Watching Joe Landini run and jump up on stage to yell “Welcome to The Garage!” is a San Francisco dance community staple. The recent and final close of The Garage on Bryant combined with the shift of SAFEhouse Arts to 1 Grove has brought on a lot of change for Landini and the organization.
I sat with Joe to learn more about his experience running performance spaces, the changes SAFEhouse is facing, necessary next steps and how they will affect the community, and plans for the future.
Courtney King: Could you share the history and trajectory of SAFEhouse?
Joe Landini: For 12 years I worked for Footloose Presents and I decided at the end of those 12 years that I wanted to be my own boss. I walked the streets of SOMA looking for an empty space and I found the first Garage. [There] was a handwritten [rent sign] on this garage and this old Russian woman answered. Five minutes later this older Latino guy, who didn’t speak any english, showed up on his bicycle and handed me a key [to look at the space] and left. [The woman] said “make sure you lock the door!” So I called her back and I said “I’ll take it” and she goes, “great, keep the key.”
I started a nonprofit called SAFEhouse Arts.
CK: What have you learned from running performance spaces?
JL: I discovered that the relationships you build… [and] how you maneuver the world is based on the quality of your relationships. When I worked for Footloose I developed really good relationships with the funders— which was important.
I had relationships with a lot of artists that wanted to work with me too. We were all young choreographers. We all had one thing in common, none of us had money. None of us could afford to rent space or produce shows. My idea was if we could all band together and pay the rent it would be much more affordable.
CK: How did you develop RAW (Resident Artist Workshop)?
JL: I had worked for another nonprofit, called Jon Sims Center for the Performing Arts [1978-2006], which was a queer space. There was clearly a need for a residency program when they went out of business.
CK: Can you tell me about the recent decision to transition RAW into a co-op residency?
JL: When we moved into 1 Grove, The Rainin Foundation said that they would
be interested in supporting us with a grant. That was the incentive for change. In the first meeting with the board, I asked, “If I got hit by a bus tonight what would you guys do?” I was like, what if [RAW] was a co-op? Where everyone learned how to run the space and there was a group of people that were responsible for running the space? If they didn’t run the space then it just wouldn’t be there. So if they really wanted it to be there then they would have to learn how to run it.
CK: Who helped develop the co-op structure?
JL: The Operation Manager, Hannah Rose and Artist Coordinator, Hannah Wasielewski. Hannah Wasielewski designed the co-op and proposed dividing the job into two parts [that would include] managing the building, managing the artists, and designing the co- op.
CK: How has the residency program shifted as a result?
JL: Having done the residency program for ten years, one of the things we discovered was we weren’t teaching skills to the artists. Other people would call me up saying “I got one of your artists here, why on earth don’t they know how to write a press release,” or “your artist thinks that we’re running their lights?” I like doing all those things, but I wasn’t really serving anyone by doing them.
We broke the residency into four parts: marketing, operations, development and production. Every lead artist volunteers five hours a month where they lead one of those four components. It changes about twice a year. The people who stay for 12 weeks can participate in any of those four. There are around 10 Lead Artists and 10 moving through the program, 20 all together.
CK: How has your role at SAFEhouse changed since RAW became co-run by the artists in residence?
JL: I don’t run and jump onto the stage anymore, I miss that! I had to step back and say okay, things are not going to look the way I want them to look. [Artists] need to be able to invest in the organization [as a part of their residency]. Part of investing in the organization is them deciding what the postcard should look like or the lighting plot should look like. It’s been a real exercise for me.
CK: Do you feel it is affecting the brand of SAFEhouse?
JL: It’s totally affecting the branding of SAFEhouse! It’s turning it into something different but it’s important. It needs to be reflective of the environment. Organizations have to be nimble, they need to have the ability to change based on what the needs are.
CK: Can you talk more about the move to 1 Grove.
JL: We moved to Central Market because our contact in the Mayor’s office was encouraging us to move. Gavin Newsom [SF Mayor 2004-2011] really wanted an arts district down here. We were introduced to Newsom in 2008 and the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce development (MOEWD). MOEWD gave us funding to upgrade 1 Grove in 2015. That was the reason we left Bryant Street. We have Grove Street for two more years.
CK: And for the future? What is the organization weighing?
JL: I knew a building in the Tenderloin that I really wanted, an old porn theater. I went to the city and I said, “that old porn theater, I want first dibs on that,” they
said, “as a matter of fact it’s going to be available this year, 2016, do you want to put a bid in for it?” I said, “yeah, absolutely.” Simultaneously, we have been negotiating with Fort Mason. Fort Mason has an empty building, an old army chapel available. Now we’re just in the process of trying to decide. For the Tenderloin [theater], we have to make a decision within a couple of weeks because we have been negotiating for a year. We are doing surveys; there’s lots of language explaining the pros and cons. Both are 15-20 year leases.
CK: How will these changes affect how the dance community and general community interact with SAFEhouse?
JL: I predict that we will lose 50% of our artists and 50% of our audience. We would become a very small organization. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, we don’t have to be a big organization. We’ve always been a very under the radar organization because I don’t like the pressure of being successful. It gives me the ability to fail without a bunch of people watching. I think there’s a lot of people who don’t know what’s going on [presently with SAFEhouse].
CK: What do you feel will always be at the core of SAFEhouse?
JL: The beauty of our organization is that we are so inclusive. We take 99% of the people who walk through the door. We have an empty room and you can come use our empty room. There is always an empty room for you.
Landini and SAFEhouse are pillars in the San Francisco dance community, each sup- porting the local artist in their endeavor to create. The organization’s inclusivity is nurturing and the evolving structure helps to keep the dance scene alive. However you know him, whether it’s up close or from afar, there’s no one like Joe Landini.