An arts organization grows and learns in the Tenderloin


By Garth Grimball

Special for examiner

Julie Phelps has a plan. She must. As Artistic and Executive Director of CounterPulse, an arts organization that has supported emerging dancers and performers since 1991, her work is geographically situated at the intersection of conflicting interests.

On the one hand, CounterPulse is in San Francisco – a city that exists in the public imagination both as a “left coast” experiment of progressive ideals and as a beacon of capitalist technocracy. On the other hand, CounterPulse has, since 2015, taken up residence at 80 Turk Street in the Tenderloin – the most diverse, poorest and most drug-ridden neighborhood in San Francisco.

When I sat down with Phelps in CounterPulse’s upstairs studio to discuss the organization’s move from renting to owning his building on Turk Street, these factors were present throughout our conversation. A discussion of real estate drifted into an analysis of what it means for an arts group to be disruptive and to be a model of civic leadership.

Phelps, 38 and originally from Minnesota, has worked at CounterPulse for 15 years. She began working five hours a week as a venue staff and became artistic director in 2014, supporting the development of local artists like Monique Jenkinson and Larry Arrington. “I grew up with the organization,” she says. “The founders – Jessica Robinson Love, Keith Hennessy and Jess Curtis – were mentors.”

During his tenure, CounterPulse transitioned from SOMA to Tenderloin after being priced out by the pre-pandemic tech boom. Partnerships with Community Vision, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) successfully funded the purchase and renovation of CounterPulse’s new theater. The novelty of success has been covered in Fast Company, and the partnership model is reverberating internationally. CAST purchased the Tenderloin building in 2013 for $1.3 million and granted CounterPulse an affordable 10-year lease and the option to purchase by 2023.

This model will “contribute to the mythology of owning an arts organization in San Francisco,” Phelps said. “People want to point to something that they think is a viable arts real estate option in expensive cities.”

In 2017, her role expanded to that of artistic and executive director. At a time when distributed leadership is on the rise, Phelps doesn’t take the joint role for granted. “CounterPulse punches above its weight in efficiency,” she said. “By streamlining CounterPulse overhead, we’re investing more money in programming.” One management position is cheaper than two. Most of the staff are working artists for whom the 40-hour work week is not a priority.

Phelps said CounterPulse’s staff of nine is focused on “creating values ​​around mutuality and collaboration”, adding, “The way we work with each other is not separate of our mission. One of the ways we have maintained our presence is to ask ourselves: how do we fit into people’s lives? Providing jobs that people want is the way to get people to work here.

Adaptability to the changing culture of work, nonprofit funding, and real estate has allowed Phelps and CounterPulse to enter the rare terrain of real estate ownership. The nonprofit arts organization is in its final fundraising campaign to acquire the building, with $1.2 million still to be raised out of a total of $7 million. If things go as planned, 80 Turk Street will be owned by CounterPulse before the end of this year.

“Owning our building will bring much-needed stability to CounterPulse and the communities we center and serve,” said Victor Cordon, Vice Chairman of the organization’s Board of Directors. It will secure San Francisco’s legacy as an artistic and cultural center, particularly in the area of ​​dance and the performing arts. »

Phelps is aware of the “anonymity and alienation” an influx of money can foment. “I don’t want to gentrify, but I want change,” she says. “Who can inform and benefit from the changes? This question served as a “compass to be a citizen of the Tenderloin”.

In 2017, CounterPulse established the Tenderloin Art Exchange, an outreach program that surveys community members to identify neighborhood challenges and opportunities for artistic pursuits. In 2020, the organization partnered with the Transgender District, the first in the world, to paint a Black Trans Lives Matter mural at the intersection of Turk and Taylor.

On May 7, CounterPulse is hosting INNERSPACE: HOMECOMING, its annual arts night and auction (tickets cost between $10 and $250). The event features a diverse program of artists, including a cello performance by Peekaboo and a preview of the ARC Edge residency by Afro Urban Society, as well as the unveiling of a light sculpture on the facade of CounterPulse by the studio of FUTUREFORMS design, which Phelps says is the culmination of years of research and relies on rapid eye light therapy.

“CounterPulse isn’t just that space,” Phelps said. But owning the building and completing the fundraising campaign means there’s more time to “listen, understand and know what we can still do well for this neighborhood.”


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