Intersection at a Crossroads: After a Staff Purge, Intersection for the Arts Fights for Life

On the opening night of her debut play, Mirrors in Every Corner, Oakland-born writer Chinaka Hodge held court in the second-story gallery of Intersection for the Arts, then a scrappy performance space on the Valencia Street corridor. It was February 2010, and Hodge was a study in self-possession. Wearing a green dress, she looked on, placidly, as patrons speared cheese slices and perused a photography exhibit covering West Oakland and the Mission District. The play had drawn a packed house and a flurry of enthusiastic press reviews. It marked a promising debut for the then 25-year-old writer, and the organization that helped incubate her.

Intersection seemed to have hit an artistic peak. It was presenting jazz and chamber music concerts at the de Young Museum, mounting experimental dance performances by Erika Chong Shuch, encouraging young playwrights to churn out scripts in spoken word cadence. Founded by community activists in the 1960s, it was a rare breed of arts nonprofit: funky, left-field, and low-budget, ballooned by imagination and lofty ideals. Such things once proliferated in San Francisco, but over the last 10 years, they've been eroding.

And, unbeknownst to Hodge, her audience, or some of the organization's staff members, Intersection faced an uncertain future as well.

But that would only come to light this May, when three of Intersection's program directors sent out a mass email to announce their impending departure. “With the specific shifts in the economy and culture of San Francisco, it has been increasingly difficult to operate and sustain a community-based nonprofit arts organization like Intersection,” staffers Kevin Chen, Rebeka Rodriguez, and Sean San Jose wrote. “It is truly amazing that we were able to exist for so long and be able to thrive with programs for as long as we did.”

The letter provided grim if cryptic acknowledgement of a liquidity crisis that had been brewing for quite some time. Intersection survived for years in a small black-box theater on Valencia Street because its rent and personnel costs were low, and more money was at one time trickling into its coffers. It had a leaner staff whose members earned less, on balance, than they would in 2014. The landlord charged far below market rate on the condition that Intersection staff took care of building maintenance.

Perhaps most importantly, the organization's former executive director, Deborah Cullinan, served as a fundraising and networking powerhouse. Under her leadership, Intersection established several artist residency programs and built relationships with a variety of arts institutions — including YouthSpeaks, the de Young, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Cullinan whipped the organization's finances into shape, erasing debt left over from the '80s and '90s. She was, in the words of Board Vice Chair Lawrence Thoo, a “terrific asset” — which in hindsight seems like an understatement.

But that golden age came to an end a few years ago, partly because the organization didn't have enough resources to scale up and fund larger, more ambitious projects, and partly because the building on Valencia Street was beginning to show its age. To make matters worse, the landlord decided to retire and bequeath the property to his heirs, who, as Thoo notes, didn't have the same interest in nourishing a shoestring nonprofit. “Then the writing was on the wall,” Thoo recalls. “We realized [we] weren't going to be enjoying this highly favorable arrangement for very much longer.”

Circumstances eventually brought the organization to its current venue in the Chronicle Building on Mission Street in 2011, where it also gets subsidized rent — $10,000 a month for about 6,200 square feet, when you include the gallery and basement — to coexist with a slew of start-ups and other organizations. Intersection could offset part of the cost by renting out desk or floor space, which made the new venue more attractive, even though its double-layer security doors weren't exactly conducive to running a theater. (They turned out to be necessary, interim Executive Director Randy Rollison says, because of rampant smartphone and laptop theft in SOMA.)

Overall, the building seemed promising, and Cullinan retooled Intersection's mission statement to suit its new environs. From then on, it would focus less on art-for-art's-sake, and more on art to benefit the surrounding neighborhood. Intersection began ramping up its education programs, presenting talks and panel discussion to coincide with its performances, and launching community art projects with kids from SOMA and the Mission District. On a retail artery that was becoming increasingly Twittered and Michelin-starred, it became a vestige of the do-gooder '60s — an organization that had grown up and returned to its roots.

And then in 2013 — two years after the move — Cullinan left to become the new executive director at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. In the months that followed, Intersection's finances deteriorated once again.

“It's enormously sad,” Rollison laments, sitting in his office on the ground floor of the Chronicle Building, where he's one of four remaining staff members after what turned out to be a merciless May purge. (He's taking over for Intersection's previous interim executive director, Arthur Combs, who was laid off.) A poster of clouds on Rollison's wall — incongruously coupled with a screensaver depicting a basket of eggs — seems to illustrate both the sagging morale and the wan hope for a better future.

Rollison says he's poaching ideas from some of the nonprofits that rent Intersection's floor space, such as New Media Ventures, which is hosting a conference at the venue that day. He says that San Jose, Chen, and Rodriguez are being furloughed, rather than dismissed, and that reports characterizing the staff cuts as a harbinger of downtown development are vastly overwrought.

“It's not about race, or class, or gentrification,” Rollison says. “We've had a year where we cut 30 percent of expenses, and then we had ideas about where new income would come from — and then it just didn't,” he says. Long-standing donors no longer wanted to lavish funds on an organization with an apparent leadership vacuum; new benefactors weren't coming in to replace them. The public outcry following initial reports of the May layoffs certainly didn't cause more donors to materialize, Rollison says. “It's been maybe a trickle,” he adds, glancing wearily at the ceiling. But for a thin layer of $1 and $5 bills, the donation box outside Intersection's door is mostly empty.

The day that Chen, San Jose, and Rodriguez announced their departure, Chinaka Hodge posted a Facebook status update that served as an encomium. “There is so much to this story you don't know or understand,” she wrote. “I know that these folks have invested in me, my art, my life as a playwright, for more years than I can count. They fiscally sponsored YouthSpeaks before we had an office, they gave me my first real summer job, they stayed up nights mopping floors and painting floors and repairing a theater so that I could see a life for myself as an artist.”

Fittingly, her new play, Chasing Mehserle, closed at Intersection that weekend.

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