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As San Francisco’s “center for art and progress,” Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) exists in a state of motion, balancing the uncertainty of change with its possibility and abundance.
A visionary in revolutionizing the role that art centers play in social justice and public life, Deborah Cullinan joined YBCA as its CEO in 2013. For nearly a decade, she has shepherded YBCA and creative communities across the country through innumerable shifts, three presidential administrations, a global uprising for racial justice, and, with the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented grief and economic fallout. Through it all, Cullinan’s commitment for YBCA and the arts to shape our social and political landscape, especially in the most dire times, has remained constant.
With gratitude, optimism, and a shared dedication to the best of change, we announce Deborah Cullinan’s intention to depart YBCA at the end of February to join Stanford University as Vice President for the Arts.
A Path of Creativity
For Cullinan, embracing the unknown struck decades ago, when, on a New Year’s Day walk while visiting San Francisco, a $5 bill drifted through the air and landed on her head. “I didn’t know what it meant, but something within said, ‘Stick around and find out,’” she said. A career pivot to the arts, buoyed by the wonder Cullinan first felt while watching her mother and later her sister perform in local theater, led her to YBCA.
“I believe in the limitless capacity that art and creativity bring to help us imagine a better future for our world,” said Cullinan. “Artists do the essential work of helping us make meaning of these times.”
At YBCA, Cullinan helped cultivate new ideas and programs into their fullest expression. She was instrumental in the Market Street Prototyping Festival, a partnership between YBCA and the San Francisco Planning Department to amplify the city’s Market Street as a vibrant gathering place. In 2014, Cullinan originated the YBCA 100, an annual list of extraordinary artists, activists, and community leaders, opening the nomination process to the public in 2021.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Cullinan doubled down, serving on critical local and statewide recovery task forces while leading YBCA and its staff through the longest mass closure of cultural venues and theaters since World War II.
With artists experiencing severe income loss and unemployment throughout the pandemic, Cullinan challenged the art world to move away from merit-based granting and deservedness, and instead champion economic models centering solidarity, human dignity, and building collective power. YBCA’s Artist Power Center is one such model, creating a digital platform to help artists and cultural workers navigate emergency relief and continue to build long-term careers. Recognizing artists’ power as investors, storytellers, and healers, Cullinan spearheaded the San Francisco Creative Corps to create sustainable professional pathways and bolster community well-being—a citywide model that went on to inspire a statewide program.
In May 2021, Cullinan and YBCA partnered with the City of San Francisco and Start Small to launch the nation’s first guaranteed income pilot for artists. By providing unconditional monthly cash payments of $1,000 to 180 San Francisco artists for 18 months, guaranteed income confronts the myth of the “starving artist” entrenched in the workforce, instead emphasizing the universal right to live in economic security, care for loved ones, and create freely. In addition to implementing the groundbreaking pilot, Cullinan and YBCA are proponents for a national guaranteed income and other policies to achieve a holistic economic floor.
Thanks to Cullinan’s stewardship, YBCA will continue to nurture its work as not only a home of artists and the arts, but as an interdisciplinary, dynamic vehicle for movement building.
“It has been one of the great pleasures of my career to partner with Deborah on this essential work,” said Sara Fenske Bahat, YBCA board chair. “Before the pandemic, YBCA was the room I always wanted to be in, where the most interesting people came together in a way they do nowhere else. For the last two years, Deborah has pursued, with the deepest of convictions, how to put YBCA on a path to be of the highest and best use in artist-driven work.”
In Spring 2022, Cullinan will begin a new role as Vice President for the Arts at Stanford University, where she will continue mobilizing communities for equity through arts and culture.
Her departure is part of a longer arc at YBCA, a multi-year transition led by Cullinan herself to ensure that the organization fully realizes its mission in service of artists and community. For Cullinan, the duty to take clear, meaningful action to dismantle systemic harm, including the very structural inequities on which the sector was built on, has been the core of this evolution.
“Even before the pandemic magnified our biggest pain points as a society, we’ve been profoundly thinking through, discussing, and executing what it means, as an arts institution, to engage in authentic partnership, to cede power that has been historically kept from community, and to live out YBCA’s identity as a center for the people,” said Cullinan.
Cullinan leaves YBCA with strong, world-class leadership in place. YBCA’s senior team of Penelope Douglas (Chief of Strategy), Meklit Hadero (Chief of Program), Jonathan Moscone (Chief Producer), Lauren Ruffin (Chief of Marketing), Jodi Cobalt (Chief of Operations), Chris Safford (Chief Finance Officer), and Aisa Villarosa (Sr. Director of External Affairs) will work closely with the board and staff to continue Cullinan’s legacy of centering artists as essential to social and cultural movement.
Led by Fenske Bahat, the YBCA board has moved shoulder-to-shoulder with Cullinan and YBCA staff through the organization’s growth–a condition that will remain unchanged during this time of transition.
As YBCA determines its future leadership needs, Fenske Bahat, a trailblazer at the intersection of the arts, economics, and equitable design, will serve as interim CEO. Board member Renuka Kher, who has spent her career in philanthropy supporting entrepreneurial efforts in under-resourced communities, most recently as Chief Operating Officer of Tipping Point Community and Founder of T Lab, will serve as YBCA’s new board chair.
“Deborah put us on a trajectory that allows YBCA to meet this moment with intentionality, curiosity, and a commitment to the work. Together with the senior team, Renuka and I are honored to help carry forward the momentum toward greater equity in the arts,” said Fenske Bahat. Over the next few weeks, Fenske Bahat will take a leave of absence from her current role as the chair of California College of the Arts (CCA) MBA in Design Strategy as she moves into the YBCA interim CEO role.
“We’re thrilled for Deborah. This is a celebration of a dear colleague and, at the same time, emerging possibilities,” said Fenske Bahat. “Bringing the power of these important moments together, that is what drives our work.”