It is impossible to quantify the exchanges and relationships that have formed in the spaces that artist Todd Brown has created and curated in the Mission for nearly two decades.
He’s been heavily involved in the Mission Arts & Performance Project, known as MAPP, which started in 2003 when Brown saw a need to connect local artists living within blocks from each other by opening up their studios, gardens, and living rooms to the community. And that same year he opened the Red Poppy Art House, a non-profit arts and performance space at 2698 Folsom St.
“I count my life in MAPPs,” said local writer David Kubrin. “It’s where many artists have gotten their feet wet.”
Now, Brown will be leaving the city for San Rafael. Last month he was given the boot from his personal art space – Studio Teobi, which he has rented in Silver Terrace for the past five years. His landlord gave him 30 days to vacate. As is often the case with artist evictions – when art spaces double as living quarters, said Brown – his eviction from a commercial space is coupled with displacement.
“I have no recourse but to leave,” the artist wrote in an email to the community of artists that he has helped cultivate. Because Studio Teobi is a commercial space, tenant protections extended to residential units do not apply.
It is an odd exodus for someone who founded spaces and events based on making both accessible to all, regardless of culture, artistic orientation or status.
Both the Red Poppy and MAPP will live on. The latter has long been handed over to the community and is led by those who remain, including Kubrin.
“The intention of MAPP from the beginning was to have it adopted and held by the community,” said Brown, adding that he will still be involved on the Red Poppy’s leadership team from afar. Still, the art house faces similar challenges.
“The big issues right now are not having enough money to pay staff. We rely heavily on volunteers, but a lot of the people who would normally volunteer have also been displaced,” he said.
The space has been an important place for artists starting their careers.
“Todd has given many artists the ability to spread their wings and at the same time be so rooted in a sense of place,” said Meklit Hadero, a musician who, like many others, first gained exposure by performing at the Red Poppy. “His vision has been that you don’t need an institution in between you and an idea and the community.”
Since signing his lease at the 550 Thornton Ave. studio in 2011, Brown said his rent has been raised consistently, increasing by some 5 percent each year.
“This is how artists are priced out of the city,” he said, adding that his income has not followed the upward trend. Then, in 2015, Brown was hit with a 27 percent rent increase – the hike was a first indication that his art space was in danger.
In the month since receiving the eviction notice, Brown said he has heard of some five other artists facing similar stories of displacement.
“San Francisco is a beautiful empty city,” said Brown. “[Relationships] determine the feeling. The richness of a city is determined by this richness of the relationships within it.”
A 2015 survey led by the San Francisco Art Commission showed that of some 600 participating artists, 70 percent had experienced displacement in some form. Others reported living in constant fear that their footing in their communities was at jeopardy.
Brown, too, said that given the slew of artists he’s witnessed leaving the city in recent years, he never considered himself immune to the changes.
“When you see cultural icons of the city being tossed out – it can make you resent the city,” he said.
The city’s recent attempt at addressing the issue with a measure on the November ballot requiring developers in SoMa and in the Mission to replace art spaces compromised by new development, may be little more than damage control – many local artists have already been forced to leave their networks to start over elsewhere.
“By being displaced you have to recalibrate and find different relationships that will enable you to survive as an artist,” said Hadero, who moved to Oakland two years ago.
Brown explained that with the incoming wealth comes the loss of an organic process in which many of the arts spaces like as the ones he runs were formed.
“Artists thrive where there is an environment for spontaneity, for things unplanned,” he said. “The more money comes in, the more planning has to happen. Aside from just the cost, it takes certain personality types to succeed in that environment. Others don’t even want to be there.”
At Studio Teobi, Brown’s landlord offered to renegotiate his lease halfway through the month – but the proposal would have prohibited the artist from sharing the space and would have doubled what Brown was initially paying for rent in 2011.
“I decided to let the eviction play itself out and vacate by the end of the month,” he said, adding that he will temporarily relocate to San Rafael where he plans to focus on his art. Brown also plans to spend more time on the East Coast to be with his mother, who has cancer.
In mid-September, Brown threw an eviction party at the studio. The evening was bittersweet, as Brown, true to form, searched for beauty in the circumstances.
He used the party to scale down his belongings and invited his community to rummage through trunks of trinkets, clothes, and art supplies. Canvases and paintings that lined the walls of this studio were up for sale – Brown said he hoped to sell some 150 of them. The party was also an opportunity for farewells.
Surrounded by many of those who have inspired him over the years, Brown mused on the changes in the city in the context of gentrification.
“A beautiful thing is all the more beautiful when it has character, and sometimes the character itself is what makes it beautiful,” he said. “Character comes from the imprint of time and experience on a person, thing, or place. Erase time and experience, and you simply have a form, a shell.”
As San Francisco continues to transform into “a city full of beautiful boutiques, restaurants, specialty grocers, parklets and bike lanes, all without history,” he said, the city is becoming a place “seemingly wanting to innovate itself out of thin air.”