Burning Man Artists Bid Farewell to Treasure Island's Building 180

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On Friday, May 13, Building 180 hosted ‘Terminus,’ the last Treasure Island warehouse party before the building is razed to make way for redevelopment. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

"Cheers," said one party goer to another. "To the beginning of the end."

The party -- a warehouse rave for about 2,000 people -- was called Terminus. It was a farewell party -- a Baby Burning Man to mark the end of something special at Building 180 on Treasure Island.

Treasure Island is a man-made, 393-acre postage stamp of a landmass in the San Francisco Bay, and it's being redeveloped over the next 20 years in the guise of a packed offshore neighborhood. It's expected to house an estimated 19,000 people with condos, hotels, a ferry landing, parks, and possibly a new museum from Star Wars creator George Lucas (if Mayor Ed Lee has his way).

The developers are expected to fork over $50 million dollars for public art, to be spent by the San Francisco Art Commission. But that’s years away. Before all that, some 40 buildings will be demolished, including Building 180.

Building 180 used to be an airplane hangar, back when the U.S. military ran the the island. Until this week, it was home to 40 studios and hundreds of artists, many of them making large scale work -- the kind of art you place in a civic plaza. Or The Playa, for Burning Man. It's a place that produces the kind of art that makes for an epic party when the lights go down and the electronic music goes up.


In fact, greeting party goers at the door was something they might have seen at Burning Man in 2014: Peter Hudson's "Eternal Return." A giant, pedal-powered, stroboscopic zoetrope that, when moving, looks like it's sending gold gymnasts spinning through the air.

Hudson inspired fellow artist Marco Cochrane to go really big with his sculptures. "It totally changed my sense of scale and what I'm doing with my work," Cochrane says. Now, Cochrane's best known for monumental female nudes. Cochran found another building to sublease on Treasure Island, but he’s leaving behind three 15-foot-models. They go down when the building goes down.

"If you do what you have to do to get ‘em out of here, which is tilt ‘em sideways, they’ll just collapse," he says ruefully.

Marco Cochrane's "Bliss Dance," the version that showed at Burning Man, was 40 feet high. But the 15 foot metal and ceramic model at Treasure Island's Building 180 is also pretty impressive.
Marco Cochrane's "Bliss Dance," the version that showed at Burning Man, was 40 feet high. But the 15 foot metal and ceramic model at Treasure Island's Building 180 is also pretty impressive. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Roughly half of the artists at Building 180, including Cochrane, found studio space elsewhere on Treasure Island, some in historic buildings which will not be demolished.  But not Hudson; he's leaving for Las Vegas.

Bay Area Pushing Out Artists

"People from Las Vegas have come to me and are willing to offer space because they want and love artists," Hudson says, adding the "San Francisco Bay Area seems to be pushing artists out of their equation."

Hudson says he’s not just sad about losing square feet. "It was a wonderful, organic community that came together to help each other, foster each others’ creativity," he says.

Cochrane's wife, Julia Whitelaw, also feels a sense of loss. Artists working on big projects brought together teams of volunteers to help. These teams spawned new projects, as the artists inspired each other. "There was tool sharing and family dinners every Tuesday," Whitelaw says. "So, it’s sad. It’s really sad."

The sense of community wasn’t a happy accident, according to the businessman, Burner and curator Timothy Childs, who turned Building 180 into an art studio space. Childs says the city of San Francisco prompted him to make something out of a building that was never going to last forever. "We expected to have a couple of years," Childs says. "We got five or six years out of it. So it’s been a really great run."

Childs says he and his colleagues thought long and hard about whom to invite into the Building 180 community. "We tried to put all sorts of interesting people next to each other," Childs says. "I put some Facebook retirees next to some welders and have them cross pollinate, and folks that never used a drill gun before make art cars and things like that.  Just really trying to create a scene that was very similar to the art scene that was happening here before the first tech boom."

What Lies Ahead

Not that he's prone to nostalgia. Childs predicts that $50 million from the developers will turn Treasure Island into a haven for public art. “It’s going to be a very dynamic thing that’s going to be happening here," Childs says. "It’s going to be great for the city.”

But in the meantime, the same regional real estate market that spawned the redevelopment is making it harder for local artists to find studio space that allows them to dream big.