An arts organization grows, and learns, in the Tenderloin

CounterPulse head Julie Phelps closes in on a momentous milestone

By Garth Grimball

Special to The Examiner

Julie Phelps has a plan. She must. As artistic and executive director of CounterPulse, an arts organization that has been supporting emerging dancers and performers since 1991, her work is geographically located at the intersection of conflicting interests.

On the one hand, CounterPulse is in San Francisco — a city that exists in the public imagination as both a “Left Coast” experiment of progressive ideals and a beacon of capitalist technocracy. On the other hand, CounterPulse has, since 2015, made its home at 80 Turk Street in the Tenderloin — San Francisco’s most diverse, low-income and drug-burdened neighborhood.

When I met Phelps, in the upstairs studio of CounterPulse to discuss the organization’s move from renting to acquiring its building on Turk Street, these factors were present throughout our conversation. A discussion about real estate drifted into an analysis of what it means for an arts group to be disruptive and a model of civic leadership.

Phelps, 38 and a native of Minnesota, has been with CounterPulse for 15 years. She started working five hours per week as front of house staff and became the artistic director in 2014, supporting the development of local artists like Monique Jenkinson and Larry Arrington. “I’ve grown up with the organization,” she said. “The founders — Jessica Robinson Love, Keith Hennessy and Jess Curtis — were mentors.”

During her tenure, CounterPulse moved from SOMA to the Tenderloin after being priced out by the pre-pandemic tech boom. Partnerships with Community Vision, Kenneth Rainin Foundation and Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) succeeded in financing the purchase and renovation of CounterPulse’s new theater. The novelty of the success has been covered in Fast Company, and the partnership model is reverberating internationally. CAST purchased the Tenderloin building in 2013 for $1.3 million and gave CounterPulse an affordable 10-year lease and the option to buy by 2023.

This model will “contribute to the mythology of owning an arts organization in San Francisco,” said Phelps. “People want to point to something they feel is a viable option of real estate for the arts in expensive cities.”

In 2017, her role expanded to artistic and executive director. In an era when distributed leadership is on the rise, Phelps does not take the joint role for granted. “CounterPulse punches above its weight in efficiencies,” she said. “By streamlining the overhead of CounterPulse we invest more money into programming.” One executive position is cheaper than two. Most of the staff are working artists for whom the 40-hour work week is not a priority.

Phelps said CounterPulse’s staff of nine focus on “creating values around mutuality and collaboration,” adding, “How we work with each other isn’t separate from our mission. One way we’ve sustained our presence is asking: How do we fit into people’s lives? Providing jobs people want is the way to get people to work here.”

Adaptability to the shifting culture of work, nonprofit funding and real estate has enabled Phelps and CounterPulse to enter the rare terrain of building ownership. The arts nonprofit is in its final capital campaign for the building acquisition, with $1.2 million left to raise of the total $7 million. If things go as planned, 80 Turk Street will be owned by CounterPulse before the end of this year.

According to Victor Cordon, the organization’s board vice chair, “Owning our building will provide much needed stability to CounterPulse and the communities we center and serve. It will ensure San Francisco’s legacy as an artistic and cultural hub, specifically in dance and performance arts.”

Phelps is aware of the “anonymity and alienation” an influx of money can foment. “I don’t want to gentrify, but I do want change,” she said. “Who gets to inform and benefit from changes?” This question has served as “a compass in being a citizen of the Tenderloin.”

In 2017, CounterPulse implemented the Tenderloin Art Exchange, an outreach program that surveys community members to identify neighborhood challenges and opportunities for arts activities. In 2020, the organization partnered with the Transgender District, the world’s first, to paint a Black Trans Lives Matter mural at the intersection of Turk and Taylor.

On May 7, CounterPulse is hosting INNERSPACE : HOMECOMING, its annual art party and auction (tickets are $10-$250). The event features a diverse program of artists, including a cello performance by Peekaboo and a sneak peak of the ARC Edge Residency by Afro Urban Society as well as the unveiling of a light sculpture on CounterPulse’s facade by design studio FUTUREFORMS, which Phelps says is the culmination of years of research and is informed by rapid eye light therapy.

“CounterPulse isn’t just this space,” said Phelps. But owning the building and completing the capital campaign means there is more time to “listen, understand and know what we can consistently do well for this neighborhood.”

Tags: ,
Behind the scenes at the Goldman Prize

Executive director talks about mission of awards, which are announced May 25

How Chinatown’s last photo shops have avoided becoming a relic of the past

“We have the best Chinatown in the whole United States, really, but now I see it suffering more and more.”

Julia Bullock raises ‘History’s Persistent Voice’ at San Francisco Symphony

A multimedia performance of Black female history, experience and liberation