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Mid-Market’s New Art House: The Garage morphs into SAFEhouse

Safehouse

SAFEhouse Arts hosted a kick-off party on February 22, which featured performances by Theatre Flamenco SF, one of the artist groups in residency at the 1 Grove St. location. (Photo courtesy of David Senk)

By Maya Lekach |

It’s true that San Francisco is, undoubtedly, undergoing deep changes amidst the rise of tech companies and the concurrent rise of salaries and residency influxes. In this city that has historically focused on the arts, where anything out of the mainstream seems to be the mainstream, there remains fellows like Joe Landini and his organization, SAFEhouse Arts, that continue to create new and different spaces for emerging artists in the performing arts.

Perhaps unbeknownst to many San Franciscans, whether new or native, there are a host of performances put on by underground arts organizations. These groups, which Landini calls “live performance presenters,” are hiding around the 7×7 city in much the same way that local punk bands and techno raves stay subtle amidst Internet media and tech booms.

Landini’s project, SAFEhouse Arts, which aptly stands for Saving Art From Extinction, started over seven years ago in another incarnation. The space is now located at 1 Grove St., situated above the Civic Center Burger King,  but SAFEhouse was previously located on Howard Street in a garage aptly named The Garage.

“For the first five years of being on Howard, we refused to have a sign,” Landini says. “Part of the reason was that I really wanted to facilitate the underground kind of feeling. We just told people to look to the red door. The website was 975 Howard. You walked in and it was a garage.”

With this elusive visibility, The Garage was able to focus on cutting-edge performance artworks that were not always as aesthetically pleasing as the city’s other, more mainstream, offerings. These shows would often feature provocative themes and even included acts of penetration and use of bodily fluids as part of their performances.

Say what you will about this kind of art, but The Garage was a place that thrived on a community and a scene that was interested in questioning society and aesthetics through their performances. Without any funding at the time, the organization was sustained through love from leader Landini as well as artist participants and volunteers from the arts community. Shows, which usually had next to no press, were attended by other artists, volunteers, friends and family members.

But art, much like the city of San Francisco as a whole, is not immune to change. And this change does not always have to be a bad thing.

SAFEhouse Arts’ name change and move from SOMA to Mid-Market was motivated by their situational shift from one-man-run underground art space (that would be arts angel Landini) to an official nonprofit with funding from city, state and national funding.

“Well, basically I needed a salary,” Landini says candidly, “and an underground art space doesn’t pay a salary.”

The funding is an opportunity to do more and at a level of higher visibility. Landini says that having more money requires the SAFEhouse artists and organizers to be more cautious with their programming. Where radical queer dances used to be the norm, now such risks are less available to SAFEhouse, when selling tickets has become such a part of their day-to-day structure, without which they would have to start cutting down programming.

“I need to sell roughly 200 tickets a week. This is easier when the programs are fun to watch,” says Landini. He focuses on pleasing musical accompaniment, aesthetically appealing dances and beautiful costumes.

It’s true that this might be a change from before in the anything-goes era of The Garage and before art contemporaries like Counterpulse were purchasing mortgages which they now must struggle to pay off. Whereas before these organizations were by and for their own communities, the city itself is now supporting these institutions to  bring them to the public eye, perhaps for the benefit of appearing to be not only supporters of Big Tech.

With Twitter’s massive offices literally around the corner from SAFEhouse’s new space, it is almost impossible not to think about the changes in the geography, demography and culture of the area when considering the future and newly created presence of SAFEhouse. It seems that this was not a fact that the mayor’s office overlooked.  As these artists have always functioned as important part of the fabric and identity of the city, their role is shifting from focusing on inward-facing goals to focusing on outward facing ones.

“People come to San Francisco because it is a cool place, not because of tech,” says Landini.

With the mayor’s office now working to highlight these cool things like the arts, music and alternative cultures, we can only hope that San Francisco’s newest inhabitants can also become citizens of the city and join in by continuing the story of the town that is a little bit different.

SAFEhouse Arts is located at 1 Grove St. and online at safehousearts.org.

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