Will the Academy of Art Evict the City’s Premier African-American Theatre?

by Harrison Chastang on June 25, 2007

San Francisco African American leaders and Bay Area theatre lovers were shocked earlier this week that the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre could be forced out from its long time home at 620 Sutter Street. The Lorraine Hansberry, which last year celebrate its 25th anniversary and has been cited by theatre critics as one of the premier African American theatre companies in the United States, could lose its performance space because the Academy of Art University (not to be confused with the non-profit San Francisco Art Institute) that recently purchased the Julia Morgan-designed building that houses the theatre, informed Lorraine Hansberry directors Stanley Williams and Quentin Easter on June 5 that their lease would not be renewed. Williams and Easter have attempted to negotiate an amicable agreement with the Academy of Art University to remain at the 620 Sutter theatre space, but sources close to those discussions say the University is determined to turn the theatre space into a gym.

News of the possible eviction of the Lorraine Hansberry comes just weeks after another Bay Area controversy concerning African Americans and the arts. Management at Oakland’s Yoshi’s jazz club apologized after African Americans jazz fans and musicians complained about being excluded from a 10th anniversary CD showcasing live performances at Yoshi’s that did not feature any African American artists.

Black leaders say the possible closure of the Lorraine Hansberry would be a much more devastating blow to the Bay Area African American arts community than the Yoshi’s controversy. The 300 seat Lorraine Hansberry Theater is one of the largest independent theatres in the Bay Area and one of two San Francisco theatres devoted exclusively to African American theatre production. Bay Area theater producers are watching the Lorraine Hansberry situation closely over concerns they could soon face a similar fate.

Leaders of The City’s artistic community say it’s ironic that a scholastic and artistic institution like the Academy of Art University is evicting the Lorraine Hansberry. Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area, a performing arts support organization, said that while occasional squabbles occur between arts organizations in The City, arts and cultural organizations in San Francisco usually support each other. Erickson said he could not remember a situation in San Francisco where disagreements between arts organizations reached a point to where the survival of a major performing arts organization was at stake.

Erickson said The City’s performing arts community was “quite concerned” about the prospect of the Lorraine Hansberry being forced out of its current home. Erickson said he didn’t understand the motives behind the Academy of Art’s decision not to renew the Lorraine Hansberry’s lease. And it is particularly ironic that the Academy of Art, an artistic institution, plans to turn the Lorraine Hansberry theatre space into a gym rather than to utilize the space for artistic instruction and theatre performances.

Erickson said the key to the Lorraine Hansberry’s success has been its location in the downtown Union Square theatre district that’s accessible to tourists and familiar to regular theatre-goers. Erickson said that there aren’t many downtown theatre spaces and that fewer people would attend Lorraine Hansberry productions if the theatre moved away from the traditional downtown theatre district.

Erickson said “it’s extremely important that the Lorraine Hansberry remain downtown because it’s the only African American theatre downtown and their presence contributes to the diversity of the downtown theatre district.” Erickson said that as an art school, the Academy of Art should realize the value of sharing a dorm facility with one of the top Black theatre companies in the United States. The Academy of Art University doesn’t have a theatre program but the school does teach acting through its School of Motion Pictures & Television department.

San Francisco African American community activist Joe Blue did not mince words when he learned about efforts to shut down the Lorraine Hansberry. Blue, a former Golden Gate Bridge, Transit, and Highway District director said he was insulted and horrified at the prospect of the Lorraine Hansberry being evicted from its Union Square location.

Blue said that African Americans in The City are “being whitewashed from the entire San Francisco scene; our heritage is being extremely eclipsed and I am horrified that the Academy of Art would even contemplate something of this sort, this is totally outrageous and it’s just the latest attempt to move African Americans out of San Francisco.”

Blue speculated that the Academy of Art University assumed it would be easy to force out the Lorraine Hansberry because of a perception that San Francisco’s declining African American community no longer has any influence at City Hall or with The City’s movers and shakers. Blue said “the White establishment in San Francisco doesn’t fear any Black protest these days and there’s a view that African Americans are the weakest group in The City.”

Blue said that “the Academy of Art would not try a similar move against any other ethnic group in The City, and that efforts to remove the Lorraine Hansberry from its current space is a calculated move by the Academy of Art University against an African American community that’s perceived to be very weak.” Blue said the Academy of Art University actions against the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is evidence that “racism is alive and well in San Francisco.”

Blue also wondered if the Academy of Art officials who made the decision to evict the Lorraine Hansberry consulted with anyone in the African American community or if any African Americans are part of the Academy of Art’s full time faculty or administration.

Blue said efforts to force the Lorraine Hansberry out of its current home reflects a move “to eliminate any vestige of Black culture and Black influence in San Francisco and represents a methodical approach to removing Blacks from this City that was done a generation ago with Black housing in San Francisco and is now being done in the San Francisco cultural area.”

Other arts administrators in The City, including Art Commission Director Nancy Gonchar and California Lawyers for the Arts Director Alma Robinson said that it would be a tragedy to lose the Lorraine Hansberry from the theatre district and both hoped that the University would find some way to coexist and cooperate with the Lorraine Hansberry at its current theatre location.

The Academy of Art University is the nation’s largest private arts school established in San Francisco in 1929 by painter Richard S. Stephens and his wife Clara Stephens. The school has been run by a Stephens family member throughout its 78 year history and the current president, Dr. Elisa Stephens is the granddaughter of the school’s founder. The school has approximately 9,000 students spread out in more than 30 buildings in the financial district, Civic Center, Pacific Heights, and Nob Hill, including 17 former hotels and apartment buildings serving as dorms. The Academy offers degree programs leading to a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Associate of Arts, Master of Fine Arts, Master of Architecture and Certificate Programs in more than 30 academic areas.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Concerned Beyond Chron readers should get involved in the campaign to save the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.

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