Peter Hirshberg: San Francisco’s Innovative Gray Area Foundation For The Arts

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I’m a big fan of the Gray Area Foundation For The Arts (GAFFTA), a unique non-profit organization that has a fascinating approach to the arts and technology and it’s efforts to bridge the culture gap between the geek world and the arts, allied with a very strong civic focus.

It’s situated in the historic Warfield building in the heart of the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods. Its innovative art exhibitions and educational programs are rooted firmly in the deep cultural traditions of San Francisco, an area that has consistently contributed to leading edge arts, literature, and ideas, nationally and globally.

Yet it seems that very little of that rich culture and diversity of San Francisco and the Bay Area is reflected in our tech communities, which draw in people from all over the world, but then trap them into insular startups and a monotonous always-on cubicle culture. GAFFTA is one of the few bright spots, an organization where “geek” and “art” aren’t mutually exclusive terms.

Last month I met with Peter Hirshberg, a co-founder of GAFFTA, at his home in San Francisco, just a few blocks from my apartment near JapanTown.

There’s not much cultural awareness among the tech community of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. GAFFTA was formed to address that cultural divide and become the first “digital” arts gallery.

– GAFFTA is located in the Warfield building on Market Street in the Tenderloin, a part of San Francisco that is being redeveloped thanks to tax-free programs offered by the city to companies such as Twitter.

– One of GAFFTA’s innovative programs in 2011 was the “Summer of Smart” — a series of hackathons and events that brought together city planners, software engineers, local residents, and artists to create applications for city living.

– The Summer of Smart managed to produce several interesting apps. It was a success in that it managed to involve a lot of city officials and staff. The hackathons showed city administrators what could be achieved from engaging the community to help solve problems.

– Singapore is very interested in the Summer of Smart and has invited Peter Hirshberg to visit and help set up similar hackathons. The top-down approach in Singapore could push through various apps and programs faster there than in San Francisco.

– Cities share many common problems so solutions that work in one city could likely be applied in others, too. Traditionally, people come to city officials to complain about services, etc, GAFFTA reframed this and said here’s how communities can help cities solve problems.

– Some city officials were worried that the hackathons would highlight how little their departments have done in terms of creating useful apps for public use.

– GAFFTA’s mission is dedicated to furthering the use and advancement of creative technology for social good.

– GAFFTA has a strong commitment to education and runs weekend courses teaching anyone how to code and create apps through its Creative Technology Studies program. Participants are certified in four areas: Audio Emphasis – teaching cutting digital audio edge techniques; Visual Emphasis – teaching principles of generative art, data visualization, design and aesthetics; Web Emphasis – teaching critical thinking, user interface design and coding; Physical Interaction Emphasis – which includes principles of 3D art, prototyping, multitouch interfaces, and how to use conductive fabrics.

– GAFFTA budget is about $1 million a year. It held a very successful fund raiser in December.

– GAFFTA wants to involve more people from the tech communities, especially those that are moving into the mid-Market Street area.

– The organization is hoping that it will help spawn similar non-profit groups in other cities. It hopes that it is starting a civic and arts movement.


– It is building a “Maker Lab” facility which will be used to teach people a variety of production skills using high-tech equipment, which can also be used by local artists to create new works.

– GAFFTA’s research program has created initiatives such as Summer of Smart and City Centered – a festival focused on locative media and urban communities. These will be annual events.

– It’s important to attract a diverse group of people because that helps generate new ideas. We want to create ideas that are worth stealing.

– We are still figuring things out and learning as we go. We want to figure out how to scale up our efforts.



– Here’s a presentation at TEDx Silicon Valley by Peter Hirshberg and GAFFTA co-founder and Executive Director Josette Melchor.

– Here’s a gallery of apps that came out of GAFFTA programs: Hacks – Gray Area Foundation for the Arts

– GAFFTA is seeking volunteers and interns able to commit to a three-month period of around 3 to 6 hours per week. And instructors to teach courses in its Creative Technical Studies program.

– The gallery space is open for rental for corporate events, the money supports its work in education and urban planning.

More info:

New York Times: Mid Market, at Last, May Be on the Cusp of Revival

Vox Populi: Innovations in Civic Hacking

San Francisco Chronicle: SMART Muni app designed over a weekend


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