The "last bastion of freak culture" on Valencia turns 30

Nov 11, 2014

Unlike apartments, businesses and non-profits in San Francisco don’t have rent protection. This year more than 4,000 businesses will be forced to close or relocate in the city.

The problem is especially acute for nonprofits. This spring the city’s arts community was shaken up when Intersection for The Arts, one of the oldest and most prominent local small-scale non-profit arts spaces, suspended much of it’s full-time staff, cut back programming and announced that they are financially “no longer sustainable.”

With so many waves of change constantly rolling across the city, you might wonder what it takes for a small arts group to not get swept away. If you look beyond the new restaurants, cafés and boutique shops, on Valencia Street there are hints of what gave this neighborhood the reputation of having some of the most eclectic underground arts organizations in the country.

A living time capsule

Inside the ATA, or Artists’ Television Access, they‘re showing a film of half-naked, fake business people making deals on unplugged phones. The film is from 2000 and they’re part of a series performance art pieces protesting gentrification in the Mission.

Tonight, in honor of their 30th anniversary, ATA is kicking off a 30-hour film marathon.  That is 30 hours of non-stop underground films and media art up on their screen – exactly what they specialize in.

Katie Goodman used to volunteer here and she’s in for the long haul.

“I’ll be here as late as they’re going and it looks like they’ve got programming all through the night,” says Goodman.

Most of the seats are taken. Upstairs, the projection-booth-slash-office is bustling with reunions. People are buoyant. That’s because tonight, they’re not just showing 30 hours of films, they’re also celebrating 30 years of friendships and 30 years of staying small and scrappy.

Marshal Webber, one of ATA’s founders, introduces his film: “For this showing we’re actually using the original, vintage VHS video cassette!”

A video cassette is like a living time capsule. ATA represents a culture that used to be common in the Mission. They started in 1984, back when television meant television –  large, clunky, rabbit-eared blocks – and right now there is a flock them glowing in their storefront window.

When I walked in here was a video on of former mayor Willie Brown getting pied. Their main space is a small, threadbare theater that can fit a few dozen people.

While Webber isn’t with ATA anymore, he is proud of their history as a pioneer in video art.

“I mean if you have a list of the people in media and art who did fairly well after ATA it’s pretty impressive,” says Webber. “And it’s still going. Not because of me, but because of a lot of other folks who have been working hard here over the decades.”

An open door for local artists

Back in 1984, ATA was more of a workshop for editing video. You needed serious equipment then, you couldn’t just shoot and edit something on your phone. ATA gave budding artists a place to put their videos together and a place to show them. Later, they shifted away from charging for gear rental and editing services and focused their energy on being a theater and a community space.

“ATA isn’t here because we wanted it to be,” Webber tells me. “It’s here because the community wanted it to be.”

He feels like being a small do-it-yourself organization has let them give more artists the chance to show their work here.

“You know a lot of institutions are really stuck in the museum model where it’s like, ‘Well, in two years we’ll have this slot for you,’” says Webber. “Whereas, at ATA, if someone good walked in the door it was like, ‘We’ll squeeze you in here!’ Waiting a year? That’s like waiting a century.”

This casual, approachable, door-always-open atmosphere made them a lot of friends.

“You give someone their first show and they’re happy about it, they’re gracious they bring a little audience and it kind of snowballs,” says Webber.

And that snowballing is how ATA does business. They are volunteer-run, meaning no staff. No staff means no payroll. And not having to spend money on things like salaries and advertising is one of the main reasons that they were able to survive the dot-com boom of the late 90s, when commercial rents went up more than 40% in just two years.

Just a neighborhood over is another modest arts organization with similar beginnings, CounterPULSE. Both organizations are from the same generation of small DIY art spaces that lean political.

Keith Hennessy is a dancer who helped start the space.

“Countless numbers of people made performances or choreographed dances or put together visual exhibitions, or put together sex parties, or workshops of political events,” says Hennessy. “We were constantly open to the communities or the projects that didn't have a home base elsewhere. Before trans-performers and trans-artists were being welcomed into all the LGBT spaces, they were doing events at our space.”

Like ATA, CounterPULSE was easy to work with and inclusive. And also like ATA, they built up a community slowly and naturally. But, during the dot-com boom there was a lot of pressure from the landlord to move out. At the same time, they were getting more ambitious.

“We started to have bigger curatorial visions,” says Hennessy. “Those required money and then if you want to play that game with funders, you need to professionalize.”

And so, unlike ATA, the new vision meant that they would restructure and become a more typical non-profit so that they could get grants. They hired staff, signed a lease, and in 2005 made the move to Mission Street in the SOMA district.

Holding their ground

Now after 10 years of renting the SOMA space, they are making the jump to buying a building in the Tenderloin. A huge leap for a group that was basically run out of a living room 10 years ago.

CounterPULSE Communications Director, Shamsher Virk, says that being ready years ahead of time is key.

“It's become really clear that preparation is everything for these things. So there's very little you can do when you're facing eviction next month or a doubling of your rent next month,” says Virk. “You need to reach out a least, 18 months before the end of your lease, let’s say.”

Which is especially relevant back down Mission Street at ATA, because their lease is going to be up in 18 months. In the 80s their connections with the neighborhood got them a long-term, cheap lease. Now, it is unclear if they’ll be able to afford to renew their lease at the end of 2015. But they don’t want to leave the city, the Mission, or even this block.

Back at their 30-hour film marathon I meet a volunteer named Joshua Harper. As he leans against the glass storefront, he explained to me why he had come out: “ATA is the last bastion of what you would call underground freak culture left in the entire neighborhood. It’s like a miracle it’s still alive so I’m here to support it.”

Choosing to be non-hierarchical and volunteer run has invigorated them and helped them last, but being weird and welcoming has been made them one large offbeat family. And when their lease is up in 18 months we’ll find out if that is enough to let them survive into the next generation of their neighborhood.