Art in America has always been a pioneer’s venture — often made in back lots and dark corners, artists continue to produce the constituents of culture with a minimum of cash or acknowledgement for their labors. And one of the scrappiest organizations in San Francisco is closing its doors this weekend after eight years of supporting innumerable members of the creative community: The Garage.
Founded by Joe Landini, it first opened shop at 975 Howard Street, serving as a testing ground for new work by emerging choreographers and queer performance artists intent on leaving an artistic mark on the City. Weathering economic tides, inhospitable neighbors, and an address change to its current location at Bryant and Fifth Street, the Garage has become a symbol of the independent and alternative spirit of the City.
The years have been filled with “trial and error, tight budgets, and a lot of growing up,” explains Landini. Hundreds of performers have graced the tiny black-box space annually, where participation in the Resident Artist Workshop (RAW) offered t12 weeks of rehearsal space and two performances at no cost to the artists.
“The physical spaces of the Garage at Howard Street and later, 715 Bryant Street have been my gauntlet, my odyssey, and my albatross, but also a shining example of human potential. On the Garage stage, I experienced the best that people had to offer and that’s been an honor to help facilitate.”
However, recent years have been less vibrant than the Garage’s heyday, with the number of artists participating in RAW dropping from 120 a year to only 80 in 2014.
“The Garage, like any business, has always been subject to the realities of our local and national economy,” says Landini, noting that fewer productions also led to less revenue for the theater. Simultaneously, shifting circumstances seemed to call for a change.
A 2009 meeting with the city planted the seed for a move, with then-mayor Gavin Newsom encouraging Landini’s organization, SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts (Saving Art from Extinction), to consider relocating to the Central Market neighborhood. The conversation resulted a partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to produce 24 Days of Central Market Arts, a free dance festival, from 2010-2012. Furthermore, when choreographer Yannis Adoniou departed for Europe in 2013, he invited Landini to take over the management of his studio and performance space, KUNST-STOFF arts, located on Grove Street across from the main branch of the public library and mere steps from the Twitter headquarters.
With Landini managing both KUNST-STOFF and the Garage in 2014, he was forced to acknowledge both the complications of running two performance spaces and the worsening economic climate.
“We’re seeing fewer and fewer independent choreographers moving to SF because of the high cost of living. Meanwhile the exodus of artists leaving the city continues to grow because of the lack of affordable housing,” he says. “Honestly, there isn’t enough art-making to sustain both spaces.”
Consequently, the Garage, never conceived as a long-term venture, closes its doors on December 21, and KUNST-STOFF arts will be reincarnated as SAFEhouse Arts on January 1, 2015, with plans to continue offering the artist residencies that have offered emerging artists the opportunity to thrive in a city financially inhospitable to the arts.
“The Garage has been a bit of a one-man show with me as the ringleader and because of that, a lot of my idiosyncrasies helped shape the personality of the space. Sometimes it seems like the Garage is a just reflection of my personality—hopefully a little irreverent (some would say sarcastic) and hopefully a lot of heart. I’ll miss the Garage space and everything it represented for me personally. I’ll miss its feistiness,” says Landini. “I’m grateful for all the amazing artists, volunteers and audiences that made the Garage such a magical place, where miraculous things appeared from thin air and many people found a place to belong during a time when harsh economic realities sometimes make SF seem untenable.”
A final performance, with several former resident artists and a program hosted by performance artist and comedian Windy Wynazz, shuts down the Garage with a toast to Landini on December 21.
The Garage: Final Performance, Party, and Roast begins at 5 p.m. Dec. 21 at the Garage, 715 Bryant St., S.F. Admission is free; donations accepted.