A conversation with Erik Christofferson, Executive Director
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel
Erik Christofferson loves his job. As Executive Director of The Mint Project, he is off and running with an undertaking that will affect The City for generations to come. His task is to restore and revamp a strategic and glamorous survivor of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire – the noble and unflinching keeper of the purse, “The Granite Lady” – the Old Mint at 5th Street and Mission. Likening such portals as Yahoo and Google to the digital globe, Erik sees THE MINT PROJECT as the bricks and mortar portal for The City and the Bay Area. Completed in 1874, the magnificent ala Greek Revival building was constructed to house a portion of the national treasury. Three hundred million dollars in gold – one-third of the country’s wealth – sat within its vaults come the early morning hours of April 18th, 1906. As the city shook and burned to the ground, gallant efforts saved the building and its glittering contents. In 2003 – as the high-notes of Jeanette MacDonald’s “SAN FRANCISCO” wafted around its Doric columns – the City purchased the building from the federal government with a single silver dollar created at the mint in 1879. In return? Turn the relic into the hottest ticket in town.
ERIK C. CHRISTOFFERSON, Executive Director – The Mint Project
Erik Christofferson believes the “Old Mint” is Ground Zero for the San Francisco Experience. His vision is to keep it love-at-first-sight, startlingly fresh and ever-inviting. As a native San Franciscan accustomed to the disappearance of many a favorite view and the not-always welcome reconfigurations in his own neighborhood, I seized the opportunity to find out just exactly what he has in mind for SAN FRANCISCO LANDMARK #236. The visit was prompted by my interest in the SF Museum and Historical Society’s creation of an annual fundraiser, STANDING OVATIONS. The event at the Fairmont Hotel honored seven of the City’s major performing arts organizations observing milestone anniversaries. The honorees included SAN FRANCISCO BALLET celebrating their forthcoming Diamond Anniversary in 2008, along with the San Francisco Film Society which presents our INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, and the MEROLA OPERA PROGRAM , both marking 50 years of proven excellence. Imagine the stories behind those curtains! Mr. Christofferson knows the Old Mint will be a living treasury (a Classic Exposé) of these and countless other tales of The City.
SEÁN: When you took on the restoration project for the Mint, was this interactive aspect part of your understanding?
ERIK: It was. I was brought aboard as the Interim Executive Director in March of 2006. Now I’m the permanent Executive Director. The goal of all that, from the start, is that we basically have two things going on here. We have a functioning Historical Society. There are three thousand members. We do monthly lectures, we have talks, and we have two publications. We need to continue that and to improve it. Secondarily, we have been awarded the Old Mint. We need to raise the funds and develop the plans for how to make that a wonderful historical cultural center for the City.
SEÁN: Was that a motivating factor for you? Or, let’s say – would you have done it anyway?
ERIK: That’s interesting. I always thought and wanted a chapter in my life where I could give something back to the community. But never did I think it was going to be a history museum or a project like this. I thought it would have been some other kind of a non-profit. I sit on the Board of SUMMER SEARCH; I’m the Chairman of the Board of the SCANDINAVIAN SCHOOL. So, I thought it would have been more in that genre or something that’s tied more to my start-up experience – how do I help young people or disadvantaged young people with start-ups. Things like that.
SEÁN: And you get yanked over here.
ERIK: I was invited to put my name in. I have been so smitten by this project – in a positive way. Two things struck me quickly off the bat. In all candor, one of the things that I said to myself – I don’t know if I actually said it to the Board – is that if we only need about 25,000 square feet to tell (not that we couldn’t have used a million square feet) to do a compelling history museum (which, by the way, I hope you’ll never call a “history museum”) why did we pick a building that is 100,000 square feet? That we’ve taken on more than, perhaps, we needed? I didn’t actually say that to anyone, but that was certainly something, when I first came aboard, I was figuring prominently in my mind. What I realize now is that it is a very bold, ambitious plan for a relatively young and small organization. But, what an opportunity! The location is terrific. The building itself is a prize national artifact.
Saving your money – April 18th, 1906
ERIK: We can participate in the revitalization of the Mission corridor. Westfield completed the Fourth, the Fifth Street. We can now be the cornerstone project that gets Fifth to Sixth to really take off – which I think would be terrific. Then, most importantly – there is not a “bricks and mortar” place. Think of San Francisco and the landscape. Stories of animals are told at the Zoo, stories of fish are told at the Aquarium, stories of science are at told at the Exploratorium, stories of stars and rain forests are told at the California Academy of Science. We have stories of cable cars. Certainly we have stories of people, such as Museum of the African Diaspora, the new Contemporary Jewish Museum, and countless places of where we are telling the stories of Art. Nowhere is there a major venue that’s sole purpose is to tell the stories of the men and women who made this city and the Bay Area what it is today. Too often people say, “History is not important”. If you really think about it, without history we have no identity. Without history, we will repeat mistakes.
If you ask a simple question like, “Should we ever forget the Holocaust?” You would get a unanimous answer, “No.” Or, “Should we forget the Japanese internment and what we did to Japantown here?” People would pause and say, “No.” Or, “Should we forget what we did to the Chinese with the Chinese Exclusion Act?” No. But, a wonderful story – should we forget the remarkable resourcefulness and tenacity of the residents of San Francisco and how they rebuilt the city – without Federal assistance, in nine years! – after the Earthquake? Should we forget that? Should we forget the remarkable, innovative things we’ve done? Not just in the modern day things, but that we’re doing right now with stem cell research, nanotechnology, and alternative energy. When we start to realize it that way, we will think of it in a different way.
The Mint, 1874 – restored Receiving Room adjacent to the Courtyard
To answer your question, I had no idea I’d be doing something like that. It is an enormous responsibility that this organization is being given. Not just by the City which owns the building, but also by what we earn from the community – that they feel we are doing a great job telling these stories, putting them forward, and creating debate. Because there isn’t a single way of interpreting history or interpreting a story. With that responsibility there should be a great honor, a sense of pride. That’s what has hit me. Not having seen this in my landscape of where my career would go – to be given this opportunity. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s harder than anything I’ve ever done in my life. It’s certainly a challenge, because if you look at the other successful philanthropic efforts, the large ones have been tied to existing institutions that have been around – the California Academy of Science, the de Young, Exploratorium, SF MOMA, and the Asian Art Museum. Those are institutions of the 20th Century, some going further back. We hope and are trying to be the first great new cultural institution of the 21st Century in San Francisco. Whenever you try to create something new, it takes a little longer for people to get their arms around and appreciate it. In that sense, that’s part of the challenge which is very similar to what you have to do as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley or elsewhere in the Bay Area if you are trying to raise funds and breaking into a new field. But the opportunity is amazing.
SEÁN: So the history of SFMHS is that it absorbed the already existing Historical Society, is that correct?
ERIK: It’s two institutions that merged. One was the Museum of the City of San Francisco – Gladys Hansen’s organization. Then there was Charles Fracchia’s organization, which was the San Francisco Historical Society. Basically, the two merged for the sole purpose of submitting a proposal to be considered being awarded the Old Mint Project.
SEÁN: Is it a happy merger to begin with?
ERIK: I only joined 18 months ago or thereabouts. I would have to say the mergers functioned well then. I’ve heard there were challenges, which are true in any when you merge two cultures and two organizations. My experience is that we have a singular voice, a singular commitment to the vision in what we are trying to do here with these folks growing the historical society part – which is fully functioning, non-profit – and then raising the money and developing the strategy and plans for the Mint Project. So, I’m not seeing any problems on that front.
SEÁN: That’s good! Is it really one thing as far as the Mint Project is concerned?
ERIK: It’s all run out of this office. But the thing to remember is that we’re trying to make sure that neither side trumps the other. I think there is a tendency for some people to say, “Oh, the Mint Project is not before 2011 and we have a great historical society now – let’s concentrate all our efforts on that.” I think there’s tendency for others to say, “Look what that Mint Project is going to become” and “Let’s pull all our energy over there” – and then you take resources away from your monthly programming, your walks and the talks. So, you’ve got a healthy tension and I sort-of say they are two different things when they’re all run out of our organization. But mainly, just to point out, we believe we already are and we strive to do even better, contributing towards telling the stories of San Franciscans in our lectures, in our walks, events, and publications. And we should continue to improve the quality of that experience while we simultaneously develop the plans and raise the remaining funds to restore and open the Mint.
SEÁN: In addition to my support on the SanFranciscoSentinel and keeping people aware – what do you think the general atmosphere is for most folks and their relationship to the Mint Project and the museum and all these developmental things going on? Is it being seen as an actual San Francisco “happening”? I can observe the work, but this aspect is subtler.
ERIK: That’s interesting. I think there is still a relatively low awareness both to the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society and to what we are trying to do with The Mint. The first thing that always intrigues me when I tell people we’re going to restore the Old Mint – many people think of the third Mint, the one above the Castro Safeway. There is still some confusion because many don’t realize that is still a functioning mint. We are actually the second United States Mint. The first was over in the Financial District on Commercial Street. There’s still some work to be done in getting people to understand which location, but we’re getting there gradually.
SEÁN: What’s happening at The Mint today? What would I see happening if I strolled over right now?
ERIK: Two big things have happened. We’ve just completed the soft demolition and hazard abatement. It ceased being a mint in 1937 and became administrative offices when the third mint opened. In the ’60s, when we’re starting to move into the era of computers, they put in elevated floors, sunken ceilings, started doing air-conditioning, etc. There were a lot of modernizations done to the building. We have now taken out all the modernizations. For the first time, since 1874, we have returned the building to the core and shell of the historic fabric.
The Old Mint in the ’70s
The second thing is a project completed by the Martin Building Company, the opening of the MINT PLAZA. You could say the first phase of creating the destination site has been completed. They have been asking for our participation, so we have been part of the process. We certainly didn’t fund it, but we’ve been reviewing the plans, etc. That’s going to help get people going to that location and to draw more attention. What you can’t see is what’s going on in the pre-development work. We’re just finishing up the design and development stage in the architectural and engineering drawings. We’re seventy-five percent through with the schematic design for the museum itself. We are finishing up the third iteration of the business plan. As it stands now, we have neither an endowment when this thing opens and we have a promise from the City not to give us any money. Unlike the Asian Art Museum, California Academy of Science, the de Young – which do get annual contributions from the San Francisco City Budget, as I understand it. We will get no funds. So, we need to have a really compelling and viable business model that shows we can operate this without it – being at risk of being closed down or having to be bailed out as, sadly, some other institutions in San Francisco have experienced. There is a lot of rigor happening around that right now. We are in the early stages of really trying to go out to the donor community – talk to them, get their feedback, and factor all that in before we complete all the design, before we complete the business model and the strategies around it.
SEÁN: That is a huge and incredible amount of work from what I heard a few months ago. What’s next on the calendar?
ERIK: As we go into 2008, the number-one thing is to really get momentum with the Capital Campaign. We’ve got to have secured the lead donors and really put momentum into that effort. That will be a validation from the community – the donor community, specifically – that they want to see this project happen. That is going to be a very important metric. We need people in the donor community that are really champions in this project. The second thing is that we will continue the architectural and engineering process. We will take it to the end and finish the construction documents. We will have just about finished all the plans for how the museum itself – which is about 26,000 square feet – will function. And we will now have developed the plans for the ground floor to include a visitor’s center and three different food and beverage concessions. One will tell the story of San Francisco Bay Area coffee – such as Hills Bros., Folgers, Pete’s, and Blue Bottle.
The City’s coffees
Another one will be a bar that will be treated like a changing gallery that will tell the stories of certain wineries from the East Bay. We’ll not only feature the wines, but also tell the stories of the families behind the wineries or the winemaker. The idea is that, unlike some other places, we want the stories to continue into these free areas and go beyond the museum itself. We want to tell the story of coffee, of beer and wine in San Francisco. A lot of people don’t know that in the 1800s grapes were growing over in China Basin and wine was being made. It’s not just a modern day phenomena. And we want to tell the other great story, which is food and cooking. We’ll have a third quarter that will be a café that will tell the story of wonderful chefs like Alice Waters, Michael Mina, and Gary Danko and a large number of others. Who are these people? What inspired them? And also the great food stories – Ghirardelli, Boudin, See’s Candies, the Chinese fortune cookie was invented here.
Domingo Ghirardelli, See’s Candy (Market & Octavia), the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Interestingly, people certainly know Levi’s as being a San Francisco store. But The Gap – some people think as being from Minnesota, Chicago, New York. So, we have merchant stories. Then take the era of music we’re celebrating right now – Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendricks, Jefferson Airplane. The list goes on with authors such as Jack Kerouac, Jack London. What we want to do is create the ground floor together with the Visitor’s Center to say that here is an abundance of stories we didn’t tell in the Museum. We want to tell them on the walls and then we want to give you an opportunity where you can taste and sample and experience some of these products. Those plans will be completed in 2008.
LEVI STRAUSS and JACK LONDON
The last thing is that we will have taken the business model and really fleshed it out and validated it with whichever partners we want to bring in, plus a number of reviews with cities, consultants. Finally, most importantly in 2008, we want to do a major community outreach project. Before this thing even gets to construction we want to go talk to the different constituencies and share our plans. There’s no way we can do this as a democracy and get everyone to vote and say we love your plans. What we want to do is show we are designing a process in which we want to share what we are planning to do, get your feedback, and you can walk away and say, “Wow! They included us in the process and we got heard.” We want people to feel that we are really trying to make this building be a Center that the community is proud of, that they were a part of creating, and have a stake in its success for decades to come. It’s not just the brainchild of a few individuals. We broaden now as we take these well-baked ideas – but still ideas – and bring them out to the different constituencies in the San Francisco Bay Area.
SEÁN: Let’s say all that is accomplished by 2008. With 2011 being the target date, what do you want to see happening by 2010?
ERIK: By 2010 we’d be finishing the core and shell work – that being, the building itself without the exhibits and the retail being built out; the building is fully restored before whichever tenants would move in. We would have all that completed by the first half of 2010. The second half is that we would actually do the tenant improvements, which would be building all the exhibits, all the retail, getting the building ready for event rentals. We would be doing a large campaign to really get people ready. If not sooner, then no later by 2010 we’ll do a large charter membership drive. We’ll be doing a lot of PR to get people excited and thinking that, one – it’s a museum where they would want to come as well as send their guests. The Ground Floor is going to be a destination where it’s an authentic San Francisco Bay Area Experience and people are excited about going to for events. The Courtyard in the center is a beautiful architectural feature with a glass dome covering, so it becomes a year-round event atrium.
SEÁN: Who do you see as the tenants coming in?
ERIK: This is something I think is surprising. The only other tenant than ourselves we see at this stage – and there’s still a lot of room for adjustment – would be the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, moving the Visitors Information Center there. Typically, buildings of this size – and when you’re an historical site or museum – you will sublet out the food, beverage and retail to others. Because, you are saying, we neither have the competency and we want to reduce our risk. But in reducing our risk, we will get less revenue in. Because we don’t have an endowment, because we don’t have any city or public funds of any kind – which in the end will make us much stronger – we need to maximize the earned revenue out of this building. So, what we’re looking at is that we will really create an organization that has different divisions. Each division will have a clear set of business goals. What I hope we can bring to the table is a for-profit approach without having to sacrifice the altruism and passion and community outreach that a traditional non-profit does.
SEÁN: Can you give me a 1-through-4 description of the “for-profit approach”?
ERIK: I think it’s only two things. You better know who your customer is. Then you design experiences that will do two things. One – when they go into that building they’ve had such a great experience that they will want to tell their friends. So, referrals. The second is that the experience was good enough that it warrants them to want to come back – to visit the galleries, they like the selection of products, tasting the wines. It’s about defining who you are trying to serve and then serving them in such a way that you get referrals and repeat visitation. What makes us different than a traditional for-profit is that we cannot do it if we are inauthentic. We must be an authentic San Francisco Bay Area thing. We cannot do it if we’re letting donors or a corporation or an individual try to trump certain stories that a set of historians or a certain panel would say, “They’re not as important as you’re making them seem.” Or that if we try to make it be – and I say this with all respect for Disneyland – a Disney-esque experience. My feeling is that the building needs to be about people walking away saying, “It was authentic, a great experience, I learned something, I was inspired.” But as a non-profit, we have the responsibility to San Francisco and the Bay Area to get the authentic stories out there, to do a very good job in interpreting those stories, and to promote them in such a way that we inspire people about their history.
SEÁN: Is the “cookie” the restored building itself? Is that where the love and affection begins or does it start from within?
ERIK: I think it’s going to vary for audiences. I think where it starts is that we have a great location. The second thing is that we have a national historic landmark, one of only five buildings in San Francisco that are on that highest level of distinction. So, now with the Plaza and the restored building looking absolutely gorgeous – I think that’s going to make people go, “Wow! What’s inside?!”
Visions for the courtyard and galleries
Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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