Meet Southern Exposure, the Lifeline to San Francisco's Experimental Arts Community

The San Francisco Gate recently published a piece on Southern Exposure's Alternative Exposure grant, which is almost single-handedly supporting the city's experimental arts scene.

To clumsily paraphrase Dickens, it is the "best of times" and "it is the worst of times" for the City on the Bay. San Francisco is seeing unprecedented growth thanks to cash-flush start-ups and Silicon Valley employees moving to town, yet this development comes at a cost. Rent is skyrocketing and artists are splitting for cheaper areas. Fortunately, the city's art scene has a friend and financial lifeline in Southern Exposure.

The organization's crown jewel is its Alternative Exposure grant, which has given $420,000 in grants to 120 artists initiatives, spaces, galleries, and programs since 2007. The goal of the grant is simple. It funds experimental "grassroots" artists who operate off the proverbial beaten path (which, when you consider San Francisco's rich arts scene, is certainly saying something). Alternative Exposure is particularly exciting because at its core, it's a perfect hybrid of old and new operational principles.

For example, the organization gets its money from an established philanthropic organization in the Andy Warhol Foundation. Since then, Southern Exposure has impressed the Warhol Foundation to such a degree that the latter is using Southern Exposure as a model for its regional Bay Area funding efforts, which has so far totaled $3 million.

So what is it about Southern Exposure and its Alternative Exposure grants that impressed the Andy Warhol Foundation? The answer lies in its forward-looking embrace of new operating principles. Specifically, Southern Exposure considers itself a "nomadic" program. They started as the "nonprofit without a home," and intentionally so, because there were already countless galleries, art spaces, and halls in the Bay Area that needed support. Their logic in 2007 is the same kind of logic we see in startups like Airbnb: don't build new spaces, instead utilize existing ones that aren't being leveraged to their full capacity.

But it takes more than just funding the right spaces to impress the Warhol Foundation. Southern Exposure excels because it rewards "off-the-radar" and experimental artists and works. Furthermore, the grants do not aim to generate traditional metrics of success. Recipients aren't expected to start a nonprofit or sell artwork. Rather, the grants reward work that accomplishes "something in a given moment that is really necessary," according to program director Courtney Fink.

If that sounds a bit, well, ambiguous and slightly counterintuitive, it shouldn't come much of a surprise. After all, this is still San Francisco.