Working in The Garage: Tools to Help Carve Out Space for Contemporary Dance

By Joe Landini


Contemporary dance has a long history of being developed on the fringes of the cultural landscape. Choreographers have traditionally found space to make new work in basements, lofts, parking structures and frequently, empty garages. In San Francisco, dance makers have found homes in the Portrero Hill district, the Mission and many times, in the South of Market District (SOMA) where industrial spaces are plentiful.

Creating a new dance space is a distinctive challenge. For example, San Francisco doesn’t have clear zoning requirements for opening a new space for dance. There’s a category called AMS (Art Making Space), which is a broad class created during the dot com explosion to help prevent a massive artist exodus because artists were losing spaces to developers (the original home of Dancers’ Group on 22nd Street and Mission was among the casualties during that period). Unfortunately, the AMS category is underused and vague and not necessarily designed for the needs of performance artists, those needs include both studio and performance space (each kind of space has a completely different zoning requirement).

I cut my production teeth at one of these spaces, Venue 9 Theatre on Ninth Street. I found helping run a small performance space in SOMA was an exhilarating experience. Curating, producing and cleaning bathrooms were my strong points and I benefited greatly from the mentorship of the Executive Director. This experience led me to become the Program Director at another space (the former Jon Sims Center for the Arts) and it was there that I really learned about budgeting and grantwriting.

When I finished grad school in London, I decided to start my own production company called SAFEhouse (Saving Arts From Extinction) and open my own space called The Garage. After working for other presenters for twelve years, I had fostered a group of artists that I could support in a new space. I approached these artists about being partners and most were excited and eager to have access to a new venue. Fortunately, commercial rent has dropped significantly in the last few years and I found a reasonably priced industrial space in SOMA.

The physical building at 975 Howard Street, a very raw garage space space, initially needed only minor electrical upgrading and the installation of a plywood sprung floor. To further outfit the space, I was able to purchase used lighting equipment from a theater that was closing and another group donated Marley to cover the plywood floor. Although my capital improvement costs were significant, I found that many people in the community were willing to support a new space with free labor, supplies and mentoring.

Although other organizations such as ODC Dance and the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company have developed new spaces in recent years, there still seems to be a void of affordable space that is available to choreographers to create new work. My goal with The Garage was to have a space that was inclusive and available all year around, dedicated to being accessible to a large spectrum of emerging artists.

If you are considering opening a space for dance, there’s going to be a significant learning curve as you navigate the endeavor and each space will provide its own set of challenges. Having recently undertaken the challenge of creating a space to rehearse and present work, I thought outlining a list of a few best practices to consider could be useful.

1. Organize Your Finances: Create a budget. This will help determine the appropriate expenses and the amount of money you’re willing to invest in your new space. There’s no underestimating the value of a well-executed budget.

2. Find Partners: Locate artists that might be interested in creating a new space with you. Try to find people with skills that compliment yours. A partner with good production skills is invaluable. Other important skills include administration, bookkeeping and marketing. Also recruit a Board of Directors and volunteers, their help will prevent administrative burn-out.

3. Meet Your Neighbors Before You Sign the Lease. If there are any residential units nearby, be sure you won’t disturb them with noise (pay attention to the types of music you anticipate will be used, like live percussion and base levels). Even if your lease is commercial, it doesn’t mean you have the right to prevent a neighbor from enjoying their house a 100% of the time (that’s how the law is written).

4. Have a Lawyer Review Your Lease Before You Sign. There are a variety of details that are worth being knowledgeable about, like repairs, rent increases and insurance. For example, one new space that opened recently couldn’t make “excessive noise” after 8pm and has struggled with nighttime rehearsals and classes.

5. Create a Marketing Niche: Determine early on in the process what will make your space unique from other spaces. For us, we discovered that our showcases (raw & uncut) and residency programs (RAW – Resident Artists’ Workshop) were our strong point. Once we determined that, our marketing plan became clearer.

6. Don’t be Competitive with Other Spaces: Once you’ve identified what your strengths are, build relationships with other theatres and studios. Having a good relationship with like-minded organizations or spaces will allow you to share resources (e.g. referrals, marketing, grants). Remember, these relationships will serve you when the time comes to borrow a last-minute piece of equipment, there’s a double-booking in your space or you have an important question about running the new space.

7. Organize your Company or work as a Non-Profit: Funders will not consider you for significant grants unless you have a Board of Directors and your own non-profit status. It’s tedious but not that difficult of a process. If you are eligible to apply, most grant-making entities, public and private, require at least a two-year track record of presenting public events.

On March 6-9 we will be celebrating The Garage’s first year at 975 Howard Street and many of the artists that performed with us this year will be returning to help us mark the occasion. We’ve also been able to develop solid relationships with other presenters like the Women on the Way Festival, the National Queer Arts Festival and the SF Fringe Festival. Our residency program, RAW, is flourishing and sponsors two to three artist per month. This year our third annual summer performance festival (SPF) will be at The Garage and our quarterly performance showcase, raw & uncut, celebrates its fourth year. Artists interested in learning more about our programming can go to or contact me at

I can attest that running your own performance space is an incredibly exhilarating and rewarding experience. Just keep in mind to develop a sound and realistic plan and always ask for help.

Joe Landini is a choreographer and arts administrator. He received his BA in Choreography from UC Irvine and his MA in Choreography from the Laban Centre (London). He received the GOLDIE from the SF Bay Guardian in 2013. His new work, Container/Vessel will premier at SPF8 at the ODC Theater in July 2015.