In 2001, interns at Powell Street’s Meridian Gallery planned and painted a 13×48 foot mural on the wall of the SRO Hartland Hotel, a few blocks away in the Tenderloin. The mural, a colorful and sunny street scene showcasing the multiculturalism of the neighborhood, was revered by residents and and left untouched for 10 years until it was vandalized by graffiti. In response, former interns who had worked on the project came back together and, alongside the current kids in the program, repainted the piece. The artists’ lasting willingness to help Meridian in times of need reemerges in a broader sense this week, which marks the climax of the gallery’s June Benefit Series (tonight’s entry: “16 Years of Meridian Music,” a diverse program of new music).
Meridian Gallery, whose name comes from its mission to focus on hemispheric and cross-cultural interactions, is facing eviction. As rent around Union Square has skyrocketed, from $400 per square foot in 2007 to up to $3,000 today (according to retail consultant Helen Bulwik, quoted in a KQED report), many galleries have been forced to close their doors. The stately Perine Mansion, the three-story French Second Empire brick building where Meridian makes its home, is an especially attractive and lucrative piece of property. Instead of throwing in the towel, Anne Brodzsky, the dynamic co-founder of the gallery who has overseen its operations for over 25 years, has reached out to her friends.
The original eviction notice was handed down in April. Some close to the gallery are convinced that despite any efforts, the rent will be impossible to pay. Others, Brodzky chief among them, think that the response to the bad news suggests a potential long-term rally from Meridian. Her optimism is fueled by two forces. First, on May 13, the SF Board of Supervisors beefed up affordability programs, including supplemental displacement funds and health benefits, for struggling art non-profits in the city. “I’m amazed by how they’ve managed to come together to help arts programs,” Brodzky exclaimed.
More effective and instantly helpful than any bureaucratic assistance, however, have been the programs put together by artists affiliated with Meridian. Around the time of the Supervisors’ decision, Brodzky asked her gallery-mates if they were willing to stage an auction. The response was staggering; over 60 artists put up works. More astonishing to Brodzky, though, was the kind of excitement many of the participants exhibited for further events. “Bob Marsh, among many others, approached me and asked if they could stage fundraisers.”
Tonight, Marsh is one of the main attractions at the “16 Years of Meridian Music” showcase. An avant-garde visual artist and musician, Marsh discovered Meridian shortly after his arrival in San Francisco 14 years ago. “I started visiting galleries and found that Meridian had a wonderful monthly music series,” he says.
Marsh was inspired by the political sharpness of the organization. “I thought early on, ‘They’re not purveyors of bourgeois wallpaper,’ like so many galleries can be.” For Marsh’s offering, “The Visitor,” he’ll don his Sonic Suit #9, a wearable sculpture made from empty water bottles and other modern detritus, and engage in narrative movement to a musical accompaniment.
“He’s a visitor from another dimension,” Marsh says. “He arrives here, looks around, and has different reactions to the confusing environment that is our world.” Marsh debuted the ever-changing character at the Meridian and feels that its a fitting tribute to the openness and experimentation that the gallery fosters.
Despite his excitement about the benefit, Marsh turns somber when discussing its necessity. “They have given so much with such passion,” he says. “It’s sad to see them persecuted by blind greed … I don’t think its personal, but everyone just wants a lot of money. Everybody thinks that’s some kind of virtue.”
Neither Brodzky, Marsh, nor other performers and Meridian affiliates with whom I talked were quick to link the gallery’s financial troubles to a larger ill in San Francisco. They seemingly eschew that brand of macrocosmic victimhood and instead zoom in on what they can do to stay open, one step at a time. Their optimism may be healthier, but it does not mask the sad fact that rising rents are making grassroots galleries a thing of the past. If the artists continue to come together with the intensity of the mural renovation, auction, and benefit series, however, Meridian may just buck the trend.
16 Years of Meridian Music: Composers in Performance
With Bob Marsh, Andrea Williams, Bryan Day, Phillip Greenlief and Jon Raskin’s 1+1, David Samas, Tom Bickley, and the Cornelius Cardew Choir
Thu/26, 7-10pm, $35
535 Powell, SF