SOMA Artists Studios started with modest beginnings in the fall of 1989. Our space at that time was small, taking up the back quarter of the building at 689 Bryant Street, with space for a small art school and 8 artists. Gradually by 2005, we expanded to include the whole top floor — with 37 studios and well over 40 artists to occupy them.
SOMA Artists Studios evolved from an art school. In the mid 80s, artist and teacher Elaine Badgley Arnoux was looking for a new home for her school. The school’s board of directors searched but was turned down numerous times. Finally, one of Elaine’s students, a Korean American woman and real estate broker, found a space, donating her commission. It was because of her efforts, the school obtained a new home. The owner of the building, The Korean Times, took a chance.
A strong earthquake in the fall of 1989, The Loma Prieta, rocked the Bay Area. While San Francisco was mopping up the aftermath, the EBA School of Art moved into its new space at 180 Welsh Street in SOMA. In fact, minutes before the quake hit, Elaine had signed off on the seismic upgrades before the quake hit at 5 pm. The building survived beautifully.
The entrance to the school’s new accommodations was located on an unpaved, dead-end alley, adjacent to 5th Street. Originally a cork factory, it now housed the art school, as well as a warren of commercial businesses. South of Market in the 90s was a bustling commercial district. The school and studio artists shared their locale with a variety of other businesses — auto repair shops, a furniture restoration business, paint stores, a ceramic/crafts store, a store selling sculpture supplies, a hardware store, a ﬁlm processor, The Chronicle’s distribution center, and the SF Flower Market. It was in this marginal neighborhood that the ﬂedgling school and studios took root.
In 1990, a year after occupying its new space, a city-run homeless shelter moved in next door, the largest shelter in Northern California. Many public meetings were held at the school where opinions were voiced by the concerned businesses nearby. Elaine and the studio artists chose to embrace the new neighbor with its homeless clientele. Work was offered to them to clean our halls, to paint our studios or to carry our art up the stairs. Elaine went even further: she drew their portraits, gave them art classes, and eventually hired them to work on an art project she called “The New Frontier.”
THE STUDIOS EXPAND
In 1990, the first expansion of the studios took place. Elaine and another studio artist held the lease. New studios were built out, taking up the front half of the top floor. We gained an entrance on Bryant Street and added a gallery, The Bridge Gallery, which held exhibitions in our spacious hall. We entered into the city-wide ‘Open Studios’ event run by ArtSpan for the first time, participating in that event for the past 25 years. We flourished with more space and more artists.
In 1995 the art school closed. The space it occupied was built out into additional studios. We no longer were the EBA Artist Studios; we became SOMA Artists Cooperative.
THE DOT-COM THREAT
While the school and studios enjoyed their new home, the threat of displacement loomed, like the shadow cast from the blinking Coca Cola sign perched on top of the adjacent building. For many years, a large sign was attached to the front of the building, and it shouted, “For Sale.” The owner of the Korean Times was searching for a buyer and desperately wanted to sell. As a result, he gave us a year to year lease, which fortunately was renewed each year.
Then, in the late 90s, the dot-com craze hit San Francisco hard. Many artists and musicians were displaced. Luckily, our building was spared. As with every boom and bust, a drop in commercial rents went to a low not seen in years. It was a blessing for the artists that survived the boom, and in our case, the rent was not increased for subsequent years. It was a difficult time to sell art, but at least we had affordable spaces to create in.
THE STUDIOS EXPANDED AGAIN
The Korean Times did find a potential buyer in 2005. In a convoluted deal, the new landlord leased from the Korean Times and we leased from him. There was a reorganization of the studios as well, with 2 studio artists taking over management. We changed our name again to SOMA Artists Studios.
Following 17 yearly leases, our new landlord gave us one for 7 years. At that time, he brokered an option to buy the building at the end of his lease from the Korean Times. With a long term lease for the first time in our history, the 2 new studio managers decided to take a risk: to develop the vacant remaining half of the top floor into studios. Our new landlord gave us 3 months for the build out. Scrambling to complete the new studios, we interviewed artists to occupy the spaces. We not only expanded, we doubled our size!
THE TECH INDUSTRY INVASION
The year 2012 brought another boom for the city of San Francisco. It created numerous jobs, a surge unlike most American cities, still reeling from the recession. It also created a high demand for commercial space, again, particularly in SOMA, its epicenter. At this time, the landlord of the building took his option to buy, and by September of 2013, we were given 1 year to vacate.
Caught by surprise, though the threat of eviction had always been a possibility at 689 Bryant Street, reality became another matter. Our studio managers went into overdrive negotiating with the new owner, and came back with a reprieve until December 2015.
Throughout the life of our building, the art studios have housed a variety of occupants, from art students to professionals: painters, sculptors, mixed media artists, video artists, and more. While the space has been leased and managed by 2 studio artists, there has been a flow of artists, a natural turnover in a building, but always remaining at full capacity. The building is spacious, radiates with natural light, and is secure. Our location is close to the heart of the city, near galleries, museums, art supply stores, and cafes, all necessary to the life and career of an artist. Never having had a problem attracting artists as tenants, our current problem is that the tech industry has discovered the South of Market area as a great location for business.