What if art centers existed to ignite radical citizenship?

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My organization, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), is located in the heart of San Francisco. Like so many places in the world, our city is experiencing incredible change. In fact, some say San Francisco is changing more rapidly, or at least more decidedly and indelibly, than any other city ever has in the history of the United States. We are home to extraordinary wealth, incredible natural beauty, and unprecedented technological transformation. We are one of the most expensive cities to live in on the planet and, at the same time, a hotbed of progressive politics and game-changing innovation, often paving the way forward for the rest of our country.

Our population is increasing, and cultural, ethnic, and income diversity is rapidly declining. Our streets are contested places and, in the midst of an acute housing and affordability crisis, homelessness is a reality for more and more people. Headlines and newscasts evoke an environment of upheaval and uncertainty, which cultivates division, polarities, and blame, leaving many feeling either helpless or hopeless.

Without a sense of hope and possibility, we are stuck, and our great city struggles to be itself.

Yet at YBCA we know that art and creativity are essential drivers of any breakthrough change. We recently surveyed close to 1,500 Bay Area citizens and found that they know it, too:

● 81% believe that art and culture are vital parts of the human experience in everyday life — not just something you experience when you go to a museum or a cultural institution.

● 83% believe that creativity is important to imagining the future.

● 72% believe that art and culture play an important role in cultivating empathy and understanding among people who are different from one another.

● 79% believe that it will take all kinds of creative thinkers to shape the future of our city.

As a public benefit institution, YBCA believes that it is our mandate to respond. To this end, our mission is to generate culture that moves people. By “culture,” we mean that complex whole that is made up of stories, traditions, and expressed values — that thing that enables us to act with imagination and creativity, that thing that enables us to act politically and with conviction.

We believe that culture precedes change. Indeed, the great societal strides — those that have produced positive and powerful forward movement — have inevitably resulted from some cultural shift, a momentous collective motion that sparks the public imagination and builds a kind of energy that cannot be diverted or denied.

What if art centers everywhere understood their mandate to be: “Ignite the public imagination of your community”?

Because it will take the imagination of all of us to make the change we need in the world, we are creating a powerful new paradigm for membership at YBCA. Our “Pay What You Can” Membership, with prices set by each individual on their own terms, is our hand extended to every single person in our city to join this collective momentum, to be part of defining the future.

Great cities are art cities, made up of communities that are fueled by the collective imagination, aspirations, and actions of the people. Great arts institutions are citizen institutions that do not equate participation with the ability to pay. These are not institutions that relate to you only as a ticket buyer, a butt in a seat, a transaction — these are not institutions that concern themselves only with getting you inside their doors to experience what they consider to be important. These are institutions that throw open their doors and offer their vast cultural resources to the civic and public life of the communities around them.

Membership at YBCA is about citizenship. It is an invitation not only to join a community in support of an institution, but to influence a growing creative movement. It includes benefits like free gallery admission, but it also and more importantly aims to insist on a world that thrives on inspiration. The invitation to become a member at whatever price you can afford is about igniting inclusive, lasting forward movement.