CounterPulse to Turn Former Porn Theater into Cultural Hub

When Twitter moved onto the same block as the small but mighty art organization CounterPulse, it was a blessing in disguise. Though initially terrifying, the sky-high rent increase didn’t send the one-room SoMa theater running for the hills. In fact, after bringing new and diverse arts to the area on a small scale for 22 years, CounterPulse is on to bigger and better things.

Just in time to coincide with the end of their lease, CounterPulse proposes to switch neighborhoods — from SoMa to the Tenderloin — in an ambitious plan that includes raising over a million dollars, completely remodeling and re-purposing a run-down porn theater, and expanding massively in just about every area of operation. Through a series of talks with a consulting firm, an IndieGoGo campaign, and monetary help from several tech companies — including Twitter itself — the new and improved CounterPulse is nearly ready to go.

[jump] SF Weekly spoke with artistic director Julie Phelps and communications & engagement director Shamsher Virk about their exciting future plans for their new home at 80 Turk Street.

So explain to me how this whole process started, because you announced the move about a year ago. When did you know that you had to find a new space?

Phelps: Approximately two years ago, with two years left on our lease at our location on Mission Street, we began to search out alternatives, knowing that the real estate market wouldn't allow us to be able to renew our lease here at our current venue. So we began working with a consulting firm called the Northern California Community Loan Fund to analyze what we would really need in a facility if we moved, or what our finances would allow for us to take on in terms of buying, financing, or monthly rent increases.

Along the way, we also began talking with foundations that had a sort of stock of money that they wanted to invest in stabilizing arts organizations in San Francisco — especially seeing the real estate boom and not wanting to make the same mistake of the dot-com boom — and have the city hemorrhage arts organizations. So they said, “We have this five million dollars, we don't want to see the city lose all its arts organizations, what should we do?” And […] Community Loan Fund, said, “Instead of making more project grants to organizations, you should actually just buy buildings and place arts organizations in those buildings.”

Virk: Last November, we announced that we had the building and that we were going to be moving. And at that time we were primarily focused on raising the first $1.2 million towards the capital campaign. This month we're coming out into the public, but over the past year we've been working with existing major donors, with some new major donors, and with foundation support, to pull together that first benchmark. And now that we're there, or we're very close with that Indiegogo campaign to take us over the edge, we're ready to start our renovation.

So when will you actually relocate and be in the new space?

Phelps: We're aiming to start construction on November 15th and we're estimating approximately nine months for renovation. So we'll be relocating our operations over there at the end of summer next year. 

And while the new location isn’t so far away from where you are now, it is a totally different neighborhood. And the Tenderloin actually has a lot of existing theaters and exciting galleries. It that something that you all thought about when looking for a spot, that proximity to other art organizations?

Virk: Yeah, absolutely it was. Historically, that's the theater district of San Francisco. There's a part of this story that makes perfect sense: the revival of a part of the city that already has that in its DNA.

For CounterPulse there's all sorts of other interesting cultural intersections [in the Tenderloin]. The Compton Cafeteria Riots took place there, so in many people's books the gay rights movement started on that block two years before Stonewall. We've presented a lot of artists from the queer community, and we feel that that's history that's alive and relevant in civic conversation today, and is part of the arts that we're presenting.

And we have a lot of neighboring theaters. There's the Exit Theater, which is probably the most long-standing close neighbor to our new location, and also Cutting Ball Theater, which is an organization that we talked to before deciding on the move. The Center for New Music has just moved in. PianoFight is moving in around the corner.

And what kind of changes, if any, will there be to programming at CounterPulse?

Phelps: In many ways, the beauty of this building is that it's really just the expansion of the facility that we need to better support the programming that we're already doing. We've been bursting at the seams of our one-room operation on Mission Street for a number of years now.

That said, there will be changes to the programming, mostly expansion, because we're basically tripling our programmable space. We'll also be able to provide more space for community meetings and gatherings which we've started doing over at 80 Turk already. So the lobby space, for example, will be a comfortable space for hanging out after rehearsal, before rehearsal, grabbing a coffee or glass of wine after work — a store-front type presence on the street that we don't currently have at our existing venue. So we can hold discussions or lectures or gatherings in that lobby space that would support the programming that's happening in the theater in a way that we aren't able to do now.

Virk: We've been experimenting with bringing to our neighbors in low-income housing at Catholic Charities CYO, Edith Witt Senior Center, 10th and Mission Family Housing. So we've been taking artists from our Performing Diaspora series, (many of whom share cultural backgrounds with residents, some of whom are immigrants) in these buildings — taking programming to them, inviting them to potluck performances at our space, developing workshops for them that are relevant to their interests, and meet them where they're at in terms of their own artistic practice, or lack thereof.

So we're trying to keep a similar approach to building out programming with the neighbors at our new location. That's the kind of programming that we see a lot of opportunity for in the new location.

Like you said, you have a Indiegogo campaign. Is that the best way for people to get involved?

Virk: We have an Indiegogo campaign that's raising funds for some of the technical theatrical equipment that we still have yet to pay for but that are part of the renovation — so lighting, sound, and video equipment. We're making a call-out to residents of San Francisco, and specifically we're reaching out to a lot of new arrivals in the mid-Market area, so tech professionals, and tech companies as well, to develop corporate partnerships — to have a conversation about “What is the city that they want to live in?”

We see CounterPulse as a mitigator for gentrification, a space where people can come together and dialogue. This is the beginning of that conversation. We're inviting people to invest in the Indiegogo campaign and join the community.

For more information visit counterpulse.org.

 

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