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25 Years to the Day

Exactly 25 years ago to the day, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) opened its doors to the public. It is powerful to consider the context and the ultimate conditions that would create a contemporary arts center with a mission — at the time — that was notable. A mission to be an inclusive center for the people.


“Why does this organization exist? Where are we now? And, where are we going?”


When we celebrate organizational milestones, we often seek to avoid nostalgia so that we can continue to build toward the future. Yet, the work of revisiting the founding mandate of our public benefit institutions helps ensure that these organizations continue to be accountable to their changing publics, to be not only relevant but to be necessary. The act of reflection — asking the questions “Why does this organization exist? Where are we now? And, where are we going?” — is essential future-making work.

In this spirit, let us think of context. Let us start with 1993. The year the World Trade Center was bombed for the first time. The year of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The year of Black Hawk Down. In 1993, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” broke records. Oprah’s interview with Michael Jackson became one of the most viewed live interviews in the history of television. Philadelphia, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, was released and it forever shifted the narrative for those living with HIV. In 1993, culture mattered.

In San Francisco in 1993 — following decades of struggle, strife, displacement, and, finally, consensus — YBCA was born as part of the larger Yerba Buena Gardens project. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Founding YBCA Board President Ned Topham said “The Center will be an inclusive and pluralistic place where artists and audiences can engage in empowering dialogue.” Echoing this spirit of inclusivity, YBCA’s first Director of Visual Arts (and later Chief Curator), Renny Pritikin, said that the center “wants to share ownership of this facility with the artists and people of this area.”


“Today, as public trust in our institutions and our leaders continues to erode, there may be no role that is more important for our cultural organizations to play than to be places for people from all walks of life to come together in dialogue.”


Today, as public trust in our institutions and our leaders continues to erode, there may be no role that is more important for our cultural organizations to play than to be places for people from all walks of life to come together in dialogue. In fact, I believe that the arts organizations that will survive and thrive over the next several decades will be those that embrace a radical inclusivity; set free structures that privilege certain perspectives and exclude others; encourage dialogue and debate; and, expand definitions of what art is, who makes it, and who it is for. These organizations will fuel the public imagination and catalyze collective action. These organizations will hold our democracy accountable.

In the spirit of YBCA’s founding and in the context of a very divided country, YBCA celebrates and supports the artists, thinkers, inventors and activists who put their power to work for social justice and social change. On November 3, just a few days before the midterms, we honor the 2018 YBCA100 — the 100 people who are inspiring us today because they are working to shift culture and bring about lasting change. At YBCA, we feel the urgency of now and we invite you to join us to assure that artists and arts organizations are leading agents of the change we so desperately need in the world.