ATA's storefront on Valencia, near 21st Street.

One step inside Artists’ Television Access, a complex smell of incense, must and cedar awakens the nose. Underfoot, hardwood floors creak, and just through a small hallway, red movie theater-style seats await.

It’s the perfect place to screen under-the-radar films, and that’s what the nonprofit ATA has done on Valencia near 21st Street since 1986 — a time when people came to Valencia for underground punk shows, not upscale food.

Today, the walls of the place that’s been praised by Yelpers (“Film! music! art! This space offers a gallimaufry of media merriment”) are blank, waiting for ATA’s nearly all-volunteer crew to cover them with paintings that will be sold at an end-of-month auction to boost the organization’s finances.

Seats face the wall onto which films are projected.

The “fun raiser” on January 29 comes at a time when ATA’s rent has been rising – it has more than doubled since 2008 — and the nonprofit is looking for alternative ways to raise money, said Isabel Fondevilla, a long-time volunteer who acts as treasurer on the board of directors.

Fondevilla said the organization is currently in talks with the landlord to negotiate a long-term lease, but the rent increase makes it “harder to maintain the [location].”

“We’re hanging in there,” she said.

Hanging in there is what ATA has been good at. Long before Valencia became the corridor for bicycles, urban shoppers and destination restaurants, ATA was there — even then, ahead of its time. Nowadays the renegade group has become something of an institution, albeit a financially precarious one.

Picture and posters from ATA’s past are now considered part of  history, and are on display in an exhibition called Radical Light, about alternative film and video in San Francisco, at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

The organization still retains its edge, however, with art exhibits, performances and curated windows such as Sunday’s front installation that featured two women meditating.

Meditating. Photo by Heather Smith

First founded in a South of Market warehouse/bachelor pad by San Francisco Art Institute graduates John Martin and Marshall Weber in 1984, ATA moved two years later to the Mission after a fire destroyed that place. (The site’s history page blames Marshall’s highly prized polyester suits for the fire.)

In addition to all the self-acknowledged drug and alcohol binging chronicled in ATA’s founding history, Martin and Weber were also pioneers in showing and curating video art. To this day, ATA is one of the only places in the Bay Area that shows experimental films by local artists at no cost to the artist.

Tacked amid an office notice board that includes a pineapple centerpiece made out of tissue and a gold dollar sign chain is a clue to ATA’s endurance: a poster announcing a volunteer appreciation party. Here, such parties have a special meaning because volunteers form the bulwark of ATA’s existence.

ATA’s office space.

Only one person — a professional bookkeeper — receives a paycheck, said Fondevilla. The rest of the staff, which is anywhere from 20 to 30 people, sit on panels for their film festival, take tickets at the door, curate shows and commit to at least four hours a week.

The volunteers, who have formed a tightly knit community that celebrates holidays and birthdays together, come from places like South America, India and Iran. They love film, said Fondevilla, “but they are also people who just want to contribute to the community and maintain a small theater on Valencia Street.”

“They kind of get hooked,” said Fondevilla, explaining why people stay. “There is no monetary reward, but it a very rewarding experience — to meet people, to participate in the community, see films, shows. It has a value that no money can pay for.”

Fondevilla knows. She started as a volunteer eight years ago. In fact, she said, it changed her life. She moved to the Mission from northern Spain for her first husband; after their divorce, ATA was the main thing that kept her from returning home. “All the people I met, the opportunity to learn — volunteering with the ATA is one of the best things I’ve done in my life.”

Although Fondevilla didn’t join ATA until later in its history, she’s familiar with the lore of 1980s Valencia.

In the early days of ATA, people from the community would come in and use the equipment for free, and there was more of a focus on teaching editing workshops.

Although founders Weber and Marshall have moved on (Weber is donating a work of art for the auction) and the function of ATA has shifted, Fondevilla said it still maintains the same vision: “We’re all about access.”

For filmmakers, this access means having the chance to show their work. For the audience, “I think of it as a little jewel … they can see a great show not seen anywhere else. It’s the real thing.”

For now, ATA also stays afloat with grants from organizations like the Tamaas Foundation and individual donors.

They also receive a share of ticket sales — split with the artist, in ATA’s favor, 60/40 percent. Film screenings used to cost $5, but because of the rent increase now cost $6.

Mustiness, old theater seats and random mementos included, ATA is happy in its storefront in the Mission, Fondevilla said.

“If we had a nice, clean place, it wouldn’t be the same,” she said, referring to the importance of keeping this particular location as ATA’s home.

Still, the organization is uncertain how long it will stay at its current location.

“We’d rather stay here. This is our home,” said Fondevilla. “So we’ll do our best.”

The space has a special feeling, she adds, noting its distinct smell.

What is that smell?

“Who knows?”

ATA’s fundraiser will kick off with a silent auction at 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, to be followed by a live auction at 8 p.m. Musical performances by Grass Widow and Puce Moment start at 9 p.m. Entrance fee is $6-$10. To learn more, visit here.

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