Nick Olivero of Boxcar Theatre wasn't even looking for a permanent home when the artistic director of the two-and-a-half-year-old company saw the space on Natoma Street. But he instantly knew it was too good to pass up. This month, Boxcar will present its first show in its new theater, just the latest example of the resurgence of the SoMa neighborhood as a vibrant arts scene.
SoMa has played the role of underground arts hub before, most recently in the 1980s and 1990s, before high rents and noise complaints from the late-'90s dotcom residents pushed artists and arts companies out to the Mission or further afield. Earlier still, in pockets like the Folsom Street corridor and at the Jon Sims Center, SoMa offered artists space to create and a community to support and celebrate them.
The closing of Jon Sims Center last month may have signaled trouble for the SoMa arts community, but other organizations are already springing up and expanding to continue the push. In addition to Boxcar, the Garage artspace around the corner on Howard Street has just marked its six-month anniversary; CounterPULSE on Mission and Ninth Street is approaching two and a half years in its space; Off-Market Theaters on Market and Sixth just turned three and a half. This month, Climate Theater, a longtime performance and event venue, will jump-start its production groundbreaking work under new artistic director Jessica Heidt.
One of the main reasons for this surge, unsurprisingly, is the availability of space at a relatively reasonable price. And not just any space: "SoMa has this amazing architecture," says Joe Landini, director of the Garage, who considers Mission storefronts too small for the dance and performance work he supports. "It's a great stock of buildings, with high ceilings and wonderful, big spaces."
Another big draw for SoMa is its proximity to downtown and transportation, particularly BART. Olivero remembers the days of his first production, on a beach, when Boxcar had to provide free transportation for playgoers.
Many artists also think of SoMa as the most exciting place to build their artistic homes. "San Francisco is in dire need of a downtown scene," says Heidt, who, before joining Climate this summer, served as associate artistic director of the Magic Theatre. She remembers when the area around 11th and Folsom was the center of the nightlife universe, and hopes that the rebirth of the arts scene, along with clubs and restaurants, will bring people back again. "SoMa feels like it could reemerge as a place where people can go for a hipper, edgier experience."
But there's an inevitable downside to being edgy. SoMa's wide boulevards are almost bereft of foot traffic, especially at night, making it difficult for arts organizations to draw in passersby off the streets. Open drug use and panhandling in areas like 6th Street also cause some patrons to stay away. Even companies that don't consider the environment a real barrier to attracting audiences — some patrons, according to Landini, see navigating SoMa streets at night as "part of the adventure" — understand that if they wish to expand their audiences beyond the young urban crowd, the walk from Market Street to their doors presents a challenge.
Furthermore, merely embracing the labels "hipper" and "edgier" can be enough to hinder an arts organization's growth potential. Such is the case for New Langton Arts. This SoMa-based organization has pioneered experimental and groundbreaking work for more than 30 years, championing once little-known artists who routinely go on to earn retrospectives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and other prestigious museums around the country and beyond. Yet New Langton's ongoing support of riskier artists has hampered the organization's ability to receive the support and recognition it needs to grow.
"There is a disconnect," says Sandra Percival, who in her two-year tenure as director of New Langton has emphasized the work of established local artists. "It's a city with a lot of potential. The talent is here. It's a question of how you move it to the next level. It's been the question for the last 20 or 30 years." For Percival, one of the keys lies in engaging and encouraging local arts philanthropists to look beyond the biggest organizations, like SFMOMA, the Opera, and the Ballet.
But before SoMa's arts organizations start going for the big money, they all plan to strengthen SoMa's already existing arts community. Olivero wants to throw a theater block party. Off-Market Theater's founder, Matthew Quinn, and CounterPULSE's executive director, Jessica Robinson, often turn to each other and other neighborhood groups for support and to share resources.
Beyond the city, SoMa leaders like Percival, Quinn, Robinson, and Heidt are developing a national and international exchange of artists and ideas — one that will bring the artistic world to San Francisco's doorsteps and share our local artistic visions with the world. "We want to work together to create a vibrant community here," says Heidt, who has seen many an artist leave the Bay Area to pursue their passion elsewhere. "We want to show artists they can have a career based here, that they don't have to move to New York."