Four decades ago, about 40 people were looking for a place to carry
out a plan they called Project 2. The group had a dream of creating
a place where artists could grow and develop without having to worry
about finances. Just on the edge of San Francisco's Mission District,
they found what they were looking for in an abandoned factory.
Dust covered everything, windows were sealed with concrete blocks,
and antiquated machinery littered the ground, but the new residents
banded together to make the old cannery building something more - a
home to one of the Bay Area's first art cooperatives.
Today, the factory - mostly recognized by its second name, Developing
Environments - houses about 35 artists of all kinds, including clowns,
tap dancers, sculpture artists, prop designers and sound artists.
At a time when tech incubators are the rage and art collectives are
an endangered species, Developing Environments has managed to survive,
even if the names of the artists have changed. Residents are given a
room in which to live - kitchens and bathrooms are in a separate communal
space - and explore their talents. They come together twice a year to
make their art available to the public.
"It seems to be a dying thing in San Francisco, but I think we
are a good role model for other communities," said Jennifer Ewing,
a resident since 1984 who paints and sculpts. "We have the experience
On the top floor of the warehouse-like building, a large table with
oranges and pitchers of water gives everyone a place to meet. Ewing
sits with a group of about 12 other people, and as they talk they reminisce
about how the co-op used to be and how far they have come.
"It's gone through a lot of changes," Ewing says.
Walking through the halls now, art is everywhere. Sculptures and paintings
are placed by the doors that line the hallways, each door reflecting
the talent of the artist who resides within. The hallways lead to wide
open living areas that can be used for larger projects or as a place
to display work. But this is now - In the 1970s, it was a very different
Hugh Buck has lived at Developing Environments since 1974 and has seen
most of the changes that have occurred.
"People were living out of parachutes and cardboard. When it rained,
the whole floor flooded. Dust and gravel and sand covered everything,"
There were no walls and very little electricity and plumbing. Another
problem soon developed as people began fighting over space. "While
going in, everyone was idealistic," Buck said, "but it became
more of a land grab."
Eventually, things were sorted out. People divided spaces based on
their needs, and accommodations were made.
"We agreed to live by consensus really, really early - we were
all like hippies," Buck said. "It used to be that we had our
own store on the upstairs floor, and it even had a bar. People never
had to leave the building - we had everything we needed. It was just
a great feeling."
Although the store and bar are no longer there, the residents still
abide by the same principles as when the co-op started: It's a not-for-profit
organization run by consensus. All rules are adopted verbally through
meetings, and everybody has the power to veto. People are constantly
negotiating, and everyone knows everybody.
"It's a valuable experience you can't get anywhere else; you can
take what you learn from here and can apply it to the outside world,"
said Janet Silk, another resident. "You become more aware of the
complex mannerisms of people. It's an incredible experience."
Karin Wikstrom also appreciates the camaraderie that comes with living
around like-minded people.
"It means a lot to be around other artists," Wikstrom said.
"Being an artist can mean many different things, but here you get
each other. There is support for people and it brings a lot of us together."
Since opening, Developing Environments has had to make a lot of adjustments.
During the first few years, they lost one floor of the building after
rent became too expensive. Earthquakes and construction also caused
a lot of stress, especially after the building was condemned in the
early 1970s and had to be brought back up to code.
Even today, lots of projects drive up the cost of living there. But
residents help each other out, and rent can be forgiven if they do some
of the work themselves.
"We have this big building, but we still have to maintain it and
improve it," said Gabrielle Thormann, who lives and works there.
Over the years, residents have had to put in sprinklers, upgrade the
electrical wiring, pull out pipes, put in windows, re-do the stairwell
and upgrade the building so that it stays up to par with safety requirements.
Their latest battle is with the Municipal Transportation Agency.
"They have a plan to put in two-hour meters in this area, but
we live and work here. It's a threat to people's livelihood," Thormann
Even with the latest problems, the artists remain positive. As far
as their original mission goes, they have tried to stay true to the
original dream, and according to Ewing, it is a success.
"Developing Environments is an incubator where you can grow a
career and explore new things. You can really create an environment
for yourself and develop a body of work," Ewing said. "That's
really why we chose the name Developing Environments."
Bek Phillips is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/art/article/Artists-co-op-40-years-old-and-thriving-4333433.php#ixzz2OJQl7OBI