Sat September 19th
When it opened its doors in the fall of 1993, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts imagined itself as a new kind of art center — one that would prioritize diverse perspectives and experiences, and nurture the local arts ecosystem. As we move into our twenty-fifth year, I am also celebrating my fifth year as CEO. This combination of milestones presents a potent opportunity to think about how and why the organization was born and how and why it exists today.
Part of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens redevelopment project, YBCA and the surrounding gardens and amenities sit on land that is rich with complicated history. Once an Ohlone Indian burial ground, the gardens took shape amidst decades of disagreement, displacement, and, finally, consensus. These beginnings and all that followed imbue the organization with an innate commitment to the diversity, complexity, and ingenuity of its place, as well as a propensity to explore new ways for arts organizations to engage and support their communities.
YBCA was generously founded to do a lot of things — produce, present, exhibit, commission, rent, share, engage, lead, convene, and serve as a creative home to the community. Its multidisciplinary, multi-venue, multi-perspective, multi-purpose character illuminates a collective idea of what a cultural anchor can be. It is a center for the arts, a center for it’s place, a center for people.
In the last twenty-five years, YBCA has demonstrated a breathtaking impact. Its community and civic engagement programs are internationally regarded and often adapted. The long list of artists, partner organizations, and collectives that YBCA has worked with is awe-inspiring — just a handful of examples include Barry McGee, Black Women Rock, Nick Cave, Bill T. Jones, Tania Bruguera, Meredith Monk, Tom Sachs, Sankai Juku, The Stud Collective, Futurefarmers, Stephanie Syjuco, Aspen Institute, Batsheva Dance, San Francisco Performances, TED Talks, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, SOMA Filipinas, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, and Favianna Rodriguez. YBCA has consistently been an inspiring gathering place for diverse people to intersect with powerful ideas, across sectors and beyond difference.
On Friday, we launched YBCA’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration with the opening of our signature triennial exhibition, Bay Area Now, in its eighth edition (BAN8). With this exhibition, we look to artists, designers, and architects to help us understand the here and now as the ground from which we grow forward. In today’s social, political, and economic climate, the artists participating in BAN8 illuminate a moment in between what we have known and what we can imagine.
The work of leadership is, in many ways, about navigating this very space of what is and what can be. It is the constant and simultaneous remembering and reimagining of the role of institutions in our lives. It is, in fact, thinking beyond our singular organizations and to an evolving field in a challenged and changing world.
If we believe that institutions are in truth made by and for people, then we are obligated to evolve with the collective needs and aspirations of the communities around us. As public benefit organizations, we must constantly consider how our resources serve the collective good. As the arts sector reconsiders the viability of business models and physical structures that were imagined decades ago, YBCA strives to put people at the center and to engage the public in the critical conversations of our time.
For example, today, we welcome to San Francisco and to YBCA the delegates of the Global Climate Action Summit and the thousands more people and organizations who are here to participate in events, protests, and alternative conversations. In preparation for this historic moment, we wanted to demonstrate the capacity that artists have to inspire people to act by telling stories and drawing attention to our collective strength. In partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, we have commissioned visionary artists like Andrea Bowers to engage a public conversation about the urgency of climate change. Her piece, Climate Change is Real, is a 40 foot long neon sign with this message writ large in green cursive letters. Highly visible to summit and event attendees, this work speaks to the unique power of art to address crucial issues in heightened political moments.
At YBCA we are asking questions about the role of the arts organization in society. Our mission is to generate culture that moves people. Inspired by author and YBCA board member Jeff Chang, we believe that cultural movement precedes change. We also believe that arts organizations are not neutral, but in fact express their institutional power and viewpoint in every move they make. Taking our mandate as a public benefit organization very seriously, YBCA’s evolving programs and structures express our unwavering conviction that artists and arts organizations can catalyze cultural shift that leads to positive and lasting change.
In the coming months and years, we will proudly continue to play a leadership role advocating for stronger art policy in our community. Currently, we are working on Proposition E which is a ballot measure that will restore historic funding to the arts with an emphasis on cultural equity and cultural districts. We will deepen relationships focused on integrating art into social change, social justice and voter engagement movements with such community partners as the Tenderloin Neighborhood Corner Store Coalition, Power California, and Center for Media Justice. Working with partners like Youth Speaks, Youth Radio, and School of Unity and Liberation, we will expand our youth leadership development programs and our work with young people at Bessie Carmichael Elementary School and Martin Luther King Middle School.
To continue to bring exceptional visual art and performance to Bay Area communities, we will work with local and national artists like Holcombe Waller, Suzanne Lacy, Paul Flores, Andrea Bowers, Rafael Casal, and Dohee Lee. We will evolve YBCA’s film program to more deeply integrate filmmakers and the power of film into the work of the organization. We will host important performances by local organizations such as Lines Ballet and the Kronos Quartet, Robert Moses Kin, and Dorrance Dance. We will expand curatorial, fellowship, and residency programs to broaden and deepen the role we play as a creative home to artists, thinkers, inventors, and leaders. One example that we are just now launching is the Curatorial Research Bureau — a collaboration with California College of the Arts that locates graduate students and faculty at YBCA in a beautifully imagined bookshop, classroom, gathering space, and art installation.
We will continue to strive for a world fueled by art and creativity, where artists and arts organizations have a seat at the table of public discourse. We will continue to ask questions about the role of the artist and the arts organization in society, and about the systems and practices required to apply our creative resources to today’s pressing issues. Through work at the local and national levels, we will continue to collaborate on ambitious cross-sector projects like CultureBank, a new model for mobilizing community cultural assets. With CultureBank artists and their unique enterprises are the key to a new system of community investment in pursuit of a more inspired and equitable future.
I am so proud to be working at an organization that challenges convention, embraces its multipurpose character, and prioritizes its public and civic role. Twenty-five years in, YBCA is a center for arts, a center for community, a center for people.