somarts archival photoImage of SOMArts Cultural Center in 1979 

SOMArts (South of Market Arts, Resources, Technology, and Services) has a colorful history that spans over 40 years and is garnished with many periods of celebration, struggle and transformation. Although it has not always gone by the same name, the mission of creating a cultural resource for the local community has been a constant. Like many things at SOMArts, this history is a work-in-progress, culled from first-person testimony and written documents found on-site as well as other community resources.

SOMArts began as Friends of Support Services for the Arts and has evolved in direct response to the needs of artists. Our mission is to promote and nurture art on the community level, and to foster an appreciation of and respect for all cultures.

SOMArts History: A Timeline
1967—Amid anti-war protests and struggles to establish civil rights in the 1960s, the Neighborhood Arts Program (NAP) is created by the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) in order to promote community by providing funding for the arts that reaches beyond the city’s established arts institutions. Under the direction of Martin Snipper, the city purchases the 17,000 square foot Brannan Street building that became home to Support Services for the Arts. This program eventually provides the city with four artistic services:
– The Mural Resource Center: helps to coordinate and supervise 4-5 annual mural projects throughout the city. Is funded solely by the Mayor’s Office of Community Development. MRC supported artist Mike Rios’ mural that became a Carlos Santana album cover.
– The Costume Bank: home to over 3,000 costumes and accessories, which are available to rent for community performances. Commissioned costumes are also created.
– Graphic Services: provides artists with colored flyers for promotion, the assistance of a professional publicist and access to a media handbook.
– Technical Services: assists in the construction of stages and design of sound and lighting systems for local performances and events.

1975—$2.5 million is allocated by the city with intentions to form ten neighborhood cultural centers. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which trained and hired unemployed workers, provides federally funded staff for these emerging organizations and more than 100 working artists to enrich them, one of whom is San Francisco Art Institute alumnus Bernice Bing, a later Director of SOMArts.

1978—Proposition 13 is passed by CA State voters resulting in a 75% budget cut for CETA funded employees. With the loss of so many workers, the organization is forced to restructure the four service programs into a more unified organization and private funding is sought for the South of Market Cultural Center through the establishment of Friends of Support Services for the Arts. FSSA becomes an independent 501(c)3 organization in August 1979.

1980—Bernice Bing, who co-founded Scrounger Center for Reusable Arts Parts (SCRAP) in 1975, is appointed as Director of “South of Market Cultural Center,” one of the four cultural centers that were created with the 1975 endowment. During her four years of service, Bing is successful in expanding programming. She introduces the exhibitions program with 19 artists who are graduates of the San Francisco Art Institute. The newly-minted exhibitions program consists of an array of shows, workshops and presentations—including a Sex Pistols concert.

1984—Friends of Support Services for the Arts and The San Francisco Arts Commission sign a Memorandum of Understanding that is designed to work towards reinvigorating the partnership. FSSA takes on the fiscal responsibilities, while SFAC focuses on maintaining the facilities and raising funds to support their preservation. The work of these two organizations helps to improve and expand resources and stabilizes the cultural center’s business model. In 1984 Bing resigns, citing the tensions of the position and a desire to return to art making. A new executive director is hired.

1990—SOMArts enters a period of financial difficulty and administrative instability that includes a leadership transition.

1992—Following a time of organizational deterioration, the Memorandum of Understanding between FSSA and SFAC is renewed to ensure continued support from both parties. An interim Board of Directors, which consists of both staff and outside experts, is established to reformulate financial and administrative policies. Jack Davis, a longtime champion of neighborhood arts and former director of Intersection for the Arts, steps up to lead this transition. Following an organizational assessment, the Costume Bank and Graphic Services are discontinued and as the dot-com era booms the organization’s focus shifts to providing affordable space, staging and production assistance and collaborating on artistic programming. These collaborations become increasingly critical during the dot-com boom. Around this time, FSSA becomes SOMAR. Because another company uses the name SOMAR, this is later changed to SOMArts (South of Market Arts, Resources, Technology, and Services).

1993- Davis is appointed executive director. SOMArts programming expands to include local events like the National Queer Arts Festival, United States of Asian America Festival, DadaFest, the SF Electronic Music Festival and SF Indie Fest. Working collaboratively with staff and community members, Davis provides technical assistance and input for Day of the Dead events and San Francisco street festivals—extending the efforts of Technical Services.

1994—The first large-scale Burning Man art installations take place at SOMArts, which introduced the festival’s annual art themes. With the help of Pepe Ozan and Larry Harvey, an immense Burning Man was installed in the vaulted gallery, and later exhibits expanded throughout the facility.

1998—SOMAR officially changes its name to SOMArts

2007—On September 23, 2007, SOMArts looses their vibrant director, Jack Davis, due to injuries sustained in an auto accident. This loss was devastating, not just emotionally, but for the functioning of the organization as well. Technical Services Director Ernest Rivera acts as Interim Executive Director and the Board of Directors enlists the aid of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services to assist in the hiring of a new director.

2008—Following a national search and extensive interview process, SOMArts appoints Lex Leifheit as the new Executive Director. Leifheit begins in late October 2008.

2009—SOMArts begins a series of strategic organizational partnerships to repair and renovate the lobby, theater, classrooms and garden. In-kind support from Philanthropy by Design, Rebuilding Together, Perkins+Will and more than 150 volunteers allow SOMArts to invest in new ADA-compliant risers for the theater as well as lighting and sound equipment, and to install the new RAMP Gallery space in the reception area.

2010—SOMArts launches the Commons Curatorial Residency program and secures critical funding support to expand its artistic programming and support of art made with, by and for cultural communities. This renaissance period is marked by collaboration and an ever-growing list of program partners. The vibrancy of SOMArts is recognized by numerous articles in the media and online reviews.