Before his kinetic sculptures captivated visitors at the Guggenheim, Alan Rath showcased his work at a little-known venue called Works/San Jose. Binh Danh got his start at the same community arts nonprofit, displaying his photography before he mastered the ghostly chlorophyll prints that went on to adorn the walls of the De Young.
In the 43 years since its founding, Works has served as a gateway to the city’s art world.
“It made me understand that there was the possibility of being in some sort of art world,” he says, “that if this was the first step, then there’s some kind of next step I could take. For a lot of people, Works has been that first step.”
Now, the gallery and performing arts space that set so many people on a creative course in life faces a roadblock on its own path—and it couldn’t come at a worse time.
With the pandemic posing an existential threat to arts organizations the world over, Works/San Jose has the additional burden of having to find a new home. After investing $100,000 on new carpeting, wiring and other upgrades in the San Jose Convention Center space from where it’s hosted galleries and spoken word events since 2011, the nonprofit’s board recently found out that Works still has to move by next summer.
“Everything we invested here would be lost,” Miller laments.
Moving would also mean leaving the SoFA arts district, home to MACLA, Anno Domini and the Museum of Quilts and Textiles, as well as Works spinoff San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art. It would mean leaving behind the theaters, murals, art strolls and live music that liven up South First Street in the warmer months—all so Team San Jose could set up a visitor center on an otherwise mostly lifeless stretch of Market Street.
Granted, the current gallery was never meant to be permanent. But Miller says Team San Jose—the city’s tourism bureau, which runs the convention center—led him to believe that it would be much longer term.
In a letter to the community, Miller described the destabilizing effect of physical relocation on an all-volunteer nonprofit with a shoestring budget.
“People throughout our arts community often say that Works is a survivor,” he wrote, “and it has been. However, with this new move, Works will have had to find, fund and build out a completely new site on the average of every six years of its 43-year history. No other local arts organization has survived that frequency and number of upheavals.”
Nine years ago, Works almost went under because of what Miller calls “a completely insane deal” set up by the city’s now-defunct Redevelopment Agency, which offered a few years of subsidized rent for a space on South First before the payments ballooned to $9,000 a month. Unsurprisingly, that arrangement blew up in everyone’s face.
Works went dark for a few months, which would’ve been the end of it until Miller assembled a new board to salvage the wreckage. “We put together a reboot,” he recounts.
Years before voters promoted Sam Liccardo to the mayorship, the fledgling elected helped in his capacity as downtown councilman to move Works into its South Market Street space, which once housed the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs as well as some other nonprofits, including Teatro Vision and the Mexican Heritage Corporation.
Works/San Jose started off with a five-year lease from the city, which went on to re-up the agreement in three-year increments—until 2018, when Team San Jose broke the news about its planned visitor center.
Raul Peralez, who succeeded Liccardo as District 3 councilman in 2016, says there’s only so much he could do. Certainly, he says, Works/San Jose should get some kind of reimbursement for the money it spent on improving its existing space, but the plans to relocate were long-ago set in motion.
“That’s not really a normal intervention we could take,” he tells San Jose Inside in a phone call from home, where he’s been holed up since the start of the pandemic. “That’s a decision for Team San Jose to make. But I am concerned about the good sum of money Works spent on tenant improvements, and if they’re forced to go, I would like them to get some sort of contribution to make up for that.”
On the bright side—if you could call it that—the coronavirus shutdown bought everyone some time. Originally, Works was told to leave by next month.
“This pandemic has really shifted everything,” Peralez observes. “Pre-pandemic, our convention center was bursting at the seams. We had to turn down events and conventions because we didn’t have the space, and Team San Jose was growing as well. Now, it’s harder to say how things are going to look by next year or whether they’ll even need that space anymore.”
Liccardo, for his part, ignored requests for comment. Miller says he hasn’t heard from the mayor about the impending move either.
Rita Norton, a longtime patron of Works who’s been trying to rally public support to keep the nonprofit in place, says she wishes the city would be more receptive. If San Jose loses Works, she says, it loses a vital part of its creative ecosystem. “The city doesn’t have a very good track record of understanding what we need in downtown,” she says. “And they’re going about this without any transparency and any democratic input.”
In a letter to Peralez expressing her disapproval, Norton cited the Redevelopment Agency’s 2001 ouster of Casa Castillo—a popular Mexican restaurant in the Twohy Building on South First—as an example of the city’s poor judgment.
“This once successful site continues to be under-utilized as a result of this short-sightedness with deep regrets and loss by many who cherish a viable downtown,” Norton told Peralez in a letter shared with his D3 staff. “The decision to evict an arts organization should be taken to a level of transparency and visibility with presentation of pros and cons. As we all look to ‘pivot’ into the future, I respectfully request that your office, the mayor and City Council need to examine ‘the plan’ by the convention center managers and [Team San Jose] on how this space is best utilized.”
Otherwise, Norton remarked in a phone interview earlier this week, San Jose will emerge from the pandemic with the artistic soul of downtown as another casualty.
For an organization as small and cash-strapped as Works, Miller says, it’s scraped by with surprisingly little help compared to counterparts, some of which endure thanks to $1-a-year lease deals from public agencies or lavish endowments from wealthy patrons. For the space at South Market, Works pays $900 a month, which Miller says is “kind of a lot for an arts nonprofit, but still a great deal.”
Without some kind of subsidy or help settling into another public property, Miller doubts Works can survive paying market-rate rent. “If we leave this space, there’s very little possibility that we could be part of SoFA,” he says. “And I think that brings up an important question for the city: Does the arts part of SoFA matter?”