Recognition, Resources, and Relevance: Considering Cultural Centers

By Lex Leifheit

December 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER I had coffee with an up-and-coming young choreographer, and we found ourselves talking about what the Bay Area dance community needs right now. We talked about the need for rehearsal space and the pros and cons of local artists-in-residence programs. New Stages for Dance, the rental subsidy program launched by Dancers’ Group, had just been announced. We talked about mentorship—something most organizations build into foundation-supported programming, which often looks good on paper but fails to establish deep connections. He felt that some of the key grantmakers for dance were still dominated by arbiters of taste who care more for tradition than relevance. I listened, and because I am the executive director of SOMArts (South of Market Arts, Resources, Technology, and Services) thought about the resources we have, and how the dance community could best utilize them.

Before I came to SOMArts Cultural Center, I lived in Connecticut and worked for Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Unlike San Francisco, the whole state of Connecticut arguably has one resource for contemporary dance—the CFA. Under the guidance of Pamela Tatge, the CFA has steadily pushed the boundaries of dance in Connecticut. First, it established DanceMasters, which annually brings premiere companies from around the world to perform and lead master classes. Then, the CFA took a lead role in establishing the Green Street Arts Center, home to a vibrant afterschool program and drop-in classes for people of all ages. In 2008, the CFA organized a city-wide dance festival that featured thirteen locations and more than 150 dancers from forty-four companies, groups and schools.

At most universities, first-year students participate in a common reading program. In 2006, Wesleyan’s required freshmen reading was the life and work of Bill T. Jones, using dance as a jumping-off point for students to discuss sexuality, race, politics, family and mortality. This was for all students, not just those in the arts programs. The experiment was so successful that in 2008 they partnered with another company, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, to explore aspects of climate change.

I believe that dance builds awareness of the world around us as well as within us. This is not lost on most folks in the Bay Area. I also believe that more dance could be showcased in cultural centers; this is a bridge that needs to be strengthened. San Francisco’s cultural centers are an integral part of the arts in San Francisco, serving artists, community groups, neighborhoods and visitors. These centers are ripe for inclusion of dance in their programs and activities; dancers and dance companies should consider utilizing the various outlets and connections they can have through a cultural center.

San Francisco boasts many resourceful cultural centers. SOMArts, African American Arts and Culture Complex, Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, Bayview Opera House, Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, and Queer Cultural Center are dedicated to providing accessible arts opportunities for all San Franciscans. All of the centers are independent nonprofits. Four (SOMArts, AAACC, Bayview and MCCLA) operate city-owned facilities. The centers are available for rentals for performances, festivals, and gallery exhibits, and offer free or low-cost classes.

In spite of the recent economic downturn, the cultural centers have undergone some noteworthy improvements over the past two years. Bayview Opera House has a new hardwood floor in its main hall. SOMArts has invested in new risers and seating in its theater, sound and lighting equipment, and curtains. AAACC celebrated the completion of a $1.5 million renovation in 2009.

Artists who come to SOMArts will find a performance space that is not exclusively for dance. This presents artistic and communication challenges for both the artists and those supporting them. But the possibilities are great: in 2009, Flyaway Productions partnered with SOMArts and Laborfest to present the premiere of The Ballad of Polly Ann. Their performance debuted alongside a large exhibition of visual art about labor that complimented the choreography of Jo Kreiter; and the industrial feel to the SOMArts performance space supported the innovative, content-specific, aerial work—netting them an Isadora Duncan Dance Award.

In March 2010, Jessica Tully presented The Machines Next Time (Bobcat Ballet Act II). Tully and her collaborator, Audio Angel, operated two Bobcat Skid-steer loaders in a revival of a dance choreographed by resident children at the North Beach Housing Development prior to its demolition. Few, if any, top-of-mind dance venues in San Francisco would be willing or able to take on the challenge of presenting a dance that involved construction machinery. Since Tully’s performance was part of an exhibition in SOMArts Main Gallery, it reached a diverse audience, including many who were not already aware of Tully’s work.

Because these cultural centers receive substantial core funding from the Community Arts and Education Program of the San Francisco Arts Commission, they can provide affordable space that is not booked years ahead of time. Artists who receive grant funding for new work can find large-scale space to realize their vision, often as little as two or three months in advance.

As for rehearsal space, there is plenty to be found at cultural centers. African American Arts and Culture Complex, located in the Western Addition, has two dance studios and a 203-seat theater. Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, also has two dance studios and offers 27 dance classes each week ranging from $12 to free. SOMArts’ dance studio is frequently available during the day, on Saturdays, and Wednesday evenings for rehearsal or class rentals, with plentiful free street parking after 6pm.

Those looking for funding should know that combined, the cultural centers will offer more than $300,000 in commissions, honoraria and other payment to artists in 2010-11.

Queer Cultural Center offers grantwriting assistance through QMAD (Queer Multicultural Arts Development), and commissions up to 20 new works each year through its Creating Queer Community program. Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center offers marketing and production support as part of its annual United States of Asian America Festival, including the 2010 world premiere of Kumulipo by Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu.

SOMArts’ Commons Curatorial Residency offers artists space in the Main Gallery for up to a month, and a stipend of $1500 to realize their vision. Artists from all disciplines are encouraged to apply. In the past twelve months, main gallery programs that have prominently incorporated movement and dance include: 100 Performances for the Hole, The Machines Next Time (Bobcat Ballet Act II), Formations/Fal-Core and Night Light: Multimedia Garden Party.

Space and funding are significant resources for any dance company to consider. But any organization that plans to stick around for a while must consider its audience, and this is what I consider to be the greatest resource SOMArts has to offer. The audiences of the cultural centers have grown out of a grassroots desire for community-building and cultural equity—they are talkative, curious, diverse and open-minded. More than 8,000 people have walked through SOMArts’ doors for the Underground Farmers Market of the Bicycle Coalition’s Winterfest or the South of Market Community Action fundraiser this year, and many come back to discover our Feast of Words literary series or Open Studios or the Día de los Muertos exhibition. People who come to the cultural centers are people who care about community. And people who care about community are vital to all arts in San Francisco.

At times like these, artists must explore all the resources available to them. So, maybe what the dance community needs right now can be found in local cultural centers. I hope so, and I hope to see you at SOMArts very soon!


African American Arts and Culture Complex
762 Fulton Street, SF; 415-922-2049

Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center*; 415-829-9467

Bayview Opera House
4705 Third St, SF; 415-824-0386

Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts
2868 Mission St, SF; 415-643-2785

Queer Cultural Center*; 415-251-9935

SOMArts Cultural Center
934 Brannan Street (between 8th and 9th), SF; 415-863-1414

*Located at SOMArts.

This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of In Dance.