Reconsecrated: Saint Joseph’s Arts Society Wants to Become a Cultural Powerhouse

Ken Fulk beautifully restored an abandoned Catholic Church on Howard Street in SoMa with ambitions of a grand, multipurpose venue. But is it largely for the One Percent?

Crippling acrophobia can be almost fun, like a scary movie, even when its closest reference point is a famous suspense film. Climbing the spiral staircase inside one of the twin steeples atop Saint Joseph’s Church and Complex in SoMa gave a recent visitor a quick bout of vertigo, but it was mostly from imagining people at a cocktail party ascending to this aerie with a drink in their hand and two in their stomach. Set off by two roseate windows, the brick-walled room several stories above street level looks a lot different from the belfry in which a blind nun emerges from the shadows at the climax of Vertigo, sending Kim Novak plummeting to her death.

God have mercy. Hitchcock’s film may be slightly overrated, but this edifice is not. The church, built on the cusp of the First World War, was deconsecrated decades ago and added to the National Register of Historic Places. It languished in the landmark equivalent of development hell, slowly falling prey to entropy, the gold on its steeples peeling away — until last year, when it became Saint Joseph’s Arts Society, a subscription-based cultural organization with grand and slightly transgressive ambitions of becoming a local powerhouse for contemporary art.

Inside this century-old former house of worship, the staff tends to cluster in one area. Although the floors have radiant heat, the building can be drafty and companionship is that much more pleasant. Over tea in a ground-floor nook framed by flower-print curtains and a chiaroscuro still-life, foundation manager Aimee Le Duc explains how Saint Joseph’s patron-subscriber system works. She compares it to the opera or the ballet, where annual giving underwrites the programming, and refers to the founding subscribers as 20 or so “like-minded individuals in the arts or who support art” who nominated another 20 artist-subscribers.

“If they contribute to the foundation, it receives funding, and that’s what largely drives our arts programming,” she adds. “So these two pillars grow together.”

To get to this sitting area near the top of one of the steeples, you must carefully ascend a vertiginous spiral staircase. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

Anyone can apply, and although there aren’t pricing tiers for various levels of support, Le Duc adds that Saint Joseph’s is developing its own version of Young Ambassadors and engaging established nonprofits elsewhere to establish an artist-in-residency program. Still, on paper, it can sound more DeDe Wilsey than Monique Jenkinson, something opulent enough to lure the readership of the Nob Hill Gazette south of Sutter Street once in a while, attracted by the Darwin, Sinke, & van Tongeren ursine taxidermy or the trio of horseheads with cannonballs for eyes.

But while comparatively well-connected institutions like the American Conservatory Theater hold fundraising galas here that can net proceeds in the high six and low seven figures, Le Duc is adamant that Saint Joseph’s is not some playground for the One Percent. She, along with society manager Sarah O’Rourke and director of events Lizaveta Sergeev, insists that grassroots programming is important to the mission. A veteran of Mission gallery space Southern Exposure and the SF Arts Commission Galleries, Le Duc said Fulk hired her in part because of a desire to bring art to the space and make it widely accessible, not to reinforce exclusivity.

Noting that the five-month-old organization is “still in our infancy,” Le Duc mentions founding artist-subscriber Catherine Wagner, whose photography-on-vinyl altarpiece draws the eye to where the priests once presided. A collection of busts, it effects a sort of trompe l’oeil reimagining of the College of Cardinals electing some long-ago pope. On the mezzanine is the new San Francisco location of Carpenters Workshop Gallery, where Vincenzo De Cotiis’ show “Ein Plein Air” is on display there through June, showing quasi-functional objects made from basalt and recovered resins.

One of the many nooks on either side of Saint Joseph’s nave. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

“There will always be a public opportunity to come see the work, to come hear the lectures,” Le Duc adds, observing that the Society has a good working relationship with the Presidio Knolls school next door, and with organizations who have nonprofit subscriptions taht allow them to hold events or meetings in the church. Although they’re not “mission-aligned,” Le Duc singles out Dena Beard of The Lab as an exemplar of how to stay true to San Francisco’s edgier values. She escorts her visitor all around, from the Assouline Book Salon and apothecary shop in the church’s narthex to the sunny meeting space in the former sacristy off the altar. As an event space, it’s undeniably fabulous.

“Not only are you experiencing visual art, dance, and performance, you’re also drinking an amazing glass of wine in this beautiful space, and it all really comes together in our motto: Every moment matters,” Le Duc says. “You really can take that one way or the other. I often can be very cynical about things, but I have to say after working in nonprofits arts administration for so long this is a model that could change things. … Maybe we can package it up and hand it out to other cities, and it can be a new model for how we support arts.”

Romanesque Revival can read as squatter and more fortress-like than Gothic churches, more rural abbey than cathedral, but the light pouring through Saint Joseph’s windows on a clear afternoon takes on a celestial cast. (The nave’s northwest-southeast orientation guarantees a lot of sun.) And Fulk’s occasionally heavy but usually deft hand is all over it, such that the seams of the mezzanine don’t align flush with the legally protected walls. (If you want to “stick a thumbtack” in them, Le Duc says, you need the approval of the Department of the Interior. So they built the mezzanine to be one stand-alone piece.)

Darwin, Sinke, & van Tongeren is a design duo that cites the 19th-century biologist as their third partner, and their standard-bearing lions may become a permanent installation at St. Joseph’s. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

As the recent repackaging and bowdlerization of a cheery West Oakland home testifies, minimalism is the “language of gentrification.” When it comes to stripping a bright paint job and banishing ornament from a century-old house to make it palatable to people with more fear than taste, that is true. But the underlying issue is more complicated than that, and not simply because IKEA’s strain of minimalism is simultaneously bland, affordable, gentrification-fueling, and ubiquitous.

Fulk’s aesthetic is the textbook definition of maximalism, and his work appears in upscale places like The Battery or Leo’s Oyster Bar (or the unfortunately named “Halfway House” vacation home in an exclusive development in Big Sky, Mont., called the Yellowstone Club). It’s exuberant and cultivated and very gay. While the bulk of Saint Joseph’s patrons will be more affluent than the largely Filipino parishioners who last celebrated Mass here decades ago, it’s also true that artists and designers are fully capable of possessing multiple dimensions, of having commercial work subsidize passion projects that may or may not always pencil out, and of rescuing beautiful spaces from the tyranny of open-plan cubicles and the other deadening prerogatives of square-footage optimization. Saint Joseph’s may not please everyone, but you can hardly call it a cynical, money-grubbing enterprise. It might very well achieve its ideals.

Even slight deviations from progressive orthodoxy might result in sidewalk protesters — see Manny’s on 16th Street — and no one organization can turn off the spigot of wealth pouring into the Bay Area. Further, a we’ll-just-have-to-wait-and-see attitude, if used to suspend judgment indefinitely, can let the rich and powerful do whatever they want. At the same time, where would Bay Area theater be without all that “generous support” from the likes of Wells Fargo and Chevron? Dangling to the base of Saint Joseph’s other steeple is a long heavy rope sheathed in purple fabric. Tug on it, and you’ll ring the church bells. Once used to remind sinners of divine judgment, they’re now reserved for secular purposes like the appreciation of fine art while seated on power-clashing throw pillows far comfier than any pew.

Saint Joseph’s Arts Society, 1401 Howard St.,

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