Making art not war

Marina Times - Program Notes
By Evalyn Baron
January 2012

W.E.T. Seat by Nilus De Matran from the outdoor art exhibit “Seat” at Fort Mason (Photo: courtesy

Remember when you’d pile blankets onto the family card table and drape them over the sides so it would be darkly quiet underneath? You’d call it your “fort,” a safe place where your imagination was free to roam.

Forts have always been built to defend against enemies and when Peter and I relocated to San Francisco last year, I was moved by the City’s ghostly military presence. Picnicking on the Marin Headlands, atop an old army bunker armed with serious artillery and little “forts” for soldiers to hide in, I realized we had moved to the edge of our country, an edge vulnerable to attack from across the Pacific. So vulnerable, in fact, that as I nibbled sandwiches and cookies I realized I was sitting next to turrets designed to hold machine guns meant to kill in order to protect. By moving here, we have become part of military history, but where an Army airfield once was I’m now walking my dogs; where guns were pointed toward Japan, I now meditate; where thousands of soldiers were housed, there’s now a Starbucks and a film studio! And where the world was once armed and supplied from our local docks, there are now thriving nonprofit arts organizations.

Talk about turning your swords into ploughshares.

San Francisco has turned spaces once dedicated to the art of war into places for the cultivation of the human spirit, and this mission has become a matter of art. Nonprofit art, to be exact, and no one holds that mission closer to heart than the people who now run Fort Mason Center.

I sat down with two of the most visionary of the transformation: executive director Rich Hillis and marketing-communications director Pat Kilduff.

What you’re doing for the Marina – for the entire city, in fact – is important. What is your role here?

Pat: To supply our city with amenities, to make it more livable for individuals, families, for everyone. Most of the arts companies here are longtime residents of the Center, but more recent ideas we’ve put in place, like the weekly Off the Grid food truck event, outside art exhibits – our current one is called Seating – are bringing more people here, strengthening the idea that Fort Mason is a place for gathering. We want our resident arts organizations to collaborate in this goal: bringing the community here regularly, more often.

Rich: San Franciscans get that the arts are a force for making a city work, and my job in S.F. has been to help that happen, at the Exploratorium, Treasure Island, and other similar projects. In the 1970s, the military decided to convert Fort Mason to other uses, so it looked to nonprofit partners for help. That’s where we come in.

How has Fort Mason changed since you began here?

Pat: It’s not as passive as it once was in creating its identity. Now, increasingly, we are shaping how we serve our community, making more deliberate decisions about programming and what we want to do with the spaces.

Rich: Definitely more focus on arts and culture, wanting nonprofit groups to join in, inviting those that won’t just have their offices here but will produce things that attract audiences, consumers of culture.

Pat: Now, for the first time, we’re producing our own performance events. Starting February 2012, “Fort Mason Center Presents” inaugural season will present four diverse dance groups for everyone’s enjoyment: World Arts West, Capacitor, Company C Contemporary Ballet, and Gamelan Sekar Jaya, a Balinese group, will give performances throughout the spring.

Rich: And you can experience these four diverse companies in concert with an $80 subscription – only $20 per concert – plus free parking and a 15 percent discount at Greens Restaurant!

Pat: This is our next step in actively determining our future, and we hope that our Marina neighbors will come. Enjoy dinner at Greens or from Off the Grid, attend world-class performances, and have a good coffee and dessert afterward. Your one-stop great evening out in San Francisco!

Your vision for the future?

Rich: To have more people enjoying Fort Mason more of the time; to host groups and events that will attract growing numbers of people every day of the year. Pat: To do that, we hope to one day utilize our connection to the beautiful water surrounding us! We’re developing ideas to make that happen and so much more.

Rich Hillis, Pat Kilduff and their associates at Fort Mason Center have thrown soft, welcoming blankets over their own special card table, creating a fort that doesn’t want to keep people out, but rather wants to invite everyone inside. So, my New Year’s suggestion? Go join the fun at your Fort Mason Center. For information on all Fort Mason programs, go to