How to Build a Filipino American Cultural Center Without a Roof
What’s inside is every bit as eclectic and dynamic as the sidewalk view would imply. The 3,200 square foot studio, provided to Balay Kreative by SFMTA, was built to accommodate the needs of approximately half a dozen Filipino American artists, designers and small businesses as part of an experiment in course to create a cultural center. During my visit, Balay Kreative Executive Director Desi Danganan gives me an energetic tour, highlighting artists who have met in the studio and collaborated, experiences in retail presentations and the table he passes most afternoons working.
This studio is just one side of Balay Kreative. The Philippine Arts Accelerator is currently accepting applications for its second round of grants after distributing funds to around 20 artists and projects in 2020. He helps program the parking lot that has become a lush event space Kapwa Gardensand he’s working at a future Filipino American brick-and-mortar cultural center in San Francisco.
All of this activity is in service of a very specific goal: to take the idea of the SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Heritage District, established in 2016, and make it an economically sustainable reality through the power of arts and culture. San Francisco is home to nine cultural districts, the oldest (Japantown) was recognized in 2013, the newest (the Sunset Chinese Cultural District) was officially launched on May 22, 2022. Naming a cultural district is only the first step. SOMA Pilipinas, 1.5 square miles in the South of Market neighborhood, aims to celebrate the Filipino community, prevent displacement, and develop economic and racial justice initiatives.
“Arts and culture is the key,” says Danganan. “That’s going to be the anchor for really accelerating that kind of community engagement of coming back to your community, giving back and rebuilding it.” His vision is for Mission Street to become a commercial corridor of Filipino American shops, restaurants and cultural spaces.
Balay Kreative is doing a lot with a very small team, and Danganan says the goal is not to grow the organization. “It’s about growing the arts and culture community,” he says. “That’s why we’re so determined to hand over the money. It shouldn’t be Balay Kreative coming up with all the ideas for our community. It’s about being that platform, that accelerator for the rest of our community members to realize their dreams and visions.
A House of Creatives
The Balay Kreative story begins with undiscovered SFa creative night market established in 2017 by Kultivate Labs, an arts and economic development nonprofit that Danganan also runs.
These rallies in and around the Old Mint were a huge success, drawing crowds and press attention and fostering a real sense of belonging within the local Filipino American community. Robin Aquilizan sold in many night markets with his family’s streetwear brand Art Bayani. “I’m telling you, this is one of the best events in the Bay Area,” she says. “It’s always a good time. The community is great, super supportive.
In 2019, the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development awarded Kultivate Labs a $275,000 grant to support the development of a new Filipino American cultural center in SoMa. Balay Kreative (“House of Creatives”) started with a core team consisting of Danganan, Kim Acebo Arteche (now co-director of the Berkeley Art Center) and Gina Mariko Rosales (founder of the event production company Do it Marikowhich co-organizes Undiscover SF).