Warehouse history shows importance of artists living where they work | KALW

Warehouse history shows importance of artists living where they work

Mar 2, 2017

Instead of ringing the doorbell, when you come by Craig Baldwin’s home on Valencia street, he asks you to stomp on the metal plate in the sidewalk.

 

“I'm the last straggling guy in the mission,” he explains. “I'm the leaseholder here by the way”

Baldwin has lived here at Artist Television Access since they moved in, in 1987. They’re a small theater and event space that focuses on film. Baldwin himself is a well known experimental filmmaker; he keeps his film archives in the basement. But before moving in, he lived in the iconic “Project One”. 

“It’s like a four story building,” he describes, “five with the basement. There were 78 or 79 people in there. Probably more at one point.”

According to local historians, Project One was the first community of young artists who lived in an old industrial space in San Francisco. Before 1971, those spaces weren’t available because they were still filled with industry. Large scale manufacturing hadn’t started to leave the city in earnest yet. Dozens of artists moved into this 84,000 square foot old candy factory at 10th and Harrison in SoMa. Baldwin describes it as a multi-story vertical village, with projects all over the building.

“Stained glass, filmmaking, silk screen printing, or music studio,” says Baldwin. “And on the first floor there was actually a computer lab, one of the very earliest.”

Project One was for people who needed a large space, a studio, and their work wouldn’t fit into a normal house. Affordability was also crucial.

“The idea is if you lived in apartment then you had a studio somewhere else across town you'd be paying 2 rents,” Baldwin explains.

They would have been paying an average of around $400 a person, adjusted for inflation, to live and work there. He says he could never have become an established filmmaker without that space. 

He explains that economics for artists are the same now. “The cost of paying for the gallery space is made up for, by the renters.”

Hosting music performances, films, and art shows provided a venue for lesser known talents, and at the same time, helped residents pay the rent.  

The early 1970s saw a wave of artists moving into unused spaces in San Francisco’s SoMa and Mission districts. But these spaces rarely last. Project One got evicted in the early 80s, and almost every other industrial art space in San Francisco is long gone.

While some of these old-time collectives became part of the city’s current arts establishment, there is one tenacious space in the mission district that has survived,  against the odds, for decades. This space still there, and they’re still relevant.

“Artaud is beautiful,” Baldwin says. “They succeeded. for whatever reason.”

Project Artaud started in 1971 right after Project One. They’re in an old American Can Company factory that takes up a whole city block, and they began with practically nothing.

“There was no walls!” exclaims Nicole Sawaya, “So it was unbelievable. It open into this 40,000 square foot space. It was amazing. It was a cathedral!”

Sawaya used to manage the theater here. She moved to Project Artaud in 1978 and has lived here ever since. Like Craig Baldwin, she says that having both arts and living spaces in the same building was economically essential.

For the authorities, though, this was unprecedented -- Sawaya says the city had never heard of having events in the same space where people lived. They condemned the building almost immediately. And this would have been the end of the line in other spaces. But Project Artaud had an ace up their sleeve, an advantage that very few artist spaces had then or now: They own the building.

“And we wouldn't be here,” she explains “if back in 1971 those very very smart people hadn't said: ‘You know forget about leasing it - let's buy it.’”

The city of San Francisco didn’t make people stop living there, and Artaud worked with them slowly over the years to write new codes and get the building into compliance with existing regulations. It was a back and forth, beginning with sprinklers, fire doors, and exit signs.

“But the city was pretty amazing back then,” says Sawaya, “it was very elastic. We were in conversation with them for 10 years.”

By 1984, the whole building was legal, and people have lived there legally ever since.

And it’s not just Project Artaud and Artist Television Access. Southern Exposure, The Lab and Counterpulse are all pillars in the local arts establishment, and they all grew out of spaces of questionable legality in the 70s and 80s. But as it gets more difficult to use spaces like these, it gets harder to see what will seed the next generation of arts organizations in the Bay Area.

 

All the music in this piece is by victims of the Ghost Ship fire: