Artists Are Central to Community Health and Wellbeing

At the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, our driving purpose is to build regenerative communities. We believe that culture is an essential catalyst for change and artists are central actors for this work. Our goal is to build the capacity of artists in service of community.

Artists in Service of Community

Culture is like a forest’s root system, nurturing and informing the strength of the customs, institutions, norms, and practices that make up a society. It is the starting place for regenerative community investment, and artists are uniquely able to witness, portray, magnify, and nourish the culture of our communities.

Before the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, YBCA was already honing its strategies to strengthen the case for investing in artists as key drivers of individual and community health and wellbeing.

National arts and culture leaders at ArtPlace and PolicyLink, along with leading academicians in institutions such as the University of Florida School of Arts and Medicine and Johns Hopkins University’s International Arts and Minds Lab, were inspiring us to deepen our partnerships with these and other allied institutions to strengthen the case for artists. We developed a stronger understanding of the potential connection between artists’ work and “upstream” health outcomes so greatly influenced by the social determinants of individual and community health.

In January 2020, as I started my scholarship in residence as an Outreach & Education Visiting Scholar, the New York Fed convened leaders from these and other organizations along with artists to discuss the intersection between artists, community wellbeing, and community investment. Now, more than eight months into the pandemic and with even more heightened awareness of the need for national racial justice, the questions are much starker, and both opportunities and risks are greater. During these months, there have been thousands of examples across the country of what my colleagues at the New York Fed noted in a recent post:

“Artists can be champions in unifying communities and improving health and equity outcomes at a time like now, when it is most needed.”

Arts and culture organizations such as Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul and The Laundromat Project in New York City continue to exemplify collaborations across sectors in their work with artists in service of community. Public sector agencies in cities large and small have swiftly established artist-focused funding mechanisms with great creativity, and we also are seeing a desire for artists to be part of the solution at the level of state government.

At YBCA we’re working at an extreme pace. We’re committed to a transformation in the coming years. To get there, we’re focused now on fully engaging with artists, the public, and our partners to illuminate and document the impact of artists on community health and wellbeing. We’re speaking with the artists we work with about the impact of their work on four vital conditions, or determinants:

Social Cohesion and Belonging

Community Safety

Civic Engagement

Community Identity/Community Narrative

In the last few months our work includes:

Announcing a commitment of $250,000 to invest in artists with their own Artist-led Giving Circle. This fund integrates artists into community investment strategies by supporting a Black- and Indigenous-led collective of artists from around the country. The artist cohort participated in this year’s SOCAP 20 conference, the largest convening of social investors in the world. We answered their call to truly shift power and decision making for community impact into the hands of artists with this commitment.

Engaging with artists and our public through neighborhood commissions to support initiatives where people live and where the pandemic has hit hardest, including City is Alive, a celebration of the everyday heroes in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood.

Partnering with the City of San Francisco’s Department of Children Youth and Families, donors (through our new Rapid Response Fund), and a local funder to create a Community Hub inside YBCA’s galleries. This initiative allows children from our nearby at-risk neighborhood to safely experience daily in-person school life and arts enrichment.

Completing our CultureBank pilot initiative in Oakland, with $30,000 granted to four initiatives that are responding to the community’s desire to further invest in existing places and spaces to preserve community assets.

What’s Next

YBCA is investing capacity and resources in several strategic partnerships, aspiring to make a significant contribution to more rigorous study and more concrete evidence for artists’ impact on community health and wellbeing.

For example, on November 9 we held a virtual forum in collaboration with the University of Florida School of Arts and Medicine with the goal of securing national thought leaders’ commitments to furthering research on outcomes-based methodologies as well as practical applications for artists working in this area.

Next week, we are partnering with the New York Fed to host our second convening of the year, which will engage artists, community investment leaders, and health experts to discuss mobilizing investments in artists. We appreciate the artists and capital providers who have agreed to share their expertise and insights on how we can further expand the contribution of arts and culture in building an equitable economy and healthy communities. I hope you will join us in this discussion to learn how artists and art-based strategies transform communities.