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Space to grow
In the wake of the dot-bust, new art and performance venues are opening up in the Bay Area.

By Annalee Newitz

SEAN KELLY IS standing in a room filled with rubble. The walls around him are covered with cute paintings of puffy sheep, blue skies, and a huge rainbow. "This used to be a Sunday school," Kelly says, gesturing at the murals. "But we've ripped out all the walls and are making it into a small rental gallery, or possibly a dance studio."

The room in question is one small part of Spanganga, Kelly's newly opened art and performance space. Nestled at the corner of 19th Street and Mission, Spanganga is 6,000 square feet and features a gallery for local artists, two performance spaces with stages and seating, and a couple of as-yet-undefined rooms for whatever comes up. "Spanganga is for fun. The space lets you try out wacky ideas," says Kelly, who was inspired to rent it last September partly to build a home for his comedy troupe, Please Leave the Bronx.

Kelly, a 31-year-old I.T. director at a financial data service company, also wanted to create a space for the arts and performance community in the Bay Area – a community that has been adrift for the past few years because of skyrocketing rental prices. "In part this space is my revenge on the snobby venues in this town that never rent to anyone and are not promoting community, despite what their nonprofit mission statements say," Kelly says.

Spanganga is just one of several new arts and performance venues that have opened up in the Bay Area over the past six months. Bust-era prices and audience demand have made it possible for a new generation of venue providers to make cultural events in the Bay Area affordable again. Often the people running these spaces are performers themselves, whose lucrative jobs during the boom finally allowed them to give back to the communities they enjoyed for so long.

Taking their cues from long-standing venues like cell space, Kelly and others are seeking to provide community spaces and galleries that also happen to be kick-ass event venues. Jon Stevens's Studio Z (in the old Transmission Theater space on 11th Street) and Jim Mason's Shipyard (in the Berkeley warehouse district) are two other recently opened spaces that bring art together with events ranging from ambient DJ parties and comedy shows to amateur mud-wrestling and giant, flame-throwing robot performances.

Weirdly enough, the real estate market today is artist-friendly. Michael McCormac, a real estate agent at Grubb and Ellis, says, "Properties are more available now than they have been in 10 years. Buildings that used to lease for $2.50 per square foot are at $1 per square foot now." Frank Fudem, a real estate agent at BT Commercial, has seen a similar transformation of the commercial real estate market. "From late 1998 until mid 2000, San Francisco leased 5 million feet of office space. From mid 2000 until the end of 2001, 8.5 million feet were vacated, leaving us with 3.5 fewer feet being occupied now."

A lot of that "unoccupied" space is gradually being snapped up by people who always wanted to own clubs but never had the ability to do it. Stevens, a 28-year-old software engineer, says that when his friend Zeremy Uptegrove approached him about investing in Studio Z, he immediately said yes. "I've been going to parties, especially with [party crew] Friends and Family, for about six or seven years," Stevens says. "And I wanted to provide a place for people to put on their events in a legal, safe, permitted location. That's something that's really been missing in our scene." Stevens signed a 10-year lease on the Studio Z space

A similar wish motivated artist and Shipyard owner Mason, who recently signed a 15-year lease on an 11,000-square-foot lot on Murray Street near San Pablo in Berkeley. Mason, well known for his giant flamethrowers and public art projects at Burning Man and elsewhere, wanted to create a spot that would appeal to the kinds of mechanical, electronic, and kinetic artists who like to build giant robots and light things on fire. So Mason bought a batch of giant red steel shipping containers, stacked them two high around the edges of the lot, and rented them out as studios. The space was inaugurated with a rare and hideously beautiful Survival Research Labs show last December.

Shipyard event promoter Charlie Gadeken, also an artist, says, "The Shipyard is a collaborative environment for artists. Everybody [who has a studio there] has an area to create large work and numerous people to interact with who have various skills and tools to share. We're trying to put on shows there that are more than just art events – they're learning experiences. They're participant shows that are about interacting and building tools."

Next month's show will be "power-tool races," which will be "very cool," Gadeken says. "There are three classes: unmodified power tools, modified, and the ridden modified." He cackles at the dangerously ambiguous ideas these categories might spawn.

"Commercial space is cheaper now, but it's all been dot-commed," he adds. "You know, who wants to put on a show in a place with gray industrial carpeting and 34 DSL jacks in every room. You just don't need it." Especially for power-tool races.

At Spanganga, Kelly is preparing for several upcoming events. First, there's "Chunch" – "half-church, half-brunch, and no God." Please Leave the Bronx performs regularly, the Tentacle Sessions comes to Spanganga every month, and a tantalizing participatory event in late March called "Splosh!" has the underground performance community buzzing. Plus, the gallery is constantly stocked with art from local favorites like Attaboy, Mike Monteiro, and Harmon Leon. And, Kelly reports, Spanganga is already turning a modest profit.

What makes Spanganga so enticing for artists and audiences is what Kelly calls "an open-door policy." In a nutshell, he says, "we're cheaper, and we have a first-come, first-served policy." That means series like the Tentacle Sessions, whose uncensored performances have gotten promoters in hot water elsewhere in town, are welcome to be as outspoken as they wanna be – as long as they pay the bargain-basement rental fee.

While Studio Z's Stevens is cautious about making sure all the events at his venue are "definitely legal," he is also eager to work with promoters who are putting on a variety of events. "We've had fashion shows, art openings, and music, sometimes at the same time," he says. One of his favorite shows featured artist Doze Green, who actually created a piece of artwork on the fly during a music show. "We have a good focus on local artists. We're trying to preserve the arts community around 11th Street and provide a place for people to show their art and be their art through performance."

Stevens is so pleased with Studio Z that he hopes to open up more spaces like it in the future. "Since Zeremy and I are just starting out, it's hard to say what will happen," he says. "But I think the end goal is to take the idea of Studio Z, a combination of art and music, to other cities. We want to promote other local artists and give them spaces in their own cities."

Stevens pauses, then laughs. "Of course, first we need to make a profit." At this point it's too early to tell whether the new wave of arts spaces will be able to make up for all the losses suffered by artists during the dot-com land rush. But perhaps what's most refreshing about the new generation of space owners in the Bay Area is that they think about community first and profit second.

Additional reporting by Beth Hillman.

For more information on Spanganga go to www.spanganga.org/spanganga.html.

E-mail Annalee Newitz at annalee@techsploitation.com.