On the ground floor of the San Francisco Chronicle building at Mission and 5th streets, Mission-based arts organization Intersection for the Arts opened its first exhibition in its satellite project space, Intersection 5M. The show’s title, Let’s Talk of a System is based on a quote by wise and wild artist, Joseph Beuys. The longer quote Intersection used, as the basis for the project is, “Let’s talk of a system that transforms all the social organisms into a work of art, in which the entire process of work is included…something in which the principle of production and consumption takes on a form of quality. It’s a Gigantic project.”
This is a gigantic project indeed. Not only is Intersection charting new territory by expanding their programming space from their Valencia Street location, where they have operated for over forty years, they are doing so under the banner of a new partnership with co-working and events organization, The Hub. This is an unprecedented partnership in San Francisco between a long-standing non-profit arts organization and a for-profit company seeking to bolster ethically responsible capitalist ventures by using social networking strategies.
Installing the exhibition, Let’s Talk of a System, as the inaugural show was no accident. The projects present varying responses to environmental disasters like war, rising water, food shortages, industrial abuse (of both the land and humanity) and an overall loss of a direct relationship to the land in which we live. The art work in the exhibition, on view through July 3, seems a fitting cause for the effect the clients of the Hub are trying to activate in the marketplace.
The Hub is a multi-national consortium of spaces founded in part by Kevin Jones and is, according to their brochure, “a coworking space, event series and business support tool for a global and local community of changemakers. Members come to Hubs across 5 continents to collaborate, access market opportunities and capital, and scale ideas for social and environmental change. It is a place-based and online community of entrepreneurs, freelance professionals, artists, funders, students, mentors, community leaders… We borrowed from the best of a member’s club, idea lab, and the comforts of home to create a different kind of space – a habitat for change makers.”
From the outset, I admit I was skeptical of this model. It sounded like a place where indefinable things like “synergy” could happen, or more to the point, where a lot of hollow motivational jargon could be exchanged by venture capitalists for no other reason than a good old ego rub down, but that kind of stereotypical cynicism (no matter how hard I tried to make it fit) does not accurately describe this company. The model is open ended and is as strong as the members who pay to utilize the space, the equipment and consulting services with the intention to get their socially responsible projects off the ground.
There are no qualifying criteria for Hub membership (aside from paying the fees) but it is clear that there is a kind of self-selection of like-minded people happening. (Conceivably, you could rent a space at the Hub to manage your online pajama-gram business, but there would be little benefit for you.) The Hub events, tools and programs are set up to allow for marketing and networking for people looking to effect tangible (and profitable) change across the globe. Without being invested in those ideas, the Hub would not seem to be a place for a person to invest time or money. Instead, by simply reading through the list of the already 300 members of the Bay Area Hub community, it is clear to see that the Hub is bringing together some of the more inspired social actions of our generation.
Intersection for the Arts’ philosophies are aligned with The Hub’s in that both organizations see great possibility in small groups of people coming together and combining their resources to, for instance, change environmental policy or bring justice to silenced voices. The Hub is working to achieve this by supporting and creating networks for alternative business models. Intersection is achieving this by creating systems of support for artists who use their practice as a conduit for change and growth.
In fact, Intersection could also fit onto the list of inspiring leaders of the arts and activist communities. Started in the 1960’s, Intersection is a multi-disciplinary arts organization that has been, according to its mission statement, “rooted in a commitment to utilize art to provide alternative solutions to immediate community and larger world concerns. Intersection is well-known for its commitment to emphasizing the process of art-making and creating space and time for artists and audience members to come together to imagine and create new cultural experiments that aim to transform our world.” For decades, the literary, theater, Jazz and visual arts programming has been tirelessly dedicated to supporting artists whose work aims to tell stories about how one can and has change the world (for better or worse).
So how did an organization like Intersection, a place so fiercely dedicated to promoting the voices of activism and change, end up collaborating with an international for-profit company? The partnership between The Hub and Intersection began to materialize over two years ago when both groups were vying for the New College buildings on Valencia Street (at publication time, these buildings are expected to become a restaurant complex).
That real estate venture eventually fell through but The Hub and Intersection were excited by the potential of a shared space. Both organizations wanted to expand their audiences. Intersection was looking to move outside of the well-worn resources of the Bay Area arts community and tap into not only new funding sources but also new avenues of outreach and creative collaboration. The Hub was looking to annex San Francisco into their already global network (Berkeley included) of physical and on-line communities.
The staffs of both companies continued to talk to each other about their missions and goals that were far more similar than their operational models might suggest. Organically, this relationship grew and they were soon actively looking for space to potentially share. When the Hub found the Chronicle building space, they moved in and quickly transformed the first floor into a green, communal office and meeting space.
I spoke with Intersection’s program director, Kevin Chen, in the Hub space last Tuesday evening, where he pointed out that the Hub is wholly aligned ideologically with the kind of arts programming Intersection is doing, which is working with artists dealing with social and political issues.
“If the Hub was not also working with companies, people and communities that are using social networking venture capitalism to incite measurable change in environmental and social change, then the partnership would not have worked for either party” said Chen.
“It’s venture capitalism 2.0, but instead of some new-fangled business idea, they are all businesses rooted in some kind of change. A lot of people here are involved in the environmental movement. It seems like the predominant movement the membership is working in, but there businesses here working in fair trade and water issues in the third world etcetera, etcetera.”
Both organizations and the communities that sustain them need to sincerely believe in this alternative, co-operative business model or it would be sustainable, instead, ringing false, as a shameless plug for money for a big space and some bodies to fill it. (For its part, the Chronicle described the goals of the collaboration as “as lofty and marvelous as they are vague.”) Of course the partnership is still less than a month old, but the energy in the space is noticeable and from my point of view, genuine.
The Hub secured a five-year lease on 7200 sq. ft. space and is underwriting Intersection’s gallery space in its entirety over the course of that lease. Being in the downtown space, and particularly in a building as iconic as the SF Chronicle building, they will be able to (and have already) reach a much wider and formally unknown community. Intersection will be able to show their long faithful audience that there are scores of businesses and entrepreneurs working to affect change in how the environment is considered and treated. At the same time, they hope to show a previously untapped community that there is an enormous population of artists all over the world using their own practice to articulate how social and political events affect them and their communities.
“Our hope is that this will expand our circle of influence and artists’ circles of influence, in fact, partnerships have already been sparked between the membership and the artists in the current exhibition” says Chen. “Yes, this is a calculated risk, but it makes sense ultimately because of their shared philosophies.”
As for the rest of the San Francisco Chronicle building and the surrounding area, if mega-developers ForestCity have their way, enormous changes are under way. The building itself is still owned by the Hearst Corporation, but Forest City has been hired to reinvigorate the first two floors now that the Chronicle (which certainly seems to like The Hub) and the SFGate have been relegated to the third floor.
In addition, Forest City intends to develop a four-acre “center of innovation” which could serve as a model for the rest of the nation by populating the campus with like-minded, socially responsible organizations with Intersection, The Hub and TechShop (a membership based community resource center and tool and workshop rental service) as the anchors.
There will be no real distinction between for-profit or non-profit when selecting the tenants; they are instead looking for companies with the will to take on this “gigantic” project. Other possible members of the “center of innovation” include San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking, a new charter school and other non-profit organizations aimed at supporting young artists.
No matter who eventually populates this cavernous cross-section of San Francisco, the key to the grand project’s sustainability is fostering a direct and symbiotic relationship between the companies and the communities they serve. This demands some organizational acrobatics on the part of the businesses in order to stay in touch with the people they serve and to anticipate what they will need in the future, whenever that may happen to be.