SF LGBT history museum plans shelved amid virus outbreak

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 6, 2020
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The former Coldwell Banker office in the Castro, boarded up due to the coronavirus outbreak, was considered by the GLBT Historical Society as an interim site for its new LGBT museum. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The former Coldwell Banker office in the Castro, boarded up due to the coronavirus outbreak, was considered by the GLBT Historical Society as an interim site for its new LGBT museum. Photo: Rick Gerharter

In light of the global pandemic brought on by the novel coronavirus, a San Francisco nonprofit that was planning to build the first full-scale LGBT history museum in the U.S. has shelved its plans for the time being. Instead, it is pivoting its efforts to creating a virtual museum and archival center using its vast holdings collected over the last three-and-a-half decades.

It could now be five to 10 years or longer before the concept becomes a brick-and-mortar reality, GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick told the Bay Area Reporter in an exclusive interview May 4.

"We don't see a virtual museum as being an adequate substitute for an in-person museum. Yet I have to recognize opening a museum of a larger scale is not within our reach in the short term," said Beswick. "And I am not even sure our current small museum that we have boarded up right now — if we are going to be able to open that up this year."

Beswick stressed that the nonprofit isn't "going to give up" on its dream of building the larger museum, pegged to cost in the tens of millions of dollars. And he noted a drop in real estate prices in the city brought on by a recession due to the health crisis could change its plans and present an opportunity for moving forward.

"But we are going to have to wait and see what is going to happen with funding and the real estate market," said Beswick.

It is worth being prudent, explained Beswick, rather than downscaling the vision for the future museum.

"I would really like to think of our eventual brick-and-mortar, full-scale museum as being what I think our history demands and our community deserves, rather than what we can get away with," said Beswick. "I don't know what that is going to look like."

For years the archival group has been working on plans to expand its current jewel-box of a museum in the heart of the city's LGBT Castro district into a full-fledged facility in order to showcase the numerous treasures it has collected from LGBT people, ranging from entertainers like the late disco legend Sylvester to political leaders like the late gay Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Feasibility study

As the B.A.R. reported last October, the archival group had determined it made the most sense for it to construct a full-scale LGBTQ Museum and Research Center somewhere in the Castro neighborhood based on the recommendations of a feasibility study it had conducted. The consultants estimated that a combined facility would require a gross building size of 40,000 square feet, with around 20,000 square feet dedicated for the exhibit area, and draw upward of 106,000 attendees per year.

Local leaders from San Francisco Mayor London Breed to District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), both gay men who represent the Castro, have all embraced the concept of the larger facility and pledged their support to bringing it to fruition. The historical society this year was planning to identify a location for the museum and launch a capital campaign to pay for its construction.

Mandelman told the B.A.R. that the decision to pull back from leasing the space is a disappointment but also a wise one during this uncertain time.

"Of course it is disappointing, but I think it is a reasonable decision by the historical society," he said. "I think it was going to need significant city and state investments at a time it is becoming increasingly clear the city and state coffers are going to be stretched in a way we haven't seen in a long time, if ever."

Interim location was eyed

As an interim step toward achieving its larger museum, Beswick in early March had signed a letter of intent to sublease the former Castro location of real estate firm Coldwell Banker. The agency last September vacated its space at 2355 Market Street, near Castro and 17th streets, and had offered it to the historical society at a reduced rent for the remaining six years of its lease.

At roughly 10,800 square feet the storefront would allow for 10 times more exhibition and program space than the historical society has at its current 1,600 square foot museum on 18th Street, where its lease runs through at least 2022. (It stores its vast collection of archival materials documenting the history of the LGBT community in a leased space downtown on Market Street.)

"It was a really good deal," noted Beswick, adding that it would still have required a fiscal investment to upgrade the interior space into a museum setting.

To move forward with such an undertaking, Beswick was planning to negotiate with the building's owner for a longer lease of at least 10 years. He had also planned to request there be an option for the nonprofit to buy the site for its larger stand-alone museum plans, as it is an ideal location a short walk from the entrance to the Castro Muni Station.

GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

"I was very excited about it. It would have vastly expanded our exhibit space," said Beswick.

But then came the city's shelter-in-place order that took effect March 17 and shut down all nonessential businesses and cultural institutions in order to stem the transmission of the virus. The order has since been extended until at least May 31, and it remains unclear when museums will be able to reopen.

In the case of the historical society, Beswick told the B.A.R. this week that he had already determined it wouldn't be able to open its doors again to the public anytime soon. He had informed his staff of 10, one of whom works part-time, not to plan to do so until later this year at the earliest.

He also quickly realized there would be little public funding to assist with opening a new museum from either the city or state due to the devastating impact the virus outbreak has had on the local and state economy. Thus, he withdrew the nonprofit's intent letter to sublease the brick facade storefront on upper Market Street.

"It would have required a significant amount of remodeling. And a few things to help cover the costs fell apart really quickly when the shelter in place went into effect. The city and state funding wasn't a prospect, as any to come through over the next year is going to be for existing programs or COVID-related programs," said Beswick. "I am still holding out hope cultural programs will be seen as a priority over the next year. But we couldn't really pin our hopes around that, and I couldn't sign a lease without that kind of public support."

The historical society has an operating budget of $1.5 million for this calendar year. It applied for one of the grants the city is disbursing to cultural institutions but has yet to be awarded one, likely because it is so far not hurting financially, surmised Beswick. He has not had to fire or furlough anyone, though he did freeze hiring for several new positions he had budgeted for this year.

"We are not in a severe financial crush right now. Our concern is not about meeting payroll today like a lot of other organizations are," he said. "Our concern is around the end of the year. Most of our income comes from a membership drive in June, a gala in the fall, and an annual fundraising drive, so most of our income comes in at the end of the year. What I am concerned about is if we don't do well at the end of the year then in 2021 we are looking at the possibility of layoffs."

In terms of attendance at its current museum space, the historical society usually attracts 75% of its visitors from outside the Bay Area. Tour groups and school field trips also bring in a lot of visitors, which are unlikely to return in significant numbers this year, noted Beswick.

"So shifting to a virtual setting is exciting for us actually," he said. "In the short term we are taking our digital assets we have available and really weaponizing those and putting them online in a way that is really accessible. In the longer term we are working on a larger virtual museum really branded in a way that is new and exciting and shifts our organization to that focus."

Already, the historical society has been hosting talks online that have been attracting larger audiences than those that can be accommodated at its 18th Street location. Each Wednesday, for instance, Beswick has been hosting talks on what was learned during the AIDS epidemic on various topics, from health care to housing, that can be applied to today's pandemic response.

It is also mounting exhibits online that were initially set to open in its museum. Already accessible is one focused on late gay rights activist Gilbert Baker, while ones coming soon will focus on the city's first Pride celebrations in honor of the 50th anniversary of the parade this June and AIDS activism on the West Coast in light of San Francisco and Oakland co-hosting the now virtual 2020 International AIDS Conference in early July. (Beswick was named one of this year's community grand marshals for the San Francisco Pride parade, which will now be part of the online Global Pride event June 27.)

"We have stopped thinking in terms of the archive and museum are closed," said Beswick. "We are open. We are able to do a lot of research support online through our website and through our research support staff we have available. We do have access to huge databases online."

To learn more about the museum and archive's virtual resources and programs, visit www.glbthistory.org

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