San Francisco mayor seeks $10M for LGBTQ museum site

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday June 1, 2021
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Mayor London Breed is seeking $10 million for a freestanding LGBTQ museum that would replace the GLBT Historical Society Museum on 18th Street. Photo: Courtesy GLBT Historical Society Museum
Mayor London Breed is seeking $10 million for a freestanding LGBTQ museum that would replace the GLBT Historical Society Museum on 18th Street. Photo: Courtesy GLBT Historical Society Museum

In a surprise announcement as part of her balanced budget proposal she introduced Tuesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said she is seeking funds to acquire a site in the city to build the first large-scale, freestanding LGBTQ history museum. The news coincides with the start of Pride Month, and ironically, as city funding for the existing GLBT Historical Society Museum in the Castro district is being significantly decreased.

Breed released her budgets for fiscal years 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 June 1 at a ceremony held in the newly renovated Willie "Woo Woo" Wong Playground in the city's Chinatown neighborhood. Toward the end of her speech, the mayor said she was including money for the LGBTQ museum project.

Calling out gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro and has been working with the GLBT Historical Society and the mayor on the museum project, Breed said she was requesting the funds "so we finally have a home for all those who fought for LGBT equity and inclusion in our city."

The mayor did not mention a dollar figure, but according to Clair Farley, a transgender woman who is a mayoral adviser and executive director of the city's Office of Transgender Initiatives, the amount is $10 million toward the acquisition of a site. The city would issue a request for proposals for use of the money, noted Farley.

"We are still working out the details," said Farley.

But it is highly expected it would benefit the nonprofit LGBTQ archival group, which houses its archives in a rented downtown space on Market Street. For years it has been pursuing a site for the museum project in order to properly display its archival holdings.

The nonprofit began during the early days of the AIDS epidemic as a place to deposit and preserve historically significant items owned by those gay men and others being killed by the then-untreatable disease. Family members had been tossing the items into the trash since there was no entity collecting such items.

GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick learned about the funding request when contacted by the Bay Area Reporter for comment. He was taken aback, as he said no one from the mayor's office had alerted him about the mayor's decision to include the money in her budget proposal.

"Holy crap! Holy crap! I am really ... I am so thrilled as I have been working on this for five years," said Beswick. "We have been working with the previous mayor and mayoral candidates and with this mayor. She came to our gala in 2019 and she said this was a priority for her to establish a full-scale museum in San Francisco then the pandemic hit. We were working on a lease to establish a larger museum in the Castro and we had to put it on hold."

Beswick added, "I can't be more thrilled and grateful for the mayor's support."

Mandelman told the B.A.R. he was elated at the mayor's announcement, as two years ago his office and Breed's administration had approached the owner of the building at Castro and Market streets that had housed a Pottery Barn location about buying the building with the intention of building a combined LGBTQ museum and housing on the site. But with an asking priced ranging from $15 to $18 million, the city ended those negotiations.

"I am very happy and pleased," said Mandelman. "We have been in conversation with the mayor for a couple of years about acquiring property for an LGBT history museum and cultural space, something ideally in the Castro."

Ongoing conversations

Conversations about the project had been ongoing, said Mandelman, as both he and Breed remained interested in finding a suitable space for the project. He is optimistic the funding will be included by the Board of Supervisors, which has until early July to send the mayor a final budget proposal so she can sign it by August 1.

"I think I am gratified she actually put the money into the budget," he said. "Pretty clearly the mayor is trying to make this part of her legacy. I think it will be a great legacy for her mayorship."

As the B.A.R. reported last May, the GLBT Historical Society had decided to walk away from subleasing the former Castro location of real estate firm Coldwell Banker because of the COVID pandemic upending its operations and finances. The real estate agency in September 2019 had 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 have allowed 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 January 2022. Not only did the sublease deal no longer make sense to enter into last spring, the nonprofit announced it was shelving its plans to build the first full-scale LGBTQ history museum in the U.S. for the time being.

Instead, it said it was pivoting its efforts to creating a virtual museum and archival center using its vast holdings collected over the last three-and-a-half decades. Over a year later, the nonprofit is reopening its museum to the public this Friday, June 4, having had to keep it closed for much of the past 14 months. It also began scheduling in-person research appointments on a limited basis at its archives center as of June 1.

The future of its current museum space is in doubt, as it remains unclear if it will be able to extend its lease for the 18th Street site and its city funding for operational costs has been drastically cut this year. It was turned down for a $150,000 arts commission grant it had applied for and last week was also not granted the $250,000 in funding it had applied for from the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development.

Instead, it was awarded $50,000, which is a steep drop from the $400,000 in city funding it had received last year. Thus, the nonprofit is unsure of how much longer it can continue to operate its museum in the Castro.

"The status of the current museum is definitely in question," said Beswick.

He is hopeful the supervisors will be able to add-back some of that funding during the budget negotiations this month. Mandelman told the B.A.R. he is committed to seeing what can be done to bolster the city's allocation for the operational costs of the museum.

The historical society currently subleases the space from Walgreens, which operates the adjacent specialty pharmacy, a portion of which was built into the storefront that houses the GLBT Historical Society Museum. Beswick told the B.A.R. he has yet to be informed by the national chain if it intends to extend its own lease for the properties.

The historical society has extended the lease for its archives space through 2031. And it is pursuing $750,000 in state funding this year in coalition with a number of LGBTQ archives from across California. They are hopeful state legislators will include the funds in their 2021 budget, which begins October 1, they send to Governor Gavin Newsom to sign into law. (It was included in the California State Senate and Assembly joint budget agreement.)

With the COVID crisis ebbing, the GLBT Historical Society is preparing to launch a capital campaign to raise funds for the museum project. Beswick said he has been telling the Breed administration that having a brick and mortar location would guarantee the success of raising money for a museum.

"But if we don't have a location it is going to be super hard," said Beswick. "This is going to catapult us into creating the first full-scale museum of GLBTQ history and culture anywhere in the U.S. There is only a medium-size museum in Berlin and a couple of small storefronts like ours."

UPDATED 6/2/2021 to note the museum's Castro space lease currently expires in January 2022 and that state lawmakers earmarked funding for the LGBTQ archives in their budget agreement.

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