Fort Mason Is Really Two Institutions in One

With half a century left on its lease, the future of the arts is bright — and eventually, all the piers may be restored.

Sail boats docked at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco

Unlike nearby Fort Point, which was militarily obsolete almost from the moment it was built, Fort Mason functioned as a garrison and point of embarkation for nearly a century. And while Fort Point is a relic better known from its Vertigo cameo than for large gatherings, Fort Mason is arguably more dynamic than even when it operated as the jumping-off point for the entire Pacific theater of World War II.

It’s all because an earlier generation had the gift of foresight about the site, which is really two institutions in one. The parklike Upper Fort Mason, which the National Park Service manages, contains former officers’ houses, some of which are rental units — plus a youth hostel and a venue for weddings and other events. Lower Fort Mason, officially known as the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, contains the piers, a few bars and restaurants, a historic firehouse, a parking lot with lots of railroad tracks embedded in the asphalt, and a tunnel that may become an extension of the F-Market streetcar. It’s home to weekly food truck jamboree Off the Grid (whose season starts up in early spring). It’s still a work-in-progress.

“There were people here smart enough to think this old army base should be an arts center,” spokesperson Nick Kinsey tells SF Weekly. “We’ve been up and running for 41 years, so while we don’t know that we’ll ever be fully built out, it’s not exactly as if we have a lot of openings for tenants.”

About a decade into its lease, which extends for another 54 years, Fort Mason has acquired tenants like the San Francisco Art Institute, whose graduate campus is on Pier 2. Restoring that pile-supported structure required some $50 million, and the next task on its capital-improvement wish list is to restore Pier 1, the only two-story pier in San Francisco.

“We’re working in partnership with the National Park Service,” Kinsey says. “We hope in the next 10 to 20 years we accomplish much of that deferred maintenance.”

One issue the site faces is that people who attend Eat Drink SF, the Friends of the Library book sale, or a theatrical production at the Cowell Theatre may regard Fort Mason as simply a place for large-scale annual events of that magnitude. In reality, it’s busy almost every day of the year, from beer-and-brats palace Radhaus to the newly reopened vegetarian restaurant Greens (whose Greens to Go counter is also up and running) to the Interval.

Having been home to exhibits like the Isaac Julien parallel-video installation Playtime, the Fort Mason Center will see two big, concurrent openings this coming week. One is the U.S. premiere of Joan Jonas: They Come to Us without a Word, a multimedia show that opened at the 2015 Venice Biennale and now comes to Gallery 308, and the other is the sixth annual Fog Design+Art, possibly the closest thing San Francisco has to Art Basel. Jonas will perform her oceanic paean, “Moving Off the Land,” while amateur astronaut and wild-eyed lunar enthusiast Tom Sachs — whose 2016 show at YBCA, Space Program: Europa, was one of the best things we saw all that year — discusses the moon shot with Mythbusters’ Adam Savage. Not a bad second act for a glorified wharf where nervous sailors smoked their last cigarettes before heading to Guadalcanal.

 

Read more from SF Weekly’s Marina issue:

The Marina: The Neighborhood Everyone Loves to Hate
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Have a Cow, Man, at Marlowe’s Newest Spinoff
Sneak away for a bit of opulence at Cow Marlowe, which fits the neighborhood hand-in-glove.

Yacht Rocks: The Unsung History of the Marina District Lighthouse
A stone landmark that doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

What’s Happening With That Giant Building Behind the Palace of Fine Arts?
The city has struggled to find a purpose the Exhibition Center, one of the largest single-story structures in San Francisco.

Will the Marina Say Yes to Muni This Time?
Neighbors have opposed several transportation projects, but they’re hearing out preliminary plans to extend the Central Subway their way.

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