If anything ever described the tremendous allure of San Francisco, it was the phrase “bohemian charm.” Bohemia, the natural milieu of artistic personalities, attracts and romanticizes a place where artists have been, and the allure lingers, like a wraith, after the arty people are gone. What remains are pricey boutiques marketing ersatz bohemia.
You once found bohemia in places like Montmartre, Greenwich Village, and here— in North Beach, the Haight, the Mission, and the Western Addition—places where artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types lived, worked, and paid cheap rent. Those places drew people, magnetically. They were full of creative energy and passion, striving, ideas, craziness, risks, abandon, beauty, and a refreshing post-conventional morality. The bohemian milieu has always been a lure to those caged in a more predictable life, a toe tourists dip in fantasy, or a dose of edge for locals.
Bohemia is a petri dish full of creative potential, experimental. It’s where emerging creative minds struggle on their ways to success; it’s where things start, in the underground. It’s charming because it’s quirky, full of surprises, and full of yearning for greatness. Bohemian charm is the antidote to predictability.
San Francisco has lost most of its bohemian charm because it no longer has a bohemia. There is no underground from which the absolutely novel can emerge. The artists, writers, musicians, and performers who do live here now have either already reached a significant level of success in their careers, be hanging on to their rent-controlled apartment by their fingernails, or they have a full-time job and produce their work in their spare time. Almost all the city’s formerly vibrant creative culture lives elsewhere now: the east bay, north bay, Portland, Detroit, Reno, places where they can live and work inexpensively until they can afford to return here. Artists often need to rent two places, one to live in and the other in which to do their work, no longer possible here when you are beginning a career and battling for recognition in the brutal business of art.
Our culture completely undervalues artists and writers until they are famous. This is the only first world country without an arts secretary on the Cabinet. Most third world countries have one. Our country leaves artists unrepresented, even though they produce the things we love—the books, music, visual arts, performance, theater, dance, film—and events like Burning Man. All those things that give us so much pleasure are the result of individuals struggling to survive in a culture that doesn’t care about them, until they become an investment.
Even beyond the things they create, artists give us a lot of intangible benefits that have not been noted. They are original thinkers who open fresh neural pathways for us. They are, and must be, authentic. They want to give us what pleases, moves, and stimulates us. Watching an artist work triggers people’s untapped creative energies, as their minds seek to “fill in the blanks” of what the artist will do next. They give us beauty, and the songs that articulate the things we can’t. The language of visual art needs no translation.
Any place colonized by creative people becomes cool, and everyone wants to live there. We have all observed this: once artists have filled a neighborhood with bohemian charm, they get priced out. It’s not surprising that the founding members of the Bohemian Club, which is now the province of America’s movers and shakers, were writers and artists.
The former creative hives of San Francisco launched internationally celebrated movements in the arts. In the last 60 years alone, we’ve seen the Bay Area Figurative painters, like Richard Diebenkorn, studying at the Art Institute in the ‘50s with Clyfford Still. Every great jazz musician in the US couch surfed in the Western Addition from the ‘40s through the ‘60s and played in clubs on Fillmore and Divisadero, the Harlem of the West. The Beat Writers of North Beach in the ‘50s and ‘60s, like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, electrified the literary world. Musicians in the ‘60s Haight, like the Grateful Dead, were followed, cult-like, across the nation, and the punk movement disrupted the National Democratic Convention here soon after. The last great art movement to grow out of San Francisco, 25 years ago, was Burning Man. No fantastic movement has sprouted from the native soil since.
My nonprofit, Bohemia Redux, wants to restore the city’s vibrant creative culture that has been flourishing here since the gold rush. We intend to create low-cost artists’ housing all over the city, in buildings zoned residential and commercial. We will fill them with carefully chosen, highly talented people. The overall plan is simple in design. We first acquire buildings suited to each art form. Writers can live in any kind of building, but musicians need a space where there aren’t neighbors close by. Large-scale sculptors need warehouses and filmmakers need studios.
Buildings zoned both residential and commercial makes sustainability possible, in this way: As rents are collected from tenants, they are used to develop businesses suited to each building. A painter’s building would have a gallery, classes, and an art rental facility; a building of writers would have a print-on-demand machine available to the public, a bookstore, and an editing service. A musician’s building would have a recording studio that outside bands could rent, a booking agency, and a performance venue. Every Art House would have a kind of museum store selling things produced by people in all the houses. Every Art House should have a café, where the greater community can enjoy the stimulating rush of bohemia— and perhaps get the chance to help make some art.
Art Houses are surely tourist meccas, and they would replace some of the city’s disappearing concert venues, bookstores, and galleries. They would give hundreds of undiscovered artists places to market their work and be discovered, and cheap rent until they are. They would foster collaborative projects between artistic mediums, and stage unforgettable events.
When small businesses don’t pay San Francisco commercial rents, and their employees are mostly residents, working part time to compensate for cheap rent, they are sustainable and potentially very lucrative. Art House residents make the best employees; they care deeply about places that represent them.
Arty places, being cool, get attention. I know this from personal experience. In 1999, together with 19 artist friends, I opened a restaurant called Caffe Proust for the un-heard of total of $60,000.00. We had no advertising budget at all, but 11 months after opening, we were on the front page of the New York Times Living Arts Section, in full color. We were written about in hundreds of publications on four continents, Were it not for 9/11, we’d still be there.
The Art Houses don’t need expensive alterations; they should be works in progress, beautified by the people who live in them; they should be scattered in every corner of the city. We don’t want to create another hip neighborhood that will soon become unaffordable. We want to make the whole city vibrate with creative energy again. We want to put something very real and constantly original in every neighborhood.
Art Houses are not havens for poseurs and wanna-be artists. These are not for art students, but for serious, working artists, struggling to put out high quality work. They’re for adults, giving tenants as much privacy or opportunity for interaction as they need to thrive. The success of art house businesses depends on the quality of the work they offer, so the residents have to be talented. A cheap place to live in San Francisco is like winning the lottery. We’ll be able to pick and choose the hottest, finest, and most philosophically attuned candidates for this project, and give the energy of their presence to the people of San Francisco.
As a native San Franciscan, and a therapist, I’ve seen cases of anxiety, depression, and alienation rising in an almost direct correlation with the loss of creative culture. We have thousands of arts organizations here, plenty of public art, and endless opportunities to see it. We have the vestiges of the artistic process, but very little of the process. In examining what artists give to the society around them, I’m increasingly convinced that we need artists around. This project intends to work with social scientists to observe changes in neighborhoods when the artists come back, in potent centers of artistic innovation, in pockets of bohemia.
Unlike a lot of horrors of the society we live in, this is a problem that can be easily fixed. We have everything that it takes to make it happen. There are empty buildings all over town, left empty for the purpose of showing a tax loss, that could fill artists’ housing and work needs. There are buildings for sale. There is a gold rush of capital. There are visionaries among us. There are people and businesses looking for a way to give back some of their own good fortune, or to leave a legacy—and giving San Francisco back its lost bohemian charm is more than just a legacy; it would be a celebrated one.
There are a lot of reasons why a person or company might want to make art houses happen. To begin with, Bohemia Redux is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and contributions are tax deductible. Bohemia Redux could use charitable donations to purchase buildings outright. But perhaps a more attractive option for donors is to retain ownership and provide long leases at very nominal rents. In this way, ownership serves the purpose of declaring a loss, but in the meanwhile, the value of the property increases. A building owner can show a loss for 10 years; then the art house owner sells the property at the end of that period to another buyer needing a loss. The owner realizes a profit because of the inexorable rise in property values in the city; or the nonprofit could purchase the building when it no longer is needed for tax purposes.
Donors might like to become limited partners in the Art House collaboration. A company might have particular interests in some field of art, like a social media business having a professional interest in photography, a very felicitous combination of supply and demand. A symphony donor might want to provide a building for musicians, or an art collector one for painters. There are endless possibilities in these natural confluences of shared fascinations—professionally, financially, and socially.
For companies, an involvement in a project of this kind offers a certain cachet and a cutting-edge prestige of potentially global consequence. Because of the absolute newness of this concept, and the lure of bohemia, it’s a natural source of the very best publicity, the kind you can’t buy.
Companies also need art to enliven their offices. If a company provides a building for painters, they have an ever-changing art rental service readily available. Providing the building to resident artists is like paying forward on a service that will provide constant pleasure and keep the work environment visually stimulating—while also providing that useful loss at the same time.
Art collectors have the decided advantage of being at the source of any rising stars. It could be like meeting the young Picasso at Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon—and buying a painting that in 10 years would increase in value exponentially.
There are financial advantages in involvement, but there’s more than that. This is about doing something brand new. No city has ever done this before. This is about changing tired paradigms and giving artists the respect they deserve for devoting their lives to pleasing us, at whatever cost. It’s about exploring unobserved values of the artist in the sociology, anthropology, and psychology of our culture, and attracting global interest in the process. This project is all about legacy.
People who have been to Burning Man can see this project embodies several of the 10 Principles that are the philosophical mooring of the community. It exemplifies the gifting economy, decommodification, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, participation, and immediacy. And like Burning Man, this project offers an interactive involvement in the world of the arts.
What we are offering here is a very unusual, organic kind of philanthropy, person to person, outside the weary paradigms of our broken society. This is a fresh business model that will, once again, bring the world’s attention to this city, but for something really good. This project epitomizes San Francisco values: doing things absolutely differently, and as usual, dramatically.
As Charles Bukowski famously said, “If you want to help the arts, give them cheap rent.” Art Houses give artists cheap rent and a venue to establish a career. The people who make them happen have a fascinating way to give back, tax advantages, adventure, and genuine patronage of the arts. This project may not be for everyone. Some people think they don’t really care about the arts, although they might change their minds if there were none, all of a sudden. But for people who do care about the arts, and the city we live in, this is the chance to tip the scales —for a gigantic win, win, win.