Building and Rebuilding: Ernesto Sopprani & Kathleen Hermesdorf Discuss the New Arts Building Consortium

By Rob Taylor


Space is a crucial factor in any performing arts community and there will always be issues around the search for usable, affordable spaces artists need for performing, rehearsing and living. In San Francisco this is true to the degree that conversations about the performing arts can sometimes feel like conversations about real estate.

Photo by Weidong Yang
Photo by Weidong Yang

I recently spoke with Ernesto Sopprani, director of THEOFFCENTER and Kathleen Hermesdorf, director of La Alternativa. Together with KUNST-STOFF Comtemporary Dance Company, these three organizations are the resident consortium members of the new Arts Building Consortium (ABC). Based in the KUNST-STOFF arts space at the corner of Grove, Hyde and Market streets, the consortium is designed to be a “platform” that will “cultivate, support, improve and present experimental contemporary dance, performance, and interdisciplinary arts.”

We talked about what the ABC has been doing in their first year, and despite being based in the space at KUNST-STOFF arts, our conversation wasn’t about real estate. Mostly, it was about the necessary interactions that sustain a healthy performing arts ecosystem—interactions between local artists and national and international artists, or between newly emerging artists and established artists. The kinds of interactions that help build a community that supports art-making as a career.

Their inaugural season, called INHABIT, has included both new programs created by the consortium and already existing programs newly infused with the spirit of the ABC. As they discuss, the ABC is very much a work-in-progress, but the positive response has shown there is a hunger for these kinds of conversations and interactions within the community. It was a lively and lengthy conversation and the following has been edited for clarity and length.

They began by describing what brought the people behind the ABC together—

Kathleen Hermesdorf:
We met for the first time and just talked for a couple of hours continuously. I make a lot of art, Ernesto facilitates a lot of art, and together it seemed liked a match. Then Yannis (Adoniou, Artistic Director of KUNST-STOFF Contemporary Dance Company) had the space to incubate things here [at KUNST-STOFF arts].
Ernesto Sopprani: We saw the great match. For me it’s about making sure the container is ready for whatever the artists wants to pour in it. We are driven by what the need is in the community, and what they say they want.  We have a site, we have some tools and we have a system.
KH: He’s (Ernesto) a matchmaker, network maker and I am an art maker. I also want to break some bubbles, cross some borders and make the community recognize itself in a new way, in a new era. I have a lot of the experimental history, Yannis has a lot of the Contemporary/Ballet history and Ernesto has a lot of the new queer arts history.
I think we started talking about a year ago, and then we launched this INHABIT season with Fresh Festival which I organized. And that was super successful and drew tons of people. And then we started to get a lot of [national and international] artists saying to us, “I’m passing through, I’m coming to town and looking for a place to set up.” …. there was word going around that there is this space that can work with you, and will pull an audience who will understand your edge. [A place for] artists who want to come to San Francisco, but bigger organizations can’t or aren’t bringing them even though their kind of on the tip.

Rob Taylor:
Why aren’t larger organizations presenting these artists? Is it a lack of capacity?
ES: Probably. The desire to bring them is there, it’s just that it’s a huge machine. It takes so much.
KH: And this is an exchange on a different level—we’re bringing people who may be from a big, known company in Europe, but they’re carving their own path and it’s just not known yet—it’s just beginning to come onto the radar.

It sounds like ABC is at the point where you’re beginning to look for funding.
ES: I love funders, and the funding community here is very important, but in the spirit of being artist-driven, we want to grow based on what the community needs and if that goes unfunded for a bit, so be it. We are also looking at other sources, whether it is crowdfunding, or there are sources of private funding.
KH: I think we’ll try to fund our Festivals and our residencies [through traditional funding sources] because those are avenues that already exist.
ES: And the Fresh Festival was so well attended it was able to pay for itself. Right now, we have a lot of the desire, the connections, and the drive.
KH: Right now we’re doing all the leg work to keep it rolling. This [INHABIT: Season 1] is all research as well.

Can you describe the working relationship within the consortium?
KH: This whole first year is a research project about what we can do together, what we can handle. We’re dedicated to resource sharing, we’re dedicated to intentional curation…in some ways we’re just trying to fill in what’s not happening somewhere else—not to negate anyone else.

It looks like you’re walking the line between focusing on the local community and also being connected to the international scene.
ES: The thing about the international scene is that the International artists who people here want to work with, want to work here. They want to know what it’s like to work and live here. It’s really about the city, and having the city be there and be a part of the conversation.
KH: And Yannis through KUNST-STOFF has been organizing a bunch of companies that have been through Fresh Festival and have been through THEOFFCENTER to perform in Berlin for two weeks. KUNST-STOFF has been doing that for a while, and in the last two years he has opened it up to resident artists. So we’re creating a circuit that will be funded, and will help people understand that the Bay Area is still a hot bed of exciting radical art makings and really relevant dialogues.

What are some specific circuits?
ES: Our initial goal is to start with the west coast. We have links with PICA in Portland, Velocity in Seattle, Los Angeles. But really, it’s about the city, and about the sector, and it’s about creating a smoother path so people don’t have to feel they need to leave the city to create.
KH: We also have a real bent towards archiving. Archiving what’s happening now, but also reminding people where it’s coming from, through the threads of Sara Shelton Mann and Contraband, Joe Goode and so on. Honestly, most of what we do is talk to people. We need to be in constant dialogue to meet with people and find these connections. The gift of time is finding those connections that aren’t immediately obvious.
ES: Our first dialogue was about best practices. Let’s not waste time creating the wheel once again for each artist, but let’s take time to dialogue and find out who figured it out and then let’s make it work for our community, our needs and our artists and administrators.

Do you think that young artists are resistant to acknowledging that they fit into a tradition, or that they think it’s a burden?
ES: As someone who works with a lot of young artists I’ll say that it has to do with the absence of dialogue between people.
KH: Generationally you mean?
ES: Yes, and that’s something we’re trying to address, by allowing opportunities to discuss where we came from and what came before. Because everything’s been done.
KH: A lot of times in dance the young eat the old, and it almost has to happen, but what I liked about meeting the folks at THEOFFCENTER was that they had new ideas and they knew what they wanted, but they also respected older artists—people like Sara Shelton Mann, Keith Hennessy, me—they wanted to hear our stories. They understood they were connected to our history, that they are part of the same history we are part of.
ES: People want to have avenues to learn more. Yes, it’s very much a young person’s thing to not know what happened before.
KH: Or push away to try and find themselves.
ES: Yes, but there comes a point where we realize there is a history. There is a before, there will be an after too. I get older and even looking at THEOFFCENTER from four or five years ago, I can see there is another moment happening with much younger people, it’s already happening.
KH: You paved the way.
ES: We all do, it’s a conversation—it doesn’t end. I feel that people want to make a life of this and that they want to find ways to continue as adults and not let go because they reach a certain age.
KH: Sometimes I’m amazed anyone in America is an artist past their twenties. There’s no encouragement to do so, there’s nothing built for you to do so. It’s a very expensive habit. But if you want to do it, then it becomes about building a lifestyle, building a culture, then understanding that you have to re-build that culture, renovate that culture. And you need to build the support networks you need to survive.

More information about the Arts Building Consortium can be found at

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of In Dance.

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.