45 Onondaga, pen and ink by ArtSpan Artist Paul Madonna.

Learn more about this historic gem at 45 Onondaga Avenue in the Excelsior.

For years the dominant narrative on San Francisco real estate is that it is inordinately high priced, forcing out long-time residents, commercial businesses and the nonprofit sector. Perhaps small arts nonprofits and individual artists—largely credited with shaping our city’s character—feel this most acutely. So when the story is flipped we take note. The ArtSpan Onondaga Art Center brings a venerable, respected arts organization to a new 4,000-square-foot home in the Excelsior, a neighborhood with few arts and culture services, and reverses the script by stabilizing ArtSpan’s future and the important role it plays for artists and the community.

SF Arts Monthly sat down with Joen Madonna, Executive Director of ArtSpan (the organization responsible for producing SF Open Studios for four decades), to learn more about this historic gem at 45 Onondaga Avenue and the future of the organization, now halfway to its $1 million capital campaign goal. 

SF/ARTS Monthly: What is the origin story of the ArtSpan Onondaga Art Center (AOAC)?

Joen Madonna: In November 2016 at our annual Board Retreat, ArtSpan decided that in order to retain creative space for artists we needed to have site control over our operations, and maintain studios to ensure artists would always have a place to make their work. In January 2017 we submitted a proposal to become tenants of the Onondaga historic buildings owned by the city. By March we were selected to be long-term lease holders (up to 20 years) creating ArtSpan’s first ever community art center. It will consist of artists’ studios, a resource center, ArtSpan offices, a community classroom and gallery, as well as a public meeting space.

SFAM: When is it opening?

JM: Depending on some interior and exterior building construction timelines, we hope to be all moved in by winter 2020-2021.

SFAM: Describe the interior design plans.

JM: The classroom will offer art classes for all interest and skill levels to small groups of students of all ages from the surrounding community or anywhere in the Bay Area. We envision local organizations using the community meeting space for events, workshops or other gatherings. The resource center will provide a small library and computers for artists to register for Open Studios, apply for other opportunities, and to maintain their online presence.

SFAM: How many studios will it have? What kinds of artists are you looking for to fill them?

JM: Our plan is to have ten below-market rate studios for qualifying artists in need of work space—whether they’re recently displaced, emerging or are working on a specific project.

SFAM: Why is it the right time for ArtSpan to have a new home in a historic building?

JM: ArtSpan has been around since 1975 and has conducted all of its operations from modest office spaces, mostly relying on other facilities around the city to host exhibitions. With the city in huge economic flux, retaining space is essential to stabilizing the ability of artists to produce their work. Creating a small art center in a city-owned building is the perfect growth move for ArtSpan, cementing our programming and expanding our ability to serve San Francisco’s arts community.

SFAM: How will the Excelsior community be impacted and served by AOAC?

JM: The Excelsior is a culturally diverse neighborhood of working class families with woefully little local arts and cultural programming. We see every day how art builds community and brings people together. We are so excited that AOAC presents an opportunity to enrich the neighborhood with a new cultural asset so people can make new connections, share meaningful cultural experiences, engage one another and add depth to the fabric and richness of the community. We are also incredibly honored to have a 1935 Bernard Zakheim mural in our facility that will be on view for the first time in twenty years.

SFAM: How does this impact ArtSpan’s vision for the future—in five years, ten, fifty?

JM: In the first five years we will develop the facility’s various spaces and programming, working with the community to ensure AOCA is integrated into the Excelsior identity. In ten I’d love to see AOCA be a model for other small civic buildings being transformed into community art centers. And in 50 years AOAC will be among dozens of art and community center pearls throughout the region.

SFAM: What do you think a week at the AOAC will look like when it’s fully up and running?

JM: All of our artists will be coming and going from their spaces, activating the center. Locals and tourists will visit the gallery and mural throughout the day. The classroom will be in constant use with long-term courses or shorter community classes each day. We’ll have a gallery opening where the curator gives a talk about the exhibition, and the artists featured answer questions about their work. A neighborhood nonprofit will hold their board meeting in our meeting space, and a community group will host 20 people for a roundtable discussion. Members will reserve time for computer use, and the ArtSpan office will be growing programming all week long.

SFAM: How much do you have to raise for the capital campaign? And what will the new annual operating budget be?

JM: We are about half-way to our $1,000,000 capital campaign goal, and anticipate our new annual operating budget to be just under $1,000,000 for the first few years as we grow and stabilize our new operations

SFAM: If you had 5 words to capture AOAC, what would they be?

JM: A vibrant artful community hub.