Search goes on in SF for LGBTQ history museum space

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 25, 2023
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Officials with the GLBT Historical Society want to find a site for a free-standing museum to replace its small space on 18th Street in the Castro. Photo: Courtesy GLBT Historical Society Museum
Officials with the GLBT Historical Society want to find a site for a free-standing museum to replace its small space on 18th Street in the Castro. Photo: Courtesy GLBT Historical Society Museum

Officials at the GLBT Historical Society want to bid on a proposal to secure and operate a full-scale, free-standing museum even though they don't have a site located.

The search for a location for an LGBTQ history museum in San Francisco has been underway for several years. Despite $17.5 million in state and city funds earmarked for the project, officials have not been able to find a suitable site.

And while society officials said they are ready to bid on a request for proposal, or RFP, it is unclear if that process can proceed without a location first being acquired. It has long been hoped that a site in the city's LGBTQ Castro neighborhood could be secured for the project.

According to Victor Ruiz-Cornejo, a gay policy adviser to Mayor London Breed, typically a site would be located by the city and then those interested would be allowed to bid for an RFP to operate a museum there.

"The funds for the museum are centrally budgeted until a site is found," Ruiz-Cornejo stated to the Bay Area Reporter October 10. "The real estate department has been leading the site search with the mayor and Supervisor [Rafael] Mandelman's offices."

The city has budgeted $12 million for a museum, while gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) secured $5.5 million in state funds, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

San Francisco's Real Estate Division did not return requests for comment for this report. Requests to speak with the division through the mayor's office were also not returned.

However, it's the position of the historical society that it should be allowed to bid for an RFP before a site is found, Andrew Shaffer, a gay man who's the society's director of development and communications, clarified to the B.A.R. October 23.

His comments came after Executive Director Roberto Ordeñana, a gay man, told the B.A.R. that the society is now "ready to bid on an RFP to operate and acquire the space."

The mayor's office did not return a request for comment about whether it is possible for the society to bid for an RFP first, but during an earlier interview Ruiz-Cornejo said that it isn't 100% assured any particular nonprofit will be the one selected.

"There's no one way we have to do this," he said. "The funds were not promised to the society, which will have to go through a fair bidding process."

As the B.A.R first reported in 2021, Mayor London Breed had included the city's funding for the museum project in her budget released that June. Gay former GLBT Historical Society executive director Terry Beswick had been advocating for City Hall to make such a commitment since the society rents both the small storefront that houses its museum in the Castro and space in a Mid-Market Street building for its archives and offices.

Over the years it has been suggested that the city could pair a building for the new museum with affordable housing, which is in particular need in the Castro district. But Ruiz-Cornejo said that the space ultimately selected does "not necessarily" have to include space for such housing.

The GLBT Historical Society currently runs the world's first stand-alone museum of LGBTQ history, at 4127 18th Street, though it is a small space. At its October 14 fundraising gala, "Reunion," the society raised approximately $165,000, Shaffer said, though the final number is still being tabulated. The society's budget is about $1.4 million, Shaffer said.

Ruiz-Cornejo also told the B.A.R. that while several sites have been considered, none have ultimately worked out. When asked about the number of sites, Ruiz-Cornejo said he could not disclose that because it would "put us in a worse negotiation position as a city."

When pressed, Mandelman also would only say "several" sites have been looked at. In 2019, 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, as the B.A.R. previously reported, the city ended those negotiations due to the asking price ranging from $15 to $18 million.

"Real estate has been looking at the feasibility of different sites," Mandelman, referring to the city department, told the B.A.R. October 4. "We haven't found the right one yet, but the funds are still available in the city budget and the search continues."

The society would prefer a location in the Castro, Ordeñana said, but isn't necessarily tied to the neighborhood, particularly if the most feasible space for the museum, archives, and offices can be found in another neighborhood important to the city's LGBTQ history, such as the Polk Gulch, he explained.

"It is our priority to keep the museum in the Castro, especially since we have been in the neighborhood for over 12 years," Ordeñana told the B.A.R. "At the same time, we have to keep open the possibility that the ideal space might be outside the neighborhood, perhaps even in a neighborhood that has historical significance to queer history."

Mandelman told the B.A.R. he remains committed to seeing the city buy a site in the Castro.

"I think the museum belongs in the neighborhood. For now, we are still looking for a space in the Castro, and I remain hopeful that we will find one," he stated.

Mandelman did not return a request for comment about whether the society should be able to bid for an RFP before a site is selected.

The mayor's office did not return a request for comment about whether the museum should be located in the Castro.

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