Community Art Center CELLspace to Become For-Profit Entity Inner Mission
Full Disclosure: I was a core collective member of the CELLspace Community Arts Center from 2000 until 2007. During that time I lived in a small box in the ceiling, sat through more "ritual theater" than I care to remember, and learned that when someone starts shooting at a party you end up with a large pile of high heel shoes because you just can't run fast enough in heels.
If you're involved in community arts in the Bay Area, you've probably been touched by CELLspace in some way. The graffiti and mural covered warehouse on Bryant has been hosting b-boy competitions, tango lessons, art classes, youth programming, and underground dance parties for over a decade. During it's early years CELL functioned almost entirely through the efforts of volunteers and operated on the collective consensus model of decision making. It provided space for artists like the Flaming Lotus Girls, Twisty Tie Joe, and the female hip hop collective Sisterz of the Underground to make a name for themselves, and also helped to create and inspire the warehouse art movement now flourishing in the Bay Area at spaces like The Box Shop and The Crucible. Burning Man's Community Events Director Steven Raspa commented over e-mail that, "CELL has played a vital and significant role in the underground creative community in the Bay Area for many years, serving as a stopping point for touring acts, a stomping ground for local art groups, and numerous mad-capped 'happenings' that defy explanation."
CELLspace also kept its doors open to Mission District community activists, and for a time during the aughts was one of the only spaces in San Francisco willing to host youth-oriented hip hop events. It provided affordable or free space for groups like the Third Eye Movement and Loco Bloco, and always kept the doors open during Carnaval. Eventually CELLspace became a 501c3 nonprofit organization, embraced the concept of paid staff, and deepened its ties to the neighborhood with the Mission Village Market and an in-house after-school program Mission Urban Arts. Unfortunately, CELLspace has been struggling to keep the doors open in recent years, with a loss of grant funding, lack of volunteers, and accumulation of debt forcing the beloved art center to close at the end of this year. With so much history in the building, it was a bittersweet moment when I sat down with Adrian Zelski of New Earth Music to discuss the future of 2050 Bryant St.
The name Inner Mission was chosen as a nod to the neighborhood and CELLspace legacy, but they won't officially take over the space until 2013. Between now and then, CELL patrons will see "a gradual prototyping" of what's okay with the neighborhood, community, and authorities. Inner Mission will be managed in a four-way partnership between Zelski, Zack Carson of the Sustainable Living Roadshow, Mike Gaines of Vau de Vire Society, and Erik Reed of Madcap Theatre Productions. The business will operate as a Benefit Corporation, a new type of corporation that voluntarily meets higher labor, environmental, and community relations standards. Benefit Corporations -- commonly called B Corps -- are certified by the nonprofit B Lab, and became legal in California in 2012. According to Zelski, B Corps focus on "People, Planet, and Profit," and "there is nothing sexy about corporations, but what's amazing about B Corps is they're changing the DNA of corporations."
Zelski assured me that the artistic vibe of CELLspace would live on in the years to come, promising "everything functional from CELLspace stays -- daytime programming, community center, events center, etc." The recent Georgia transplant spoke at length of his love for the neighborhood, his desire for Inner Mission to carry the torch for another generation, and recalled being inspired by an old CELLspace poster with its mentions of community, art, and sustainability, telling me he thought, "This is what we're doing as a company," when he saw that poster. He's also upbeat about the future of Inner Mission, comparing the process of renovation to birthing a baby, and pointing out that, "This is just phase one, there is lots more to come."
While Zelski's enthusiasm is contagious, not everyone in the greater CELL community is thrilled that the space is being taken over by a for-profit entity, even one as pleasant-sounding as a benefit corporation. Some current and former collective members have quietly expressed concerns that the new partners will pay lip service to the community ethos of CELL until they get the lease, and then it will just be another dance club, with no artistic component, and a focus on alcohol sales. Zelski says he doesn't want that to happen, telling me, "we're looking for a deeper meaning in the venue world."
CELLspace co-founder Jonathan Youtt said that while he was generally positive about the transfer, "There's a part of me that has been emotional around it -- after all of our hard work and volunteerism and all the public money that got sunk into it, it's gonna go and benefit a for-profit entity." An understandable feeling for someone who went deeply in debt to keep CELLspace alive during the early years, but on further reflection he added, "clearly the model of volunteering was flawed," and that this was a "best case scenario."
This being San Francisco, a certain amount of skepticism is expected when an outsider appears to be taking over a cherished community resource. But talking to Zelski, it's hard to imagine him living anywhere other than the Mission District, and the Sustainable Living Road Show and Vau de Vire Society are both local groups, with ties to the old CELLspace. It's also been widely acknowledged that the landlord at 2050 had grown frustrated with CELL's recent problems meeting rent, and wasn't likely to renew the lease. Given that fact, it's hard to picture a better outcome for the art center than a friendly takeover. After all, if the choice is between closing the doors to make way for condos or yet another club for the Twitterati, then this really is a best case scenario. And if it sets off a trend of nightlife venues operating as B Corps, then we might look back at the passing of CELLspace as a happy tragedy.
CELLspace will close its doors for the last time on December 31. Presumably, with a raucous party. Inner Mission will open in 2013. This writer knows exactly where to spend New Year's Eve.