CounterPulse has done something almost no contemporary arts nonprofit has done in a long time: buy its building. Moreover, it did so in Downtown San Francisco, the very neighborhood that companies from Meta to the Container Store have left for dead.
CounterPulse isn’t just betting big on Downtown, but one of its most challenging pockets: a block of the Tenderloin just north of Market Street and within spitting distance of Union Square. Earlier this month, after a seven-year campaign and a partnership with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), the organization announced that it now owns 80 Turk St., which it had been leasing since 2016.
The narrative around art-making in the Bay Area is almost always about crisis and displacement, but a grassroots-driven nonprofit dedicated to avant-garde performance residencies now has a forever home.
“It’s radical to endure in this town, as an artist or an arts organization,” CounterPulse Artistic and Executive Director Julie Phelps told The Standard.
While CounterPulse traces its origins to a house party-throwing arts collective more than 30 years ago, it’s really come into its own since the aughts. Prior to 2016 and the splash surrounding Twitter’s entrance into Mid-Market, it was paying 50 cents a square foot in a building at Ninth and Mission streets.
That situation was untenable in the long-term, plus CounterPulse had outgrown the space. A consulting group put them in touch with the Oakland-based Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which was looking for an arts organization to support with a $5 million grant.
As Phelps put it, the idea was, “If you want to protect arts and culture during this real-estate boom, buy buildings and put arts organizations in them.”
Built as a cabaret in 1905, 80 Turk St. was ideal—almost too good to be true, Phelps said. It was also three times the size of CounterPulse’s previous home, with room for dance studios, a lobby gallery and subsidized rehearsal space. Through CAST, the organization created a tenant-buyback arrangement at 0% interest.
“We had to bring some capital to the table to seal the deal, but our initial contribution was $1 million,” Phelps said. “All the rest was fronted to us. They bought the building, and gave us the runway of seven years to pay them back.”
Scraping together $7 million took several phases, punctuated by the pandemic, and full of what Phelps called “a certain kind of alchemy.” It even led to an entirely new type of partnership for the Zellerbach Foundation, which lent CounterPulse $500,000.
“That’s not really what they do,” Phelps said. “They prototyped this lending on CounterPulse, this interdisciplinary arts venue that supports marginalized communities. It’s like, ‘Whoa, that actually worked.’”
Suddenly, CounterPulse was having conversations with the type of foundations and grant-making organizations that may not have cared much about modern dance before. Once it became known that you’re buying a building Downtown, Phelps said, people who might never come see a show start to realize your importance.
It also helped that, unlike many arts organizations, CounterPulse’s model doesn’t use ticket sales for much of its revenue. PianoFight, the venue around the block from CounterPulse, recently announced it’s shutting its doors next month.
Nor has CounterPulse been saddled with bells and whistles it doesn’t need—like, say, a massive theater that would force it to produce commercial, off-Broadway-type shows just to cover overhead. It can remain an incubator space, nurturing emerging artists who aren’t selling out large venues yet.
In other words, buying a building helped keep CounterPulse true to its radical mission, both as a workspace for artists and an informal community center for the immediate neighborhood.
Being half a block away from Market Street—Phelps calls it the “leaf-blowing zone”—means being part of the frustration for its depressing state. San Francisco’s Downtown ranks dead last among major North American cities in terms of post-Covid recovery, with City Hall eager to revitalize it.
CounterPulse is a privately owned organization that doesn’t get much money from the city besides funding for small program initiatives like painting the occasional mural. Phelps doesn’t feel slighted by the city; it’s more that San Francisco just isn’t set up to help with capital acquisition for the arts.
“Why we’re not is beyond me,” she said. “But we’re not. In New York, the city would have bought the building and sold it to us for a dollar. They see arts and culture as an economic sector. There’s nothing the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development can do to buy buildings.”
Astrid Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org