The Arts Continue to Thrive Across the U.S. But Why Not Silicon Valley?

Those of us here at IP who spend our time looking at trends in arts philanthropy are frequently reminded of a New Yorker cartoon in which a man at a dinner party says, "We do a lot of amazing work bringing the arts to people who don't want the arts."

Why is this so funny? Because it's true.

Or to put it more accurately, it's selectively true. Many people, of course, want the arts. But in other regions or across different demographics, the appetite just isn't so strong. For example, research suggests that despite the most noble efforts of arts organizations, individuals with lower incomes and less education tend to avoid arts events because they'd rather watch television.

But lack of audience engagement isn't relegated to poorer or less educated demographics. Let's look at the exact opposite end of that spectrum: the wealthy and highly educated region of Silicon Valley.

After doing its darndest to engage a community that — to paraphrase the title of a self-help book for women looking for Mr. Right — just wasn't that into it, the Silicon Valley Ballet announced that it was closing its doors, generating a lot of hand wringing about the lack of support for the arts in the region. 

Case in point: a recent piece by Sal Pizarro from Inside Bay Area News that asks point-blank, "Can the Arts Survive in San Jose?"

Before we look at the argument, here, let's step back to fully appreciate the absurdity of such a question. We've been conditioned to think that the arts flourish in regions with money and an educated populace. In most cases, that's true. And it should be especially true in a place like San Jose, right? We noted as much in this piece asking why Knight was giving money to a city that, relatively speaking, doesn't need money—the median household income in the city is close to $81,000. 

Of course, this isn't to say the region doesn't have its problems. Quite the opposite, in fact. We recently noted that as the technology industry continues to swell, inequality is rising in the region. A third of Silicon Valley households are under water and showing up at food pantries. The region is the archetypal case study for unchecked inequality run amok.

But San Jose isn't Flint. The region is awash in cash. So people still can't help but wonder how the wealthiest region in the world can't find a few dimes under the couch cushions to support the arts, especially when research suggests that arts are thriving in all corners of the country.

Theories, as you can imagine, abound.

Here's one. To have an "arts community," you need the arts... and a community. Silicon Valley may have the former, but does it have the latter? While the region has a somewhat bohemian legacy due to its proximity to San Francisco, it's still a relatively young region. This hampers organizations' ability to establish financial sustainability. As Sal Pizarro notes:

Many of our arts groups were started in the past 25 years and they benefitted from many donors who reached deep into their pockets to keep them going. But it would be unwise to expect them to go it alone for the next quarter-century. This isn't a big problem in San Francisco, [Ed: this is debatable] where the ballet, opera and symphony have decades of history, with endowments and relationships with generations of donors that stretch back just as long.

What's more, the region is filled with new residents who, demographically speaking, don't seem too interested in the arts. Is anyone really surprised that a 24-year-old programmer isn't keen on going to the theater?  

Here's another theory. Silicon Valley may be wealthy, but that wealth is finite and its impact relative. Remember, we're talking about a metrics-driven, "effective altruism" crowd here. As the Inside Bay Area News piece notes, philanthropy abounds, but "much of that money goes to support educational initiatives — including a lot of STEM-based programs — and humanitarian causes both in the Bay Area and around the world."

Here's one more hypothesis about why the arts continue to struggle in Silicon Valley. It's kind of the "elephant in the room" hypothesis, and it goes like this: These folks just aren't into the arts. They'd rather spend their money supporting youth and family services causes — certainly a worthwhile endeavor, given the region's rampant inequality — or going out dancing or eating sushi or whatever. It is what it is.  

We empathize with the plight of Silicon Valley arts organizations. Maybe their frustrations are inextricably linked to and compounded by their region's global hegemony. The entire world runs on what Silicon Valley produces. It's the epicenter of the digital universe. It's a region accustomed to success, and with it, gobs of money.

But when arts organizations find success elusive, they can't help but look inward. "If only we did a better job at audience engagement. If only we made our programs more acceptable to 22-year old coders. If only, like the San Jose Ballet, we changed our name to the Silicon Valley Ballet to cast a wider branding net."

These are all useful and constructive questions to ask. But at the end of the day, arts organizations that do amazing work bringing arts to the people may find that, despite their best efforts, these people would rather be doing something else.