A dot-com call to art

Tech companies are driving artists out of San Francisco, but tech millionaires could save them.

Published July 14, 2000 7:04PM (EDT)

Hey there, dot-com millionaire. Looking for a place to spend that newfound cash? I have an idea for you.

Here's a partial list of the San Francisco arts organizations that have lost their leases in recent months, thanks to skyrocketing rents from dot-coms scrambling for office space: Art Explosion, Theatre Rhinoceros, Dancers Group Studio Theater, American Indian Contemporary Art Group, S.F. Camerawork and countless smaller artist studios. An entire Mission district block once known for its art community is being razed for a dot-com office park.

This week's San Francisco Bay Guardian reports that the leases of 50 percent of San Francisco's nonprofit arts organizations will expire by the end of this year, according to a study by the Mayor's Office of Community Development. Seventy percent of the rest will come up for renewal (generally with a huge price hike) or termination by 2003. These groups will face rent that hovers around $59 a square foot per year -- an unfathomably huge increase for these organizations, some of which enjoyed annual rents as cheap at $3.12 per square foot. The artists can't afford it, and many are leaving.

Yes, San Francisco's arts scene is going to hell in a handbasket.

The artists who are being evicted blame the dot-coms -- not surprisingly, as dot-com spending has caused the rampant price increases, and the groups that lose their leases are usually replaced by cubicles housing technology workers. So here's my proposal: Why don't the dot-commies start giving money back?

Local lore has it that Silicon Valley mints 64 new millionaires a day. If the San Jose Mercury News is right and Santa Clara County alone boasts 65,000 "millionaire" households (roughly 1 in 9), surely there are a few thousand richies in San Francisco.

"Employees of just 15 Silicon Valley companies are sitting on a combined $43 billion of potential wealth in unexercised stock options -- $16 billion of which they can reap immediately," reported the Mercury News in December. "There are at least 13 billionaire residents in the valley, worth about $45 billion combined, and several hundred worth $25 million or more."

Think of the impact a handful of newly minted multimillionaires could have on the local arts scene if they pooled just a bit of their dough. I'd like to propose a new kind of Rockefeller institution: A dot-com coalition of rich citizens dedicated to giving money back to the arts community that they are (unintentionally) helping evict.

This group could buy an enormous building -- an old factory, a warehouse or 10 -- and refurbish it. But instead of setting up more cubicles, they'd invite evicted theaters, dance companies, musicians, photographers and artists to take up residence -- free or with subsidized rent comparable to pre-new economy prices. Instead of some cheesy developer's "live-work space," they could create a true arts center in San Francisco with loft and performance spaces, cafes and low-priced restaurants, which would help house and coalesce the drifting art community.

Think of what $20 million could buy, if just 40 of those dot-com mega-millionaires forked out $500,000 each. Or if that's too much to ask, how about 400 minor millionaires donating just $50,000? It would hardly make a dent in many bank accounts -- and hey, it would be tax deductible.

Someone needs to organize this before it's too late; the arts institutions that are evicted this year will probably leave -- and once they do, they won't come back. It's a simple matter of making San Francisco livable. Do you want to wake up one day to discover that you have millions in the market and hundreds of fancy restaurants to eat at, but no dance classes to take, no art to see, no bands to listen to -- and worst of all, none of the color that makes San Francisco interesting?

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

Related Topics ------------------------------------------