Courtney Fink basks in the glow of a MacBook in a dark warehouse on the corner of 20th and Alabama streets. When she presses the controls, a slideshow illuminates the wall, telling the history of the space that on Saturday opens as the official new home of Southern Exposure, a 35-year-old artist-run gallery.

As the show progresses, the warehouse transforms from a tagged-up, dilapidated mess into a Richard Johnson-designed, concrete and white-walled church of independent art.

The photos elicit sounds of approval from the architects and students on a walking tour of Mission District architectural gems.

“We’re an old organization,” says Fink as she clicks over pictures of what Southern Exposure’s new home looked like shortly before the lease was signed in April 2008. “But we were homeless up until a couple months ago. You can imagine how we feel now.”

Once a small independent gallery tied to the city’s oldest art collective, Project Artaud, Southern Exposure has grown into one of the most successful and cutting-edge artist-run galleries in the country. Most of that growth has happened under Fink’s directorship, which began in 2003.

Courtney Fink, Executive Director of SO/EX
Courtney Fink, executive director of So/Ex.

“Courtney was a gift from the goddesses,” said Catherine Armsden, an advisory board member for more than 20 years.

Advisory board member Barbara Eaton echoes this sentiment. “One of Courtney’s greatest skills is her ability to get really great people on board with her,” she said. “Her enthusiasm and passion are infectious.”

The story of Southern Exposure’s new space illustrates their views.

Fink found it in early 2008 when Southern Exposure was temporarily leasing space in the storefront that now houses Mission Pie on 25th and Mission streets.  The warehouse at 20th and Alabama housed a sausage factory in the early 20th century and, in later years, became headquarters for a communist bakery called the People’s Food Movement. But the building fell into disrepair in the 1980s.

“It was a very old-school situation,” said Fink. “The owner of the building is really hands-on so it was just her and I at every meeting. No lawyers or agents.”

Fink said she met the owner, Vera Cort, who also owns 1890 Bryant Street Studios and a slew of other buildings in the Bay Area, through Malcolm Davis, owner of the Stable. He introduced Fink to Cort’s son, Robert Jr., a Mission District local and a longtime fan of Southern Exposure.

“It was very nontraditional,” said Fink. “This place came to us through a network of friends and contacts, which is always the best way to get things done.”

Through her network, Fink secured a preview of a building that wasn’t even for rent at the time. “We pressed and just remained persistent, and in the end, Vera finally agreed to speak with us,” said Fink.

Before the redesign
Before the redesign.

Negotiations took nearly six months because Fink held firm on Southern Exposure desire to design its own space. In the end, Cort agreed to an attractive 15-year lease that included a total redesign of the interior and a reworking of the exterior. “I’ve become somewhat of a master negotiator through this process and it’s really meant that I’ve had to dedicate my life to this place,” said Fink. “But we never would have made it without all the other talented people on board. My colleagues are just amazing.”

Her advisers include longtime gallery owners Michael Rosenthal and Rena Bransten, staff members such as up-and-coming artists Tara Foley and Amanda Ault, and directors Tracy Wheeler and Amy Charles.

But many of Fink’s colleagues credit the Skidmore College art history and fine arts graduate for the gallery’s success, especially after 2006 when the organization had to leave Project Artaud, the sprawling live-work complex it had shared space with for more than 30 years. The move happened because the building had to be retrofitted.

Southern Exposure relocated first to a small space on 14th and Valencia streets to wait out construction, but their temporary lease was expiring before the retrofitting had even started. “It was really frustrating,” said Fink. “And it just seemed that they were never going to retrofit the place.”

It was then that she and the board decided it was time to break away from Project Artaud.

It was a rough decision. “Southern Exposure was born out of Project Artaud,” said Fink.

It grew out of a movement during the late 1960s when a lot of independent art communities were popping up throughout the Bay Area and across the country. Project Artaud, a collective that began in 1971 in the abandoned American Can Company at 490 Alabama St., was one.

“A group of artists found our old building, which took up almost an entire city block, and just sort of squatted it. They were very anarchistic and into alternative communities … just doing stuff on their own terms,” said Fink.

After the redesign.
After the redesign. (Photo courtesy of So/Ex)

Southern Exposure started as a gallery for the artists who lived and worked in Project Artaud. But it slowly became more professional and began to incorporate artists unaffiliated with the founding collective. Eventually the gallery was growing on its own, developing its own set of programs and its own way of doing things. By the time Fink got there, Project Artaud and Southern Exposure were operating as nearly separate entities.

“It was still tough to break away,” said Fink. “But I could tell it was time.”

When the lease ended at 14th and Valencia, Fink quickly secured another temporary home on 25th and Mission streets, and then set her sights on finding a permanent home.

That’s not all she’s been up to. Under Fink’s directorship, the gallery has launched three new programs, all while bouncing between locations and raising funds for the new space.

Fink and her staff in front of the new building. Image from SO/EX.
Fink and her staff in front of the new building. (Photo courtesy of So/Ex)

“This is a nonprofit art gallery we’re talking about,” said David Lawrence, an artist who has served on Southern Exposure’s advisory board for more than 15 years. “And it’s been functioning and thriving without a home base for years. Courtney’s ability to make everything work continues to amaze me. I mean, this is the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. Can you imagine how hard it is for art galleries these days?”

Nevertheless, Fink, who moved to San Francisco in 1995 and began volunteering at Southern Exposure in the late 1990s, has managed to organize and launch a series of groundbreaking initiatives over the past three years, including Alternative Exposure, a grant program that accepts money from the Warhol Foundation and then places it in the hands of community artists and unincorporated art collectives.

The re-granting program is one of the first of its kind and the Warhol Foundation plans to roll out a series of regional re-granting programs with other nonprofit art organizations across the country.

“It’s the program I’m most proud of so far,” Fink said.

Other changes to Southern Exposure’s programming include a public art initiative called So/Ex Offsite, a program commissioning temporary public art installations and events throughout the Bay Area to reach into the community. They also expanded the 20-year-old Artists in Education program that offers young people opportunities for critical, artistic, vocational and cultural experiences beyond the traditional school environment.

The program used to be arranged around exhibitions, with many classes happening at night or early in the morning a few days a week. “Now that we have a larger space,” said Fink, “we can have kids here 24/7.”

Fink, who has worked at Capp Street Project and California College of the Arts, said she preferred the under-the-radar, DIY art ethic of Southern Exposure. But she never thought she’d wind up running the place. “I wasn’t even going to apply at first,” she said. “But some of my fellow board members convinced me to go for it. I couldn’t believe it when they told me I was hired. I mean, I was only 29 years old.”

Southern Exposure celebrates its public grand opening this Sat., Oct. 17, with the inaugural exhibition of “Bellwether” and a block party.

Correction: Barbara Eaton was originally misquoted in this article.  This was an error on the part of the reporter and has been corrected. Also, she was identified as a member of the board and she is on the advisory board. Our apologies for the mistakes.

Follow Us

Justin Juul is a freelance writer based in San Francisco's Mission District. He covers culture, arts, entertainment, and city living.

Leave a comment

Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *