Civic Engagement at YBCA

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I sat down with Jon Moscone on a Tuesday evening, one week before the elections and almost two years after he joined Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as our Chief of Civic Engagement, to talk about where we’ve been, what we’ve accomplished, and what the future looks like for civic engagement at YBCA and across the field. Even though we both spend a lot of time on the road speaking at conferences, sharing and learning with colleagues, it’s (too) easy to get so wrapped up in doing the work that we don’t make time to document what we’ve learned. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Deborah: How would you define civic engagement?

Jon: I think civic engagement is about how people get involved to address a need in their neighborhoods, schools, communities and cities and how we as arts organizations give them agency to do that through the creative process. Civic engagement wouldn’t necessarily mean that same thing for a non-artistic entity, but that’s how we see it at YBCA. So when we do civic engagement work in schools, we’re not providing art for youth in schools, we’re providing civic engagement tools through a creative process. For example, earlier this year we worked with youth to create a series of posters called We Walk Here as part of the Tenderloin Safe Passage project. We focused on using the artistic process to empower them to take action. It was neighborhood focused and deployed art as part of a myriad of activities (in partnership with non-arts organizations and community leaders) aimed at making the walks to and from school safer for young people. It’s a small step in scope, but it’s huge if that young person sees that, even if they don’t have the money, the power, the status, they do have agency through creativity.

Deborah: When I think of YBCA, I think of the phrase “citizen institution.” We are very interested in redefining the role of cultural centers all over the country as being more outward-facing, committing their creative resources to their communities, and supporting broader community concerns. We have to be able to imagine a future that’s different from what we have today, and then work together toward it. Art centers are just so perfectly positioned to contribute our resources and skill sets to inspire people to see that they can be a part of change.

Jon: Why do you think arts organizations need to be civically engaged?

Deborah: In a big-picture way, we’re seeing the radical reinvention of institutions that exist–governance, finance, healthcare, and also new kinds of institutions that are more like platforms and networks. I would argue that it’s cultural organizations that can lead the way. We need all of our public benefit resources to be working together in order to make change. The change we need is complicated, and if we keep trying to tackle that change in silos, it’s never going to happen. On one hand, I think that arts centers are uniquely situated to gather all kinds of different people together across boundaries to creatively imagine different ways of being. But I also think we as arts organizations are struggling with relevancy and trying to understand how we relate to a rapidly changing world around us. As public benefit institutions we need to learn better ways of fulfilling that public benefit mandate.

Jon: The key is in radical partnerships. For example, our deep collaboration with the city design group within the San Francisco Planning Department, which is dedicated to activating neighborhoods through tactical urbanism.

The Market Street Prototyping Festival is probably our best model of engagement and mission/brand delivery. We have all kinds of people engaged in a creative way to address a very specific need, which is how to make our city’s central artery (Market Street) not just a transit place, but a creative place where different kinds of people can gather in moments of inspiration and connection. We’ve just finished the second year of the festival–it’s now being replicated in Australia, St. Paul, Detroit, Oakland, Denver–and this is because of a partnership between a city government office and a nonprofit arts organization.

Deborah: I joke that the planning department can certainly navigate a bureaucracy better than an arts organization, and an arts organization can certainly be more creative and nimble than a planning department. We’ve not only changed the nature of planning in the city, but we’re also moving forward with other projects that will continue to deepen this work.

Jon: You know, I didn’t think we would be this successful in building a coalition with all the members of the artistic community for Proposition S. There’s always a divide between financially large and financially small arts organizations, and more so in San Francisco because it mirrors the rest of the city. I don’t think we ever would have found common ground had it not been for this proposition which reminded everyone of how we are more powerful when we work together.I saw the head of a major San Francisco arts institution go from saying that he didn’t know how to make the case for raising money for this proposition if it was only going toward cultural equity–to his standing up at an alternative art space and demanding that the city give us the money back and making sure that his institution was one of the biggest contributors. And then I got to see someone like the leader of a small cultural center, who has been part of the cultural equity discussion in San Francisco since the minute it started, be empowered to raise significant amounts of money and turn a lot of city supervisors into endorsers of this. They were both great examples of the things you can do when you set your sights ahead of your own fiscal year, your own budget, and your own property line, to come together as partners. That makes me feel like we can do this forever.

Deborah: I would say our YBCA Fellows Program is another version of radical partnership. We invite 30 creative changemakers to participate in an 18-month long fellowship program, where they are all working together to address really important questions and design responses to those questions. Most of those responses take the shape of creative projects, whether they are enterprises, or efforts to shift policy, or new pieces of art or new performances. We incubate those ideas and bring them to life through partnership. One really clear example of our success is when the Mayor’s office calls us because they have a problem and realize they can’t solve it because they need the creativity and force of an arts organization to be involved.

Jon: From your perspective, how has the ethos of civic engagement changed YBCA?

Deborah: Well, the culture of engagement begins at home, right? It’s been a three-year process, but it started by asking question of our staff, board, and stakeholders “what is the unique reason that this organization exists, and why and how will the world be different because of it?” So it started with mission and vision, and then figuring out what structure and programs do we need to achieve that mission, what’s the message, what’s the brand, what’s the story. I feel like that’s where we are now. The next step for us is the business model shift, what’s the fundraising paradigm that an organization like this will need to invent and try to occupy.

When I started here, you could literally feel the line being drawn in the sand between those who were skeptical and those who said “let’s do this!” But you don’t feel that anymore–attrition happens, new hires happen, we come to an agreement together, and then we build a sense of ownership and make sure that everyone in the organization can see their own place in it, understanding what value they’re bringing to this bigger picture. We do a lot of work around that and we don’t have that same tension that we had even a year ago. Of course, one of the internal changes we’ve made is the civic engagement team.

Jon: And I should clarify that the department is not the team. There is a civic engagement department, because organizations have departments. But the team moves across the curatorial landscape of YBCA. I consider you a core member of the civic engagement team, even though you run the organization. Civic engagement is pretty much everywhere you look on the staff.

Deborah: And we dream of day when we don’t have curatorial departments, and instead, just a bunch of people working together, but that’s a challenge to achieve in an organization of our size. We deeply honor curatorial impulses and people who are experts working in particular fields. What’s going to be exciting for YBCA over the next few months is further definition of a team that sits between that curatorial impulse and civic engagement work.

Jon: The thing that you did that changed a lot for me is when you brought on a Visual Arts Director who naturally understands, and is deeply committed to, active engagement, but in a very particular way that isn’t replicated by me. By hiring the right people in the lead, you can start to build the right team inside of it. It’s so important to think about who you’re hiring at the top levels of decision-making, so that the culture shifts, the aesthetic shifts, and they can answer the question “how does great art and great engagement live in a non-binary relationship with one another?”

Deborah: Right. We just did that exercise where we listed off all the programs that we thought had an engagement quality to them, and then we categorized them by (1) which ones were about creating opportunities for citizens to be “hands on” creative, (2) which are about providing deeper opportunities to engage with content related to the art that we are presenting, and (3) which ones are bringing us into communities in deep, residency-type ways. Each of those things is important. We’re not going to stop being an institution that does really extraordinary visual arts exhibitions and performances, and we’re going to want to continue to work on how we’re enticing and inspiring people to see this work as important to their lives. But we have to weigh that against all these other engagement strategies and look for opportunities to connect all those strategies together.

Jon: This leads me to the YBCA 100, which is our most striking example of an organizational initiative borne of the civic engagement impulse.

Deborah: I think YBCA 100 is a great example. We name these 100 people every year who we believe are asking the right types of questions to push the culture forward. And we bring them together with our Fellows, members, staff, board, and general public to engage in a series of questions that we hope will shape the future. It is our hope that Fellows come up with ideas that are powerful answers to those questions. The Market Street Prototyping Festival was an early output and iteration of this idea. The question was “Who gets to design the future of urban life?” One of the answers was “What if the people do?” and “What if it’s bottom-up and relates to the planned redesign of Market Street?” That’s an example of an arts center incubating an idea that can actually change policy and impacting things in a more permanent way.

We are now looking at our current cohort of Fellows and already seeing some ideas that are scalable small business ideas. My early indication is that potential funding sources will come through partnership with the city planning department that will enable us to raise foundation funds we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to raise. For some of the other projects in the social impact investment space, it will be working with partners who are interested in how to bring social impact investment strategies to the arts and how to integrate the arts into community development project.

Jon: I think arts organizations are going to have to prove our value in a larger context beyond a traditional sense of what arts does, which is to enlighten people to new ways of thinking and feeling, which is a beautiful thought, but not necessarily what’s at stake in our world right now. We have a lot of problems in this world, and I think a lot of foundations are starting to shift their focus in such a way that makes it really clear that we can’t live by a status quo. We’ve got inequities and intractable issues in this world. If the arts aren’t willing to get involved in that in a more overt way, I think we’re going to start to losing out. On the other side of that, I think funders need to consider arts as part of a potential solution. If they’re trying to have impact around issues of inequity, ask the question “can the arts be part of this?”

And eventually, I think we need to make the case for individual contributions to those people who give to the arts and also give to social services, but they don’t think of both of those as part of the same conversation. I think we have to be able to sell this to enough people for it to be sustainable, because we can’t always be on the forefront of funding. We’re going to have to make sure many people support this. It needs to be a central component of our business model.

Deborah: What would you say success looks like?

Jon: For me the success of YBCA will be if we see a lot more of this happening, in different sizes and shapes, and not just in the Bay Area, but around the country. That’s how we’re going to measure this. Not just more people like us, but that we’re turning more people onto the idea of asking how they can be responsive and necessary and vital to more people in their communities. We want to see this as a movement. This has to be a movement.

Deborah: I’m determined to prove to the world that there are many individuals who will bring their resources and networks to bear around a new way of thinking about the role of arts organizations in the lives of their cities and communities. We can get there if we can move beyond the idea that the arts are a mere philanthropic venture and your social concerns are more investments that you do out of a desire to make the world better. We have to bring these things together, these are not separate items. You can’t solve the problems in the world if you are not infusing those solutions with creativity.

My only concern is that as more people take on these efforts, as they are being adapted and mimicked, they’re also being done authentically. This isn’t about checking boxes or saying we’re doing some community engagement event but what we really want is for more people to come to the programming we were already doing. Organizations need to be willing to fundamentally change.

Jon: You have to want to do this work.

Deborah: It’s maybe not as much about how you do the work it’s about the deep desire to do the work. Not to transform because you have to, but because you believe art has this broad role to play, and that your institution should be playing that role. The organization will be most successful if the leadership truly believes in this transformation, and understands that their organization will change. And I don’t mean that it will change because they’ve added a new program; the staff will change, the board will change over time, even the business model will change. If that desire exists, then just get started. It gets back to that idea of wanting to be a resource to your community–learn about who’s in the community, what their issues are, and how you might, as an organization, deploy your creative resources toward those issues.

This story is part of a series on Medium exploring how arts organizations are adapting to reflect the changing demographics of California, engage with their communities, and become more resilient organizations as part of the New California Arts Fund at the James Irvine Foundation.

Jon previously contributed to a story about civic engagement that you can read here:“If you want to become a polling place, press one.”Four arts leaders talk about opening their doors to voters on Election Day (and how you can, too)