SAFEhouse Arts Finds a Long-Term Home in the Tenderloin

And it's already moved twice! But the Tenderloin arts scene continues to expand as cultural organizations buy buildings and sign longer-term leases.

Joe Landini (Robbie Sweeny)

Choreographer Joe Landini has helped San Franciso performers to collaborate, explore, and produce new work for 25 years. The director of SAFEhouse Arts — the acronym stands for Saving Art From Extinction — a co-op that has been bringing dancers and audiences together for a decade, Landini recently opened a new space in the heart of the Tenderloin.

 “I didn’t really plan on celebrating my anniversary,” he explains, at SAFEhouse’s new home at 145 Eddy St. “But I did the math, and I realized that I’d been running SAFEhouse [formerly known as The Garage] for 10 years, that we have a 15-year lease on this new space, and that I’ve been making dances in San Francisco for 25 years.” 

Landini has reason to celebrate and to be excited about the future. He’s among those artists who weathered the city’s changing economic landscape through the dotcom boom and found a foothold in the bust years. During the peak of that tech bubbles, many venues that dancers had relied on for years shut their doors, often leaving performers without anywhere to rehearse for an upcoming show. After the economy shifted, Landini took advantage of real estate openings in SoMa, founding The Garage in 2007 at 975 Howard St. In the 10 years since, Landini and his staff have moved venues twice, renaming their co-op SAFEhouse, reflecting their mission of sustaining and supporting performance work in San Francisco.

“We had — and still have — a timeshare model. Dancers received a four-hour slot for 12 weeks, and then are required to have a show,” he says. “The box office then goes toward maintaining the space.” 

Landini explains that the city of San Francisco has made an effort in recent years to keep artists in the city, providing funds through the payroll tax on Twitter and other sources. Support from the city made it possible for Landini to open on Eddy Street, at a site he’d long had his eye on. Formerly a gay porn theater, there was funding in place for the space to find a new life, and Landini saw an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. He emphasizes the importance of building community, and of not being seen as “colonists” in the neighborhood.

“We opened the space with a meditation, a kind of ritual led by Pearl Ubungen, a long-time Tenderloin artist and activist,” he says. “We invited the neighbors and artists who had worked on her show Take me to the Tenderloin 20 years ago. A lot of young people join our co-op, and it was great for them to see what an anti-gentrification ritual looks like.”

Over the years, SAFEhouse has enabled budding choreographers and dancers from the University of San Francisco, S.F. State, CalState Hayward and Mills College to create and perform work. They also have the opportunity to participate in running the space. Young performers can apply to be “Lead Artists,” gaining experience in everything from running lights to marketing and development. They receive a percentage of the box office take, as well as invaluable experience. 

For the anniversary show, 25 and 5, Landini invited choreographers Alma Esperanza CunninghamNina Haft, and Ronja Ver to join him in presenting new work. Another collaborator, Amy Lewis, was invited to present a piece she and Landini premiered last fall about San Francisco’s historic Leather District. Landini’s own new work invites the audience to sit in 25 chairs interspersed throughout the venue. The nine dancers have to navigate the space between the chairs, embodying a metaphor for Landini’s experience navigating the San Francisco arts scene, with all its pitfalls and possibilities.

“I was always a big, athletic dancer. I’m not that dancer now. My pieces are more introspective,” Landini says, adding that they involve “more storytelling.

“We are the keepers of the stories, the story of the city is in these dancers’ bodies,” he says.

5 on 25: A Celebration for Joe Landini’s 25th Anniversary, Thursdays through Satudays, Dec. 7-16, 8 p.m. at SAFEhouse Arts, 145 Eddy St. $15-$30; safehouse.org 

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