On a recent Mission District afternoon, a middle-aged woman remarked to her walking companion as they passed the old Grand Theater that it was the place she'd first seen Lawrence of Arabia.
While the theater is currently under renovation by the nonprofit Gray Area Foundation the Arts to have a new auditorium, what's going on inside is far from Peter O'Toole territory. Dedicated to the intersection of technology and art, Gray Area's restoration of the Grand looks more toward the digital future than to cinema's golden past.
The new theater is anticipated to include performances of immersive sound art, electronic sculptures, and creative endeavors involving all manner of software. Yet for executive director and founder Josette Melchor, there's a continuity between the life of the old movie house -- which was built in 1940, and ceased showing films in 1988 -- and Gray Area's plans for its future.
“We develop media art that is all projection- and screen-based, and now we're in an old cinema meant to showcase things projected onto a screen,” Melchor says. “It's built for the kind of work we do. In my mind, this is the perfect reuse of the space. This building is awesome.”
Watch Josette Melchor discuss the theater renovation, courtesy of Mission Local:
Gray Area, with its mission of using art and technology that “creates positive social impact,” has presented interactive media art and fostered a community of like-minded artists in San Francisco since 2002, when Melchor founded it as a curatorial project. From 2005-2007, it occupied a space south of Market, and then, with a move to mid-Market, transitioned to an official nonprofit between 2007 and 2008. After it was displaced from its home in the Warfield Building in 2011, the organization was without a space for two years until signing a 10-year-lease at the Grand.
Gray Area moved into the theater on Mission Street in April 2014, and Melchor explains it's been tougher than originally imagined. Envisioned is a highly mixed-use building, including an auditorium for performances and events, co-working space to serve as an incubator for artists, classrooms, and a retail space open during the day.
Wrangling all the permits for such a space in San Francisco isn't easy. Then there's the issue of rehabilitating a 75-year-old building -- Gray Area has already spent $200,000 on repairs, and recently raised over $300,000 through an online crowdfunding campaign for more work. While they've been partially operational since last year, Gray Area's final construction should be complete by May, when it plans to host a four-day art festival and conference.
There's also the issue of arriving in a neighborhood hyper-attuned to issues of gentrification, and wary of anything with “technology” in its mission statement.
“We were experiencing a lot of on-the-ground trepidation, people saying, 'I don't want another tech startup,'” Melchor says. “As staff, at the beginning, we were really put off by it, and didn't know what to do.”
Though several neighbors along Mission Street seem pleased to have the theater open again as an arts space, one only needs to talk to a few of Gray Area's new neighbors to get a sense of the hostility toward any changes on the block. One shopkeeper on Mission Street, who refused to give his name, summed up the feeling: “It's making the area too expensive, all those tech people,” he grumbled.
But Melchor says once people learn that the Gray Area isn't a tech startup, and instead an arts non-profit, they tend to be more accepting.
“It took a year, but people have warmed up to us,” Melchor says. “We've spent a lot of time talking to people, and we put a lot of posters up, which helped quite a bit.”
“The fact that we have a nonprofit moving in when we have so many nonprofits moving out is excellent,” says Nabeel Silmi, owner of Grand Coffee on Mission Street. “This is an organization trying to do interesting events and educate people -- that's great.”
Artists that work with Gray Area utilize software, interactive media, data visualizations, and augmented reality to create their work. For those who haven't seen such art before, it can seem inaccessible or abstract. However, civic engagement projects and education are essential to Gray Area's mission.
“We knew when we first got into this theater that education would be the first thing we made sure was happening,” said Matt Ganucheau, Gray Area's director of education. “We've been teaching classes for six years, but here, with this building, we wanted to do a deeper dive that other spaces wouldn't allow us.”
As part of an intensive 10-week course in which students learn the fundamentals of “creative coding,” Gray Area's curriculum includes instruction in basic coding language, video production, and other technical skills -- as well as how to use those tools to make compelling art and tell stories.
“In the current landscape, there's a lot of funding toward programs that teach 21st-century skills -- coding and job skills,” Ganucheau says. “This program develops artists.”
A showcase of recent student work included an interactive projection of new construction in the Mission. When a viewer walked up to it, their shadow triggered the projection to show a mural that had been at that site before construction. Another work used facial recognition software to explore gender identity.
“I know I'm not a coder, but this will give me resources and contacts to explore new areas,” says Pat Lenz, a Healdsburg-based sculptor and gallery owner who just started Gray Area's 10-week course. “I'm not coming with any preconceived notions, I'm just looking to change what I've been doing.”
Melchor says a big part of what she hopes Gray Area can do in the Mission is lower the barrier to entry to digital art and technology.
“Growing up, I remember never being exposed to the kind of things that Gray Area does,” says Melchor, who grew up in La Quinta, California. “It's really rewarding in this neighborhood to be able to expose people to the type of work being created by the artists we support.”
To that end, Gray Area has also partnered with Youth Art Exchange to offer creative coding classes to public high school students; the program for teenagers is basically a scaled-down version of the 10-week course for adults. Gray Area also aims to launch an apprenticeship program, in which some of the students would get paid while they learn.
“The partnership has been a really great experience,” says Youth Art Exchange's executive director Reed Davaz McGowan. “It's challenging to figure out what the right partners are in tech. This was an opportunity for us to teach students tech skills, but not lose the arts focus.”
Many of the students in the Gray Area's Youth Art Exchange program don't have access to the tools or the technology in other settings. As part of its retail space, Gray Area plans to have a lending library for tools and electronic kits.
Davaz McGowan says that of the students that remained in the class (for some, the learning curve for coding was too high), all had a highly valuable experience.
“The people that stuck with it were super excited about the projects they designed,” says Davaz McGowan.
Melchor hopes the neighborhood as a whole will be like those persistent teenagers, and learn to embrace Gray Area's bold vision for the Grand Theater.
“Community is why we do what we do,” Melchor says. “Exposing new people to this work, that's the whole point of our work.”
Daniel Hirsch is a staff writer at Mission Local.