Community Arts in the Tenderloin: Finding Art’s Power to Uplift and Connect

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Over the years, YBCA’s civic engagement work has primarily focused  on the neighborhoods surrounding two San Francisco Unified School District schools, Bessie Carmichael Elementary School – Filipino Education Center in the Tenderloin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School between the Portola and Bayview neighborhoods. 

As a result of the pandemic, we are working closely with neighborhood thought partners, a collective of community-centered organizations to collaborate on creative community initiatives and pivot our resources to support our arts ecosystem in ongoing neighborhood work. Through this work, we are exploring the questions, “What does sustainability look like?” and “What does it mean to support artists and our communities?”

In April 2020 we partnered with Hospitality Houses’s Community Arts Program (CAP) to launch an open call for Tenderloin-based artists to produce artwork addressing the 2020 Census. Participating artists, many of whom are longtime CAP program participants, received art packs with materials and supplies. Their work is now featured in CAP’s Peace, Love, & Hand Sanitizer online newsletter and printed zine, distributed throughout Hospitality House’s programs including Hospitality House’s Shelter, Employment Resource Center, Tenderloin Self Help Center, and 6th St Self Help Center, all of which are currently open to the public during San Francisco’s Shelter in Place Public Health Order. Janet Williams, Community Arts Program Manager at Hospitality House sat down with participating artists to discuss their connection to the Tenderloin and how their art practices have shifted due to COVID-19. These CAP artists will be participating in Hospitality Houses’s upcoming benefit auction, where 100% of the sales proceeds will go directly to the artists.

Janet Williams: How has COVID-19 affected your day-to-day life?

Cameron: It’s made my day-to-day very bad. I don’t have access to Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program and I can’t paint. The Community Art Program saves my life so not going there feels painful.

JW: How has COVID-19 affected your art-making?

C: Oh it’s so bad. I can still sell some of my paintings on the street but I can’t make the paintings I really want to make. I have so many ideas for other kinds of paintings but I can’t make them unless I’m at the Community Arts Program. What I’m making now is just generic, I don’t even like it, but at least people are still buying my work.

JW: What has supported you through these times?

C: Nothing really. I suffer from depression and the loneliness makes it so much worse. I just love to paint, it allows me to be who I want to be. It’s weird, but depression helps me with my painting, so I wish now, because I feel so depressed, I could have access to make other things.

JW: What role do you see art taking in current social justice movements?

C: Art definitely has power. Art has the power to move people to do different things.

JW: What do you wish for your community and how do you believe your art can help to achieve it?

C: What I wish for the Tenderloin is love, peace, and safety. I don’t want people to be scared. Let people make their money and hustle, don’t push them around or control them. The police come and tell people to move when they aren’t doing anything wrong, they are just selling clothes and shoes, they aren’t selling drugs. It’s really sad, they are just trying to make a couple of bucks but the cops still push them around.

I love my community. If I can do anything with my painting to support my community I’ll do it. I’m not trying to make money I’m just trying to share my art with people and hope that it uplifts their spirit, and from that I hope they start to paint and see there is more to life.

I wish for my community to just paint, you don’t have to be good or bad, just go with it. I suck but I just go with it. If people did that there would be a lot of love, peace, and understanding of each other, through painting. 

Just pick up a paint brush and paint something and you’ll understand how someone else feels, and how I feel when I paint.

About the Auction

Hospitality House’s Auction Online is an exciting 5-day virtual art auction, with online bidding starting on Wednesday, July 15th at noon and closing on Sunday, July 19th at 9 PM. The online event will feature selected artworks from Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program (CAP) artists and acclaimed local artists. This year’s online fundraising event has an added feature: 100% of the proceeds of sales from CAP artists’ works will go to the artists to provide additional support for struggling community artists during the COVID-19 crisis.

About the Community Arts Program

Since 1969, Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program (CAP) is the only free-of-charge fine arts studio and gallery space for artists and neighborhood residents whose socioeconomic struggles would otherwise prevent them from accessing the powerful artistic and cultural landscape of this community. Each year, more than 3,500 artists benefit from the free materials and space to create, house, exhibit and sell their artwork. 

About Hospitality House

Founded in 1967 in response to the large influx of homeless LGBT youth in the Tenderloin, Hospitality House has a long history developing peer-based and culturally appropriate programs for the communities they serve. Their  programs create a positive impact, raising the quality of life for all residents and making our neighborhoods healthy and rich with diversity and culture.

Their mission is to build community strength by advocating for policies and rendering services which foster self-sufficiency and cultural enrichment. Hospitality House encourages self-help, mutual respect, and increased self-esteem. The goal of these efforts is to make the heart of San Francisco a better place for us all.

Lead image: Artwork by Hospitality House Community Art Program Cameron, Misunderstood, 2018