Arts groups create new music opportunities in the Tenderloin

Enough. After months of grim reports about how this country is sloping toward a massive economic apocalypse, it's time for a bit of good news. So here it is: One of the most down-and-out parts of San Francisco is about to experience a small but important financial and creative boost. More specifically, two arts organizations with distinct musical slants are collaborating to open up new performance, recording, and practice spaces for musicians in the dead hulls of skid row businesses.

The first new sign of life comes from the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, a progressive group that began as a wee gallery above the DNA Lounge in late 2006 and has become an umbrella organization with a vision for the Tenderloin. In its early SOMA days, Gray Area Gallery hosted forward-thinking openings with such electro-video acts as Official Tourist and live bands like the Mall. Executive director Josette Melchor grew that concept into a nonprofit foundation, which is taking over 4,000 square feet in what was an old porn theater at 55 Taylor, right off Market and behind the Warfield. That space will become the main Gray Area Gallery, as well as the official home of the internationally recognized, experimental sound organization Recombinant Media Labs (RML), which closed its Brannan Street structure last spring.

On the music side, both Gray Area and RML support sound-based art with a high-tech bent. The gallery, which is expected to open its Taylor Street space in July, will host live performances and will exhibit music-related art. Gray Area hired Susan Langan (DJ Qzen), a musician and editor at iTunes, to be its music director. Melchor says Langan will focus heavily on electronic acts. "We're trying to curate an experience that fits with electronic media and software-based artwork," she explains. (The gallery currently represents artist Aaron Koblin, the technical director for the haunting Radiohead video "House of Cards.")

Gray Area's approach dovetails nicely with RML, which is expanding its local outreach to points along the West Coast. RML executive director Naut Humon expects his organization's San Francisco office will open a couple of months behind Gray Area's gallery. It will be an annex slightly smaller in size than RML's previous compound, but will include an immersive audiovisual lab configurable for live music performances, film screenings, and other multimedia installations. In the past RML has hosted acts ranging from turntablists Invisibl Skratch Piklz to techno god Richie Hawtin and electronic innovators Matmos. Humon says RML's goal is to inspire collaborations with its Bay Area neighbors and with traveling artists looking to tinker with projects in San Francisco.

"It's all about how people are going to make alliances and band together," Humon says, "and make things happen regardless of economic realities and pressures on people."

The groundbreaking for Gray Area Arts Foundation happened at 55 Taylor on an overcast afternoon a couple of weeks ago. It brought together the diverse support network seeing this project to fruition: In addition to Melchor's staff and Humon, representatives from the mayor's office and the San Francisco Entertainment Commission gave props to what could be a Tenderloin arts hub (the space is being funded in part by grants from the city).

But the good tidings for the Tenderloin don't end with Gray Area and RML. The Entertainment Commission's Terrance Alan, who helped Melchor land the Taylor Street building, is interested in converting another old porn theater — the Doll House on Turk Street — into a mixed-use arts space, with music included in that focus as well. Alan explained recently that he's in the preliminary stages of working with local music, theater, and dance organizations to turn the former theater into band rehearsal spaces (in the soundproof basement) and a live performance space. There's also talk of the San Francisco Arts Commission attempting to convert unused rooms in the nearby Golden Gate Theater into studio spaces — for artists and musicians alike.

It's exciting to hear about one neighborhood becoming home to so many locally grown projects that would benefit musicians. After all, more than in most cities, San Francisco's music scene thrives on the grassroots efforts that support cutting-edge artists and ideas. If all goes well on Taylor Street, novice music innovators would have a training ground for mixing with industry elders, while global trailblazers would have dedicated places to showcase their talent.

The collective visions of Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and Terrance Alan band together micro organizations for macro impact (similar to what Eric K. Arnold reports this week is envisioned for the Zoo in Oakland; see story on previous page).

Melchor believes that these cross-purpose partnerships have positive long-term effects on the arts while mirroring the creative world at large. "It's the future of where things are going in the technology realm," she says, citing examples like social networking sites and open source software as places where shared ideas blossom.

The more innovative groups cooperate on the smaller picture, the brighter the big picture becomes.

 
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