Averting Extinction: Can Institutional Funders Save the Arts in the Bay Area?

A mural in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

A mural in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

A "vibrant arts scene" is predicated on demand for the arts in question. But what if demand doesn't exist? Can a foundation artificially generate interest when a city's affluent tech population would rather camp out for the new iPhone X than go to the opera?

These questions capture the state of the arts in the Bay Area and San Francisco in particular. It's not pretty, and according to Jason Ditzian writing in Bold Italic, it's going to get worse before it gets better—if it ever gets better. Which it probably won't.

And why won't it get better? First, funders like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation—more on them in a second—can only do so much. And second, a year and a half after the demise of the Silicon Valley Ballet and the associated handwringing from the region's arts proponents, techies still aren't into the arts, and probably never will be.

"The energy and vibrancy of full-time, noncommercial working artists living and working in San Francisco is an important thing," Ditzian said. "And it’s a thing that is going to be extinct in the near future." The same may also be said for the city's beleaguered arts organizations.

And while I can't help but agree with Ditzian's prognosis, all hope is not lost, thanks to tried-and-true funders like Hewlett.

Hewlett Steps Up in a Big Way

Hewlett is celebrating its 50th birthday and its new Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions will allocate $8 million over five years—50 commissions in total. This first round has the foundation giving 10 local arts organizations $150,000 each to commission major new musical compositions from world-class artists in genres including chamber, electronic, jazz, opera and hip hop. Click here for the recipients.

The new works created with this year’s awards will premiere in Bay Area communities over the next three years, and future years will focus on theater, dance, traditional arts and film.

"The Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions are a symbol of the foundation’s longstanding commitment to performing arts in the Bay Area," said Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation. "We believe the awards will fund the creation of new musical works of lasting significance that are as dynamic and diverse as the Bay Area communities where they will premiere."

The commissions represent a bold counteroffensive from a reliable funder, which has given more than $335 million in grants to arts organizations since 1967, to fight the forces conspiring against artists and organizations in the Bay Area. 

It also underscores the frustrating limits of philanthropy.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Way back in 2014, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation awarded a $5 million, five-year grant as seed funding for the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), an organization that protects San Francisco Bay Area arts and cultural organizations from displacement. In early November, it gave CAST another $3 million.

Two years later, Rainin rolled out an ambitious public art program called Open Spaces. And around the same time, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, with help from Hewlett and Rainin, announced a $1.7 million grant to create affordable spaces for the city’s arts organizations.

And yet.

"For the past 70-plus years, the Bay Area was the world’s dream place for artists to live and work and make things happen," Ditzian writes. "But the cost of living has thoroughly outstripped that outdated reality. In 2017, there is no sustainable path. Unless you already own a house and unless you’re never planning to have a family, the reality is that your days are numbered in the Bay Area."

Ditzian points to an obvious partial solution to the plight of artists in the Bay Area. The region's woes could evaporate overnight if only a tiny fraction of tech companies made modest gifts to Bay Area arts organizations.

If only.

They're Still Not Into It

I've spent years looking at how Bay Area arts organizations have tried to engage the tech demographic and calibrate programming to appeal to millennials. I've assumed the role of armchair psychologist and referenced Australian ethicist Peter Singer to explain the moral reasons behind techies' disinterest in the arts. And I've parsed Facebook co-founder and former New Republic editor Chris Hughes' views on the subject.

And after all that, I can count on one finger the number of tech companies or billionaires that have made a substantial gift to a Bay Area organization over the last few years: Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and his wife Akiko Yamazaki gave $25 million to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. (Although to be fair, tech companies do give to the Silicon Valley Community Fund, which funds arts organizations through its Donor Circle for the Arts.)

The relative stinginess of the region's tech titans is all the more stark when you consider all the money left on the table.

A "Pittance" Would Go a Long Way

Will the $8 million Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions, spread out over five years, prove to be impactful? Most certainly. Will recipient organizations do cartwheels upon receiving a $150,000 check? Absolutely. Will artists be jazzed knowing their work will be performed in the country's most expensive city? Of course.

But I'd argue that Hewlett's entire payout is still less than the cumulative salsa budget of Facebook's infamous "Nacho Wednesdays" held at its Frank Gehry-designed employee cafeteria. 

I exaggerate, but hopefully, you get the point. "Eight million is chump change for any of these multibillion-valued orgs," Ditzian said. "If every tech company did its due diligence, if they would toss some pittance of support our way, the arts community would be awash in funds, and the Bay Area would once again be resplendent in vibrant, risk-taking, diverse art making."

And if I were 6' 5" I could dunk a basketball.

Ditzian's optimism is laudable, but I see no reason to think that after all these years, Bay Area techies will suddenly experience some collective David Bohnett or Paul Allen-esque arts epiphany. And that's fine. It's their money.

Any philanthropic ecosystem runs on a finite commodity—e.g., wealth—and with techies on the sidelines, that leaves the occasional patron and institutional funders like the Hewlett, Fleishacker, and the Zellerbach foundations to carry the weight.

Regional funders have always been critical to the region's arts ecosystem. But when a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco rents for $3,377 a month, the stakes are far higher. Hewlett and its brethren represent the only thing standing between an artist scratching out a living in the city and a one-way bus ticket to Albuquerque (median one-bedroom rent: $650.)

Would it be nice if a tech company or executive threw Bay Area arts organizations an occasional "transformative" check? Of course. But you can't miss what you've never had.