Arts advocates push to move SOTA to Civic Center

December 25, 2009 9:12:12 PM PST
Inside a bleak, grey building, there are voices that make San Francisco's School of the Arts a creative force.

"We have some of the finest art providers on the planet earth; we have the ballet, the symphony, the opera, we have the fine arts museums, the American Conservatory Theater, we have the Conservatory of Music," Susan Stauter said.

Art advocates like Stauter would like to bring the new and the more experienced performers closer together, by putting the School of the Arts at Civic Center.

"When you have an arts high school that is in the center, the hub of the city, those students have access to other artists and they have access to experiences at the opera, at the ballet, at the symphony, at ACT," Stauter said.

It was Bay Area artist Ruth Asawa who led the movement to create a School of the Arts in San Francisco, today commonly known as SOTA.

But many argue the school has always been in the wrong location, isolated on the McAteer campus next to Glen Canyon Park, nearly three miles from the center of the action.

The school district has long considered moving SOTA to a building it owns at Civic Center at 135 Van Ness Avenue. Built in 1926, the old building cannot be torn done because it is considered a landmark, but that also means it would be expensive to renovate.

According to a local architectural firm, the price tag to convert the building is $171 million. That does not include the cost of renovating Nourse Auditorium, which today is used as a storage space for the school district.

There are 600 students at SOTA, if you were to take that $171 million, the cost of relocating each student would be $285,000.

"I've talked with the ballet, I've talked with Davies symphony, I've talked with all the different groups here, and the opera, everybody agrees it seems like a natural, the problem is how do you fund a $170 million project, especially in this economy," Superintendent Carlos Garcia said.

But there is some money out there; about $10.3 million was set aside for renovation after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. And in 2003 voters passed Proposition A, $15 million in bonds and again, another $15 million in 2006. But some of those bonds cannot be sold until other construction funds are raised.

Former Mayor Willie Brown says both City Hall and the school district have shown no leadership towards this project.

"They have no interest, sufficient to make that their top priority," he said.

For example, it was Oakland's former Mayor Jerry Brown who first approached SOTA's principal Donn Harris to head Oakland's new school for the arts, and joked about taking Harris away from SOTA.

"Maybe San Francisco has something to learn from Oakland now," he said.

San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty admits the project needs someone to direct it.

"And I hope to bring before the school board a proposal to bring somebody on board who could be paid down the road out of bond proceeds once we develop what we are going to develop," Dufty said. "This project does need an angel and I don't know where you go to find a head hunter for angels, it's been tough."

But how did the Fox Theater and the Oakland School for the Arts get funded?

The vast majority of the $75 million needed came from a huge fund raising campaign led by an organization called Friends of the Oakland Fox.

Harris says in San Francisco's case he would first approach the folks at the opera.

"And I would say to the I would like to create a group called "Friends of the Nourse," or if you want to expand it call it "Friends of 135 Van Ness," "Friends of the Van Ness corridor," and I'd say, 'What can we do to both get the Nourse up and rolling as a performance venue and concurrently get the school built out,'" he said.

SOTA alumni Fred Harris is a pianist and composer who shares that vision.

"The community of musicians, professional musicians in San Francisco in a jazz realm, I had the benefit of having as teachers slash mentors slash influential people," Harris said.

But, many fear, as the years go by, the cost of bringing SOTA downtown will be too much to bear. Still, there are those looking for that angel with deep pockets.

"Ruth Asawa's dream is worth realizing and there are a lot of us who promised to keep that dream alive and as long I am breathing, it will be alive, I promise you that," Stauter said.


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