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Pandemic induces ‘dramatic’ changes for the arts at Fort Mason

With big indoor spaces along the northern waterfront, Fort Mason Center in San Francisco has become a cultural destination where visitors can stroll through art galleries, browse inside a bookstore or catch a live performance.

But a lot has changed in recent months as the coronavirus crisis has taken ahold of The City. Arts organizations have had to halt in-person activities and cancel events, while key tenants are leaving Fort Mason.

“I’ve never seen anything close to this dramatic,” said Dennis Criteser, who runs Blue Bear School of Music, a nonprofit that moved to Fort Mason in 1978. “This is an order of magnitude more impactful than I’ve ever seen over the years.”

Nearly a third of the space at the center will soon be vacant as tenants scale back under deep financial strain. City College of San Francisco is closing its 40-year-old arts campus, San Francisco Art Institute will sublease its space and the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library permanently shuttered its Fort Mason bookstore.

But Fort Mason is hopeful that the space will be filled since it offers below-market-rate rents to arts and culture organizations, many of whom were struggling to make ends meet even before pandemic.

“Arts organizations that can’t open their doors, that are struggling with funding — now more than ever they’re going to need an affordable home,” said Nick Kinsey, who runs the center. “It creates one of the biggest opportunities we’ve had to infuse new blood.”

The center offers affordable rates to nonprofit art groups as a condition of its lease with the National Parks Service, which owns the land. The rental opportunities are rare in a city that has notoriously high rents.

The center has already begun showing the City College space to prospective tenants and is working with the Art Institute to find a replacement tenant, Kinsey said.

Th San Francisco Art Institute building at the Fort Mason Center on Friday, July 31, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Some existing tenants are optimistic about Fort Mason’s future and look forward to seeing who their new neighbors will be.

Among the existing tenants are Blue Bear, Young Performers Theatre, Greens Restaurant, The Interval, FLAX Art Supply, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Artists Gallery, Museo Italo Americano and Off the Grid.

The remaining tenants are doing what they can to weather the pandemic and remain fixtures at the location.

BATS Improv, an improv school and company at the center, has had to switch to virtual lessons and events. It is relying largely on donations from its following, built up from operating at the center for two decades.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” said Hannah Henderson, BATS Improv managing director. “We’ve come up with a plan to get through it.”

Henderson said the center “remains a vibrant, creative cultural community that’s a hub for The City.”

Fort Mason typically brought in 1.6 million visitors annually before the coronavirus struck, according to Kinsey. It’s unclear what those numbers will look like after the pandemic.

While COVID-19 health orders have prohibited most of the activities that draw people to Fort Mason, what’s still allowed to operate is the farmer’s market on Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Even with reduced visitors, Equator Coffee co-founder and CEO Helen Russell deemed its Fort Mason’s location a “bright spot” during coronavirus.

Among its current patrons are the runners and cyclists along the Marina Green who come to buy hand sanitizer, Smitten ice cream and other items.

“It’s such a lovely place to get a cup of coffee and go for a walk,” Russell said. “The good thing about Fort Mason is that it’s going to come back because people are going to want to be there.”

But Russell knows it’ll be some hard months ahead as the pandemic remains and the upcoming rainy season is likely to reduce the number of patrons even further.

Equator Coffees co-founder and CEO Helen Russell cleans a table where patrons pick up their orders outside the company’s Fort Mason Center location on Friday, July 31, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Like BATS, Blue Bear has moved into online lessons while figuring out a sustainable path forward.

But surviving the coronavirus — or even just San Francisco’s rising expenses — would have been a lot tougher had it not moved from its Ocean Avenue storefront to Fort Mason’s affordable space.

“That’s been a huge factor in Blue Bear’s ability to thrive and flourish as a nonprofit,” said Criteser, who runs the school.

“It’s unclear that Blue Bear would still be existing, on the doorstep of our 50th anniversary, if we hadn’t had the opportunity to move to Fort Mason where we could be paying not-market rate rents,” he added. “It’s such a special place.”

Ida Mojadad

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