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March 6, 2010

Wandering Through the Downturn (and Finding a Home)

This is the first in a series on people and organizations that make it possible for artists' work to be made and presented.

If there were such a thing as an ideal moment for a small, experimental arts group to find itself in temporary digs, trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for a new home and stabilize its finances, the Great Recession probably wouldn't be it. Nonetheless, that was the unlucky timing of San Francisco visual arts organization Southern Exposure, which had decamped in 2006 from its longtime space, expecting to return after a seismic upgrade.

Instead, a series of delays foiled that plan, leaving it a nomad in the depths of the downturn, in a famously expensive city. But SoEx has been rooted in that city since 1974, and vulnerability did not turn into defeat. This past October, it finally moved into its new home: a sleek, 4,000-square-foot rented space in a gritty, industrial zone of the Mission District, kitty-corner from a pipe organ factory. The inaugural exhibition of commissioned work addressed a topic that must have been much on Southern Exposure's collective mind during those wandering years: "scenarios related to an uncertain and ever-shifting future."

Maybe it's because the organization's drama had a happy ending, complete with secured 15-year lease, but SoEx Executive Director Courtney Fink says its peripatetic period helped it to clarify its objectives while expanding creatively and programmatically -- and she insists that isn't just spin. "In my mind, you know, 32 years in one space, it becomes hard to kind of break out of certain types of things that you're doing," she says. "Many people, they were actually concerned that beyond that space our identity wouldn't translate."

SoEx Bellwether Oct 2010.jpg

The anxiety was understandable. As Fink points out, Southern Exposure is known for "unruly events that involve hundreds of artists," and its original Mission District home -- a 3,000-square-foot space with 30-foot ceilings and an entire wall of windows -- had been perfect for hosting those. But cramming into an 800-square-foot storefront, the first of two temporary homes, just made SoEx spend more time outdoors. It shifted from gallery presentation to working in the context of urban and public spaces, a niche occupied by lots of Bay Area artists without many local institutions to support them.

In 2007, it also ventured into arts funding when the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts chose it to launch its Regional Regranting Program. So far, Southern Exposure has disbursed $155,000 among 50 local arts groups and projects, and the Warhol Foundation has expanded the initiative to two more cities: Houston and Kansas City, Mo.

Making it through those nomadic years changed "who's a part of Southern Exposure," Fink says, simply because the organization had to work in new places and rely on various partners in order to realize that work. The upshot was a higher profile, locally and nationally, and an enlarged audience base.

In its expansive new space, Southern Exposure is able once again to gather artists together and to show their work in its two galleries. The architecture of the space, designed by Richard Johnson, makes the youth education area highly visible, a choice that facilitates the intersection of artists with high schoolers from the neighborhood.

"Certainly the challenge right now," Fink says, "is to figure out how to incorporate some of the programming that we used to do with, sort of, some of the newer ways that we've been working, and have them kind of exist side by side or integrate them."

SoEx MDR 2009.jpg

Another challenge, for Southern Exposure as for so many nonprofits, is money. SoEx fell $50,000 short of the $700,000 goal in its fund-raising campaign last year -- in part, Fink says, because supporters who had promised donations found themselves suddenly in no position to give.

Its current operating budget, $550,000, is the largest it's ever had, and its full-time staff of five is a SoEx record, too. But Fink believes this fund-raising climate, in which foundations and governments are still giving less to the arts, is "the hardest one yet." That her organization recently hit up its biggest donors for its campaign only adds to the difficulty.

"I still feel like we're on the back end of the wave, the nonprofit sector," she says. "I'm writing more grants than ever -- more than ever -- to try to make up the same amount of money."

On the other hand, there's the Monster Drawing Rally. SoEx's biggest event of the year, it's a fund-raiser at which 120 artists take one-hour shifts drawing pictures that are immediately hung on the wall with a $60 price tag. So many artists wanted to participate in the tenth annual rally, which took place last night, that not all of them could be accommodated -- "and that's probably a good problem to have," Fink says.

The Monster Drawing Rally, like much that Southern Exposure does, is in the tradition of artist-driven alternative art spaces all over the country. Yet, as Fink notes, the meaning of "alternative" is forever in flux: What fits the definition today may find the mainstream tomorrow.

"I'm just really interested in the alternative art-space movement and where it started, what role it serves, where it is now, like how we fit into that," she says. "I'm extremely focused on reading arts journalism and art stories and trying to figure out how a space like ours can continue to remain alternative, quote-unquote, when those practices have become typical even in large institutions and museums, and asking ourselves the question, 'If that's the case, then what's next, and how can we remain relevant?' And I don't have an answer to the question, but it's something that I would say we need to always be asking ourselves, probably."


Photos courtesy Southern Exposure

Top: Works by Ant Farm, Lordy Rodriguez, Renée Gertler, Jay Nelson, Whitney Lynn and Christine Wong Yap in 'Bellwether,' the inaugural exhibition in Southern Exposure's new space.
Center: Last year's Monster Drawing Rally.
Above: The Southern Exposure staff, and one intern, on the day they moved into their new building. Executive Director Courtney Fink is third from right.
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