Independent arts organizations in the Bay Area are not known for being up to their necks in disposable income—maybe closer to their ankles, if they’re lucky. It can seem nearly impossible for such groups to purchase and run their own venue.
But that is exactly what CounterPulse has set out to do, despite a multi-year lull in live performances due to COVID. The dance and performance organization is incredibly close to reaching the seven-million-dollar fundraising goal it set in 2016 for the acquisition of its freshly renovated, three-story former strip club in the Tenderloin, now equipped with state-of-the-art production technology.
At a late July performance by participants of GIRLFLY, a community dance program centered around the empowerment of young women and gender-non-conforming youth, it was easy to understand the importance of securing the CounterPulse space.
Performers took flight, trapezing through space, and casting moving shadows across the walls. Their presentation made full use of the venue, starting in the building’s workshop studio and basement project space, then leading the audience upstairs, through the portal-like entrance to a blackbox theater.
The dancers’ feet were seldom on the stage floor. Much of the performance took place in the air, as the troupe engaged in aerial acrobatics using copper rings and bars suspended from the ceilings.
This GIRLFLY production, entitled “What Is Normal, Anyway,” embodied many of the values echoed in CounterPulse’s own vision—the sparking of personal transformation, encouragement of experimental art and radical spirit, and the building of enduring community.
But for CounterPulse to become a stable home for productions like GIRLFLY, the organization must first secure its stages. That means raising the $700,000 that is left of the money needed to officially purchase its historic hot pink theater.
Achieving the goal would mean long-awaited stability for the 30-year-old group. A massive rent spike on their former block in SoMA caused CounterPulse to relocate to its current building seven years ago.
“We’re really close,” Julie Phelps, CounterPulse’s artistic and executive director, told 48hills. “I mean, it’s still a lot more money that we need to raise, but at the same time we’ve raised so much that comparatively, it’s just a small push toward the finish line.”
Phelps understands the doubt originally aimed at her dream for a permanent home for CounterPulse. With the high cost of real estate in San Francisco, a nonprofit arts organization purchasing their own space in the city can seem over-ambitious.
“It feels like, against all odds in some way,” Phelps said. “But at the same time, [the fundraising drive] taps into a core desire of the people who live in the Bay Area.”
Progress so far has been made possible by partnering with a new real estate initiative called the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), funding and support from multiple partners and donors, and working hand-in-hand with the neighborhood through different community projects.
According to communications director Grey Tartaglione, CounterPulse will be, “the first of its kind to acquire a building through this new national model of sustainability for the arts.”
And what a building it is. 80 Turk Street was once the longest-running straight porn cinema in San Francisco.
Its renovation into a space for different art forms has been designed by Jensen Architects. They re-lettered the building’s historic “Dollhouse” neon sign. Phelps commissioned FUTUREFORMS, a local design studio, to fit its main entrance’s glass brick facade with a new metal light sculpture, entitled “Elektra.”
“The experience of CounterPulse starts from the street,” she said. “When you enter the block, you can see the 30 foot hot pink neon sign. The idea is that we emanate out into the neighborhood. Anchoring the center of this block is a really important part of how we see our role in the community.”
The light sculpture increases street safety at night, and provides shade during the day.
Inside, the renovated building is designed to highlight what Phelps described as a “nice tapestry of resources.”
“The lobby itself is designed specifically to provide liminal space; a place to linger before and after the theatrical experience that you may have, where those conversations about what you just saw take place, or meeting or connecting with a new or old friend can happen,” she said. “It’s comfortable and has nooks and crannies that both provide a space that’s public, but also private and cozy.”
“The theater space itself is a nice, almost cockpit for the arts,” she continued, speaking of the blackbox theater. “Even if you have 110 people in there, you still really have that experience of being in the room with the performers. You can smell the sweat of the venue, which I really appreciate, and is appropriate for our programming.”
Upstairs, there is a sunlit dance studio, featuring a wall of windows and a skylight that reflects off of the studio’s hardwood floors. Next door: open floor office spaces, and a studio apartment available to artists in residency and with stories of its own.
“It makes a big difference having a cheap and affordable space to bring people that they can stay in, that is also rooting them in the arts communities of the Bay Area,” Phelps said. “People started dating, collaborating—all sorts of things have emerged out of this room being available.”
Other than the minor, expected hiccups that arose from renovating a historic building with old bones, the main challenge CounterPulse staff faced came from having to board up their new venue in the midst of the pandemic. Cancellations, delays, moves to outdoor spaces, and programming changes all put a screw in CounterPulse’s fundraising plans—but gave the organization a capacity for adaptability from which it continues to benefit.
Like: CounterPulse continues to host virtual panel talks and lectures, and can accommodate artists to ensure their comfort during live performances. Artists can request that audience members wear masks, or ask for a smaller maximum capacity.
“Of course, that changes the ticket sales,” Phelps said. “But in nearly all of our programming, 100 percent of the ticket sales go to the artist anyways, so they can take whatever risk they feel comfortable with.”
CounterPulse has now entered its fall 2022 season, opening earlier than usual to catch up with postponed productions from the previous three years. Many events are planned for the end of 2022, including parties, artist talks, and performances like Nol Simonse and Jim Cave’s upcoming September premiere of “Death Pod/Kid Subjective,” which will touch on subjects ranging from mythology and ghost stories to kink.
Being so close now to their fundraising goal, despite the obstacles they’ve faced, is exciting, Phelps said.
“We now have the track record to show we’ve been open and operational in the Tenderloin for seven years, and on top of that, it’s going really well,” she said. “We’re in the final sprint to get that last little bit of money raised, and it’s been interesting to see how it comes together.”
That “last little bit of money” is the only thing standing in the way between Phelps and what she imagines as the bubbly conclusion of the fundraising drive.
“That’s the whole premise,” she said. “We pop 100 or so bottles of champagne at the same time, you know? Just, the idea of the noise of that. ‘Cause at this rate, there are so many people who have helped make this happen.”
“I joke that there’s no better way to build a community than to build a building,” she continued. “This project has brought a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life together, and that in and of itself should be celebrated.”