CELL at 7 (and 16)

Back in 2003, a major shift had happened at CELLspace. Events had been shut down and a large group of volunteers had pretty much left 2050 Bryant to start the Mission Market back on Florida Street. Tensions were high, people were burned out, and CELL needed to pay rent. CELL had had one of its few retreats to try to reform the regroup after many caretakers left in a huge pile of animosity. Then the war in Iraq started. We had all been protesting to not start this war and most of us saw the meta-narrative of CELL’s plight as that of the world’s.

I was personally down about the war and CELL. I’d backed off a bit to take a break, but I was answering the info email address (because no one else was). Since 1996, CELLspace has inspired many people to start their own space. There’s the Crucible, the Box Shop, and many others. From time to time, people would stop by to study CELL. And we would get emails asking about how to start a space. At the time I was answering info@cellspace, I got an email from Bucketworks in Milwaukee, WI (now in its 9th year!!). They were starting up a space and had great questions about how to do it. They caught me at a time where I must’ve been ready to talk raw and candidly about what was going on at CELL.

CELL had just turned 7 when the email arrived. I had just finished co-producing the Funky Puppet Supper, which was an amazing show that touched on CELL’s plight and the plight of war with Iraq. I pulled the original emails off of the Oblio hard drive last week, and decided, for CELL’s 16th Birthday (this Spring Equinox), to post it on here in its entirety. It is emotional, raw, unedited (well, I did take out a few bits that were too personal). It is a great snapshot of how I saw CELL back in 2003.

I had no help in answering the questions. I did not answer this based upon any horizontal process. So do not expect this to be the definitive angle on what was happening at the time. Remember, I was going to CELL meetings with about 3 other people while about 12 people were meeting and running the Mission Market. And a group of workers had left the space. These were hard times.

Being a lover of history, I cannot pass up adding the following Q&A about CELL to my Month of Blog. Happy 16th birthday CELLspace! So many amazing and intense memories.


1. If things seem slow–i.e., few people around, summer’s here, let’s go
drink, etc., do we just keep sticking it out?  Have there been ‘bad times’at CELLspace, and how did you weather them?

Running a large multiuse arts space based on volunteers has proven difficult, while at times its been wildly successful. I would say that we are currently in our hardest time due to getting busted by the police, the economy locally, state-wide, and federally, and the lingering “baggage” that has permeated the older volunteers.

It isn’t because of laziness, mostly miscommunication, mismanagement, lack of follow-through, etc. Our whole volunteer structure was based on a group of caretakers, people that actually lived above cell in an apartment. They began to have roommate issues, never gelled as a cluster themselves, and began to disintegrate as the main volunteers. Its been a slow break up, lasting over 2 years, and hasn’t helped our situation. Out of 7 former caretakers, only 3 remain, while the collective has spent a lot of energy revamping the submission process and roles.

In the past, volunteers would come and go while a few remained to become more involved (like me). We’ve recently taken Vista corp workers to coordinate volunteers and currently do not have anyone doing this. CELLspace mostly relies on people just em’ing or wandering in to help and this can cause problems too due to not really having a screening process.

We have weathered many slack bits, watching clusters dry up in inactivity. Some clusters come back to life (a current example would be the gallery cluster) after a hiatus. I don’t know how our current hard time will turn out. Some days are good and enrichening for all involved. Other days are painful and full of frustration. Paying rent is becoming more difficult, but grants continue to come in (we just passed a city-level audit and have had federal grantors make contact with us)

2. Flyers and posters and banners build awareness, but aren’t sustainable:they make trash.  How do you get around that?  (We’ve thought about making three-dimensional handmade reusable tickets, art objects that people use to get to Bucketworks events and classes and _keep_ to re-use later.)  We want large audiences for our events, all of which encourage audience participation in the creative process (rather than being ‘look good next to good looking art’ type events.)

CELLspace if fortunate to be in San Francisco, the most ditigally connected city in the planet. That being said there are a lot of em lists, online calendars, and websites that can promote events and classes.

CELLspace tries to promote some things and has its own em list (underutilized at the moment due to lack of volunteer), but usually keeps the promotions up to the teachers and producers.

That being said, methods usually used are indeed flyers, posters, etc.

Creating art for promo would be a good thing to do once or twice, but is time and energy intensive. We have dressed up in costumes and hit festivals, tabled at events, and produced shows elsewhere as a form of promo too.

Another thing about San Francisco is that it’s a green city. We have access to recycled paper, tree-free paper, and soy inks.

One person I know prints his flyers on the edges of large press runs. Instead of throwing out the paper, the printers give him flyers on it.

3. How do you keep egoism out and reliability in?  We’ve done a good job
of beautifying our space and articulating our cause, but we’re still only three strong, despite 450 students so far having taken our classes.

This is a good question. I’ve looked into this by reading about intentional communities and cohousing and still haven’t seen a healthy model for CELLspace. Like I said above, the caretakers really began having issues about things, and since have made the collective reform the whole living situation. There were about 6 original founders of CELLspace and only one remains as a volunteer. The rest moved on for various reasons. Other older members have left for long amounts of time, or only participated on a limited basis.

CELLspace has had to kick out people of all stripes. A lot of homeless people lived in cars behind CELLspace. We’d have to deal with them constantly. Some volunteers show up and actually sabatoge things (of course creating paranoia among the lefty activists at cell). Some of the most amazing volunteers can be hard to deal with, create scenes, and have verbally/physically abused people.

Its hard to regulate. We’ve created a zero tolerance for violence, defined what this means. We’ve had to kick local kids out for not being productive to the community. We don’t allow people to loiter in the space.

I think the one way we have nutured members/volunteers is by allowing them to create pet projects and allow them to grow. Most of us have stayed around so long because we love the space, the potential of creating ideas, and the constant interaction between artist and mediums. We’ve also put a lot of energy into the mission and vision of the space, and have also built the walls and floors.

Ego is usually checked at the door, but it doesn’t take much for one volunteer, neighbor, caretaker to blow up and cause problems.

4. We’ve kept the organization flat (sounds like you have, too.)  There
are no clear leaders–we do have a non-profit board of directors and
things like that, but operationally no power struggles can really exist.
How have you found new leaders (to staff roles like your clusters?)

This has been hard too. Leaders have emerged, mostly as keepers of information. Others have entrenched themselves in a certain cluster and create a leadership role for themselves.

On the positive side, some clusters thrive on new interest. The media cluster has done this, though Skot still keeps everything connected. The a/v cluster is currently training Tony, a new caretaker, the ropes of tech at cell. Geof has taken over the studio cluster and really reformed the rental process.

We don’t really have a program set up for bringing in new leadership. Its organic like our volunteer process is. We just got a new volunteer to help in the office after over a month of having no one except an occasional caretaker.

The old caretaker system was set up to create leadership in CELLspace. If you lived in the apartment, you had to have an active role in a cluster. This has broken down along with the old caretaker system. The new system, once implemented, will do the same, though caretakers will be living above cell more as tenants than renters. They will have to participate in a cluster, do chores, and do their art or research in order to live cheaply in San Francisco.

5. If you don’t mind my asking, how does your revenue break down?  We’ve
tried to spread our revenue sources evenly across events, classes, and
space rentals, as well as the occasional equipment rental (from video
projectors, and so forth.)

Most of our revenue comes from events. Grants have slowly began to help out a lot as well, but mostly for projects and specific things. Classes, studio rental, and other sources help out too. We recently gained access to a vacant lot and empty building behind CELLspace, and a group of people have created a flea market there. That has brought revenue in (rent is free back there) as well.

Right now, events are off, so we’re in hard times financially at cellspace. The economy has a bit to do with that too (the bay area has the highest unemployment rate in the US).

Due to our lack of management skills, we’ve probably lost a lot of money over the years for being too cheap a space, having too-low fees, etc. check out the crucible in Oakland. They draw their revenue mostly from classes and just bought a building thanks to funding they got.

6. Do you eventually plan to generate enough revenue to offer a standard
of living to your participating members–i.e., payroll, benefits, and all of the accoutrements that tend to accompany them? We’ve been exploring ways of doing this, but we haven’t hit on anything that the more business-minded among us would consider a sustainable business model.

Yes. Once again, its been an organic process and a bit illogical. There was a point in our history where volunteers would kill themselves on projects and then ask/beg/demand for payment. There are other examples of jobs so important that the collective decided to either pay stipend of $10/hr for it (the few paid jobs at cellspace are: tech advisor, office/admin, and events coordinator. Currently no one is getting paid for these positions). Still other examples are paying low wages for a bookkeeper and getting poor quality from them. Caretakers have asked to be compensated for past work to pay for medical bills.

Its been an erratic process but CELLspace has learned how to hire people, interview them, etc. The collective has recently prioritized the jobs that are crucial to the daily management of cell along with the other positions that need to be filled.

We can’t work on a coop membership model because we don’t sell products that generate income like a grocery store or bakery can. Defining membership has proven illusive as well.

Things seemed simpler when I first volunteered. When cell began to grow, and crucial positions weren’t being filled by volunteers, the need to create paid jobs would come up and be worked out.

7. How much of your time have you spent on grant-writing as opposed to,
say, developing programs and classes for your participants?

I’m not a grant writer, or class developer, so I can’t really tell you. The LL in CELL means Learning Labs, and there have consistently been volunteers working on class development. Most of our grants have been for classes (two current grants are for gardening and digital media) and facilities upgrading and only a few people write the grants.

We’ve created a database of generic info to use for writing grants. Classes tend to get developed around what the grant would fund. If you want more info on this I can hook you up with Jonathan. He isn’t too good about responding to em, but he might answer your questions.

That’s enough questions for now; sorry about the long email.  I’d love to meet all of you (we all would, actually; we feel like we’re part of the same idea/feeling/force/what-have-you.)  Any response would be

Best wishes for your growth and success,

James Carlson


Yow, that’s a long em all right. I’ll try to answer everything as best I can. Hope I find all the questions. It’s interesting that you em’d when you did: I’ve been a bit depressed about CELLspace recently and other projects have caused me to take a break from volunteering there. So I’m reevaluating my relationship with the space. Good timing!

I’ve copied your em into MS Word so I won’t have log-off issues. It might be hard to find my answers so I’ll label them ANSWER and then answer…


Based on what you’ve shared, I’m concluding that Bucketworks is
considerably younger than CELLspace, both in its age and in its conceptual depth.  Even so, I’d like to offer you some of our stories in the hopes that there’ll be value for CELLspace, because these things need to stick

CELLspace turned 7 at the Spring Equinox. I believe we have much to learn from older, and younger, orgs like ours.

Are there areas in SF
where sports bar after sports bar lines the streets?

Not really, though SF has more bars and drinks more than any city in the US. There are also ritzier parts of the city that are shallow and all that.

Growing healthy communities that are environmentally sustainable and culturally diverse seems to require including _everyone_ in the process of causing the growth, or it sputters out and dies in just a few generations.


I agree with that, but even if you include everyone it may still die out. We’ve tried to include everyone in the consensus-based process, and still are teetering on the edge. Good business sense goes a long way for us artists…

+   ork


Love plgrk. Kinda like the word explorative (the E in CELL)…not really a word…I hope to share these ideas with cell and the new volunteer coordinator. The emergency school concept rocks too. Cell has always had problems breaking in interested people (meetings scare them away) and we’ve had potlucks and movies in the past…

because the arts and performance scene in Milwaukee is very, very
fragmented and we think it weakens the scene considerably.


Another way to connect the disperate groups and artist might be to have an informal Q&A, a convention, street party, etc. Opening up a forum so everyone can contribute can help create alliances as well as promote your org. Even if you get 3-6 other groups to participate, that’s 3-7 groups of artists working together.

Check out the Expo for the Artist convention. Held every year at CELL, its an amazing day of tabling, speakers, etc.


I hope this makes sense, but we don’t have any organizational peers (in this city, anyway) to talk with about it.  Sanitycheck!


If you want to read up on amazing volunteerism, check out burningman.com. talk about organized…mostly volunteers run a whole city in the dessert. Its inspirational. Their site should have a handbook of sorts somewhere (they once posted a long report on how to run a burningman event)…anyway, it does make sense.

Now that some of your original founders have left, does the remaining one take a greater leadership role in the behavior of the collective because of their ‘seniority’?

Jonathan has bled for cellspace for many years, has tried to back out, back off, and share info, and sometimes seems stuck. I call him the reluctant leader and the heart of the whole cellspace concept. He’s also the mouth, an amazing speaker. He does believe in concensus, but his role has grown over the years, esp. with regards to grants, political connections, and any other kinda connections.

If a volunteer really builds the idea, does it matter that they’ve only been around for six months, or two months?

A new person is treated like the rookie kid on a baseball team. The vets are scared that he’s gonna take their job. It can be painful sometimes to see newbies get grilled. That gives cellspace a masochistic flavor that we all have to deal with. Maybe ego has something to do with it too.

You have had sabotage?  Man, now you’ve got me worrying!  What kinds of
forms did this take?  Security, I must admit, is something I don’t ever
want to take for granted, but ‘sabotage’ sounds like something more
complex than simple theft or misuse of materials.

We had this guy come and volunteer in the late 90s. Name was JC. He screwed up our server, started talking shit about cell, and then had a pound of pot mailed to us (he lived under an overpass)…We kindly asked him to get the hell out before he completely go us shut down.

There are a few more examples I could mention, but you get the point. I suggest you google anarchist text on agent provaciteurs (don’t know if that’s spelled right) infiltrating cells and how to deal with them. They might not work for the feds, but there are crazies that like to create chaos.

In the next iteration of the program, we didn’t allow drinking or smoking, and never had a class in the workshop area.  All the tools were behind lock and key.  It sounds like CELLspace avoided some of those mishaps by preventing drinking in the space at the beginning.


We’ve only learned through trial and error. Huge parties with alcohol were always nasty to clean up afterwards. Plus, selling w/out a license is #1 cause for space shutdowns, so that’s why we ban it. BYO is ok sometimes…

I’ve pinned this one down to a simple lack of leadership–maybe we just need to ask, sometimes, “Hey, do you want to paint this wall while we talk?”

It sounds like CELLspace is in an area where walk-in traffic is possible
and likely.  We don’t have that mixed blessing, and I had been thinking
that it would be a good thing to get by relocating to a more residential


We’re pretty aggressive about asking people to participate. It’s still hard to do sometimes.

Walk-through is a mixed blessing. There has been a lot of theft, problems with junkies, and the homeless, on top of people being truly inspired by the space and taking impromptu tours. My fave thing to do is see the jaws drop at the entrance and then answer questions. A lot of people have taken the idea home with them b/c of dropping by.

CELLspace is in an industrial area zoned mixed use: i.e., there are also homes around the factories. Called the Outter Mission

Do you think having 6 or 7 founders who lived in the space was critical to its eventual growth?  Is there a lower bound?

How important was it that you had a living space in the building?  Do you think an idea ‘like this’ can start without that?  What would CELLspace be like if there was no space ‘above’ CELLspace for people to live in?


Yes, I believe that the original caretakers were instrumental in creating CELLspace. The lack of a sustainable model for caretakers created burnout early on, so its been a mixed blessing. Lots of other folks helped cellspace too and didn’t live there. I’m one of em.

One cartaker has likened the role as monkdom. You’re cellspace 24/7, and almost always working on something.

We’re finding out how important the upstairs is right now, since the caretaker model is being reformed. The lack of caretakers has created holes in our management base, but outside folks have stepped up in a lot of areas.

Caretakers have always been a solid base of labor, presence, inspiration, etc., but its so easy to become overwhelmed with the entity that is CELLSpace.

BTW, the apartment has a different address. By law, no one can live in a nonprofit, so they don’t live at CELL. They live above it. Thought I’d let you know.

If you are having problems with code compliance, then it seems
we should start now to get in compliance in every possible respect in
order to keep things flowing without a hitch.  I’m reading from your story that having a steady flow of events can sustain growth, and if it suddenly stops, it really hurts.


One thing that impressed the city authorities was how much we had done to code. We’re still a long way off, and its expensive. My advice is if you build out anything, run any electrical wiring, etc., then do it to code. You might not be able to get permits and all, but do is as legal as possible.

We’ve always known that relying on events is tricky, and now we’re dealing with it…so it hurts.

How _do_ you interview people for an idea like this?  How much do they
need to understand in order to enjoy participating?

By committee. We try to hire within the volunteer base first. When we hire outside, it can get tricky (i.e., the employee doesn’t want to sit through a 3-hour collective meeting, along with 2 other meetings they have to attend that week)

Do the organizations like CELL and others in SF ever talk
to each other in one forum about their difficulties and successes?


Yes. There are conventions, book fairs, collectives of collectives (NOBAC is one), etc. that keep the juices flowing. There are also networks of activists that meet at larger meetings called spokes councils that organize things. There could still be improvements to the dialog, but SF is highly organized for coops, nonprofits, etc.

I’m fortunate to live in a progressive area of the world…


PS You mentioned visitng SF and CELLSpace. Well, we’re trying to get our caretaker program started. Perhaps one of you come for a 3-month stay, live cheaply in SF, and get a real feel of how it works. Along with visiting other collective spaces and all…Just an idea.