole new entities like culture jamming, urban exploration, and globally popular events like Burning Man.
Long-time residents are observing that San Francisco just isn’t the same any more. People who are coming to the city are saying that it isn’t what they came for—that quirky, arty charm. This is certainly true, far beyond the natural evolution of spaces and communities. It’s true because there’s no longer an emerging creative class of fine artists here, those people that gave the city so much of its vibrancy and color since the Gold Rush. The struggling artists have all moved to other places, taking with them the kinds of creative energy that launched so many great and global cultural movements in the city’s history.
The great literary and artistic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries mostly came from humble beginnings, generated by people living in poverty, or near poverty, because there is no financial reward for becoming, only for attaining. The artist or writer is not a marketable asset until they produce something notable. Until then, they are deemed useless by our highly commodified culture. The struggle to produce something marketable may take decades, while an artist matures and develops ideas. San Francisco has no place left for the unfolding of creative genius, except for the genius of brilliant commercial commodities that make fortunes.
The phenomenal growth and importance of technology and tech companies changed the nature of the bay area, and certainly in a way that is vital to almost everything in our lives. It brought us the wonders of technology and a world-class industry, but at the same time, it drove out the last of the city’s emerging artists and writers. The city became a haven for the established and successful people in any field, but a hard place to remain for those still undiscovered. If it remains as it is, there will never be another wildly innovative cultural movement, growing from an arty underground, inspired by the city’s remarkable beauty. That is a loss to the artists who might have blossomed here, but even more importantly, to the social fabric of the city as well.
We have the choice, to welcome and support the development of something great and brand new, or to let it happen elsewhere. We can’t wait for our government to realize that conditions have made our city a culturally impoverished environment, for all the erstwhile lip service to the community of artists. Yes, the city spends money on arts organizations. But what about the artists?
People tend to think of art as something optional, a luxury item that serves no real purpose. Its purpose is subtle, but essential. Imagine the world without it: bleak, utilitarian, uninspiring, and with a manufactured sameness. The people who give us those one-of-a-kind visions of beauty, whimsy, and intellectual provocation are not optional. They are the source of stimulation, great books, stunning ideas, unforgettable images, and the music that speaks for us when words cannot. If the city is beautiful, it’s because people with high aesthetic standards built it, and paid artists and artisans to do it. If the city has a reputation of being a creative place, it’s the writers, artists, cultural visionaries, and musicians who made it so.
Cities need artists. This city lost a fortune of creative energy as artists could no longer afford to remain. Returning artists to San Francisco is like replanting native plants and reintroducing indigenous fauna, restoring a balance in the human biosphere. Unlike some modern problems, this is one that can be easily fixed and perhaps made better than it ever was. The Art House Project proposes how this can be done, in a practical way that is a win-win for everyone.
The Art House Concept
Art Houses are buildings where many creative people come together to live and work. Any kind of building can be a creative live-work space for certain kinds of creative endeavors. A warehouse suits the needs of sculptors and glass artists, a large single-family dwelling can house a group of painters, or an apartment building can contain many writers, people working independently and together, pooling creative talents to create events, to enliven communities, and to encourage emerging talent. A single building might also provide live/work spaces for people in more than one of the arts.
The greatest of all the San Francisco Art Houses was the historic Montgomery Block, a building that survived the earthquake of 1906, and was home to dozens of artists and writers who are world famous. Some of the people who lived and worked there, or were part of the community, included Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Sterling, Jack London, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Maynard Dixon, Benny Bufano, Dorothea Lange, Ralph Stackpole, Dong Kingman, and many others. Sun Yat-sen lived there while writing the Chinese constitution.
This building, which should have been preserved as a monument to the city’s cultural history, was torn down and the Transamerica Pyramid erected in its place. This iconic center of creative ferment was replaced by an iconic center of corporate control.
Making Art Houses Happen
There are many ways to manifest properties and each of them is viable. There are always buildings for sale in San Francisco, and there is a regular auction on the steps of City Hall for foreclosures.
There are buildings that have been purchased and left empty for the purpose of showing a loss. Such buildings, leased to this project for nominal rent, remain a loss. They are also donations to the 501(c)3 nonprofit, Bohemia Redux, created to make this happen.
Capital is one of the things that are plentiful in the bay area. Much of the fortune made by tech companies goes into foundations that address social needs, but most of those foundations do not fund programs designed to restore a creative culture, or even recognize that we’ve lost it. Like governments from the national to the local level, those philanthropic organizations have respect for art, but perhaps can’t conceive what it’s like to live for making it. Everyone might recognize the value of the artist to society, if suddenly the world was devoid of art, and all that were left were commercial art and money-making ventures.
What we propose is that individuals, with the desire and available means to do something to restore a balance, buy properties for artists to live and work in— either singly, or in limited consortia of owners. We’re not proposing necessarily that they buy them to give to artists; we’re proposing they buy them outright as investments for themselves, but provide them for use by the Art House project with lengthy leases and nominal rents. In this way, the property becomes part of the owners’ portfolios, and not getting market rate rents . If buildings are purchased outright, there would be no mortgage to meet every month, only property taxes and insurance, which would be paid from the rents received by resident artists. These buildings would only appreciate in value over the long term, in the manner of other investments.
There are other options: buildings could be donated to a non-profit entity, and those donations could offset tax liabilities. Expenditures for buildings could be payment forward on artwork for a company’s offices.As non-profit entities, Art Houses could receive foundation grants. Crowd-funding could enable the Art House Project to buy houses directly. The possibilities are endless, and they are the source of many varieties of magnificent legacy building.
“If you really want to help the arts, give them cheap rent.”
A Sustainable Plan
The Art House Project doesn’t ask anyone to give away anything, although donations make it possible to pay for the anticipated costs of any large project, and are needed and welcome. Primarily, it asks that people transmute available cash assets into property, something they own, but something that doesn’t provide the kind of profits they would get in rents. There are other kinds of benefits, not the least of which tax benefits, social capital, a wealth of appreciation, and sterling publicity.
Rents collected from Art House residents will be used to meet administrative and maintenance costs, insurance, accounting, and other expenses, and to create entities that generate more capital. A Writers’ House, for example, might open a café and bookstore in ground-floor spaces. It is also possible, in the future, for a Writers’ House to launch an independent publishing company and a magazine. An Art House for painters would have a gallery, openings, classes, and an art rental program. An Art House for musicians could have a concert venue, a recording studio to rent to others, or a booking agency for performers; all of these potential options could increase the assets of the Art House project as a whole, the artists involved, and the angel investors as well, if they desire. If small Art House businesses don’t have commercial rents to pay, and tenants volunteer some time each month to operate them, in compensation for affordable rent, they have the capacity to be actively profitable.
Spaces in Art Houses can be rented out at higher rates as AirBnB-style, short-term rentals to visitors with an interest in the arts, to bring in additional funding, and they could act as sites of convergence for visiting international artists. Art House angel landlords could profit from the businesses they made possible, if desired, perhaps on a percentage basis of income from rentals and businesses operating as part of the Art House community, if the objective is profit and not something more intangible. Because the Art House Project is not institutionalized, but an organic and creative endeavor, the degree of a person’s involvement and the rewards they receive can be structured in a fluid, organic fashion to meet the desires of every benefactor.
The Art House Project needs to have one space large enough to host a public salon, where the work of the various creative members of the community could be showcased. The salon is a natural meeting place for people from a wide variety of social groups and spheres of interest. They provide a social experience, enjoyment, connections, shared ideas, and the potential for new projects to develop from shared ideas. Giving artists the space to bring the community in, to see their living and working places and observe the process of art in the making, offers the kind of experience many people would never have, and one that might change their sense of what is magical about the creative life.
Why does a site about art and artists have almost no art or color in it? It’s the symbolic quality of a city without a vibrant creative culture.
Why would a person be willing to do this with their assets?
There are many reasons why joining a group of buyers to provide Art Houses would be of huge benefit to people who become involved. The first and most compelling reason is that by their direct action, such people would be able to make a difference, redress a problem of income disparity, and immediately do something to fix the loss of creative culture that the city government doesn’t seem to get. By returning artists to the place that inspired so much, they make it possible for the rise of yet another great cultural movement in the bay area. The simple act of buying property could make it possible for something extraordinary, and of global consequence, to happen once again in this city.
Many people in the tech community and other industries understand philanthropy and are generous with their assets, solving immense problems all over the world. However, it’s one thing to donate to a foundation, and be removed from the results of giving never meeting the people whose lives have benefited from that generosity. It’s quite another to be there, know the recipients, and be part of a community revival that will be internationally recognized as a brilliant twist on traditional philanthropy. The loss of creative culture is a problem in our back yard, here in the city we all love, whether we’re city natives or newcomers hired for great jobs. Becoming involved in a local project that will make the city a more wonderful place to be offers benefactors the pleasure of watching their philanthropy make something marvelous happen.
Many people in the bay area who do have available assets have also gone to Burning Man. They understand the power of the gifting economy and the bonds it creates between people. As a gift to the community of artists, places to live and work at affordable rents are an even greater gift to the society at large—the society that doesn’t realize that the loss of creative culture is a loss to everyone—but eventually they would, when the last of it was gone.The Burning Man community recognizes the immense contribution of art to our experience, and might be the most inclined to become involved with a project of this kind.
People willing to involve themselves and make the Art House concept a reality understand other parts of the Burning Man experience as well as the gifting economy, like civic involvement and taking responsibility. As the desert experience taught so many, being directly involved in making things happen is an antidote to alienation. It provides a sense of purpose and offers a shared experience. Anyone willing to be involved in restoring artists to the city would be seen as heroes to that community, always welcome at the front door, gifted with art that will increase their assets, as artists are discovered and their work escalates in value. The people who are willing to spend or pool their cash to make it happen would find themselves part of a new community, or perhaps two new communities, in a consortium of angels and in houses full of artists, writers, or musicians who are able to stay in the city because people understood their value.
The photo above, of Burning Man in the early days, is by Barb Traub. It’s the cover photo for her book, Desert to Dream.