Collaboration, Inspiration, Inclusion: At 25, YBCA Looks Ahead

By Jean Schiffman

YBCA fulfills its mission through producing and presenting contemporary art, exploring new ideas and connecting with communities that comprise its constituency.

When Yerba Buena Center for the Arts was established a quarter-century ago, San Francisco was a very different city, economically, socially, artistically. Accordingly, its mission is one that its successive teams of leaders have had to re-explore and redefine for themselves and the public.

Now, almost six years into the tenure of CEO Deborah Cullinan, in close collaboration with chief producer Jonathan Moscone and a host of organizational partners in the arts community, YBCA is planning for the next 25 years.

“There isn’t any other organization like this that I’m aware of,” says Cullinan, citing YBCA’s founding as part of a city redevelopment project “amid struggle and strife,” followed by a collective vision for a multicultural center for all the people of San Francisco (and, as it turns out, the wider Bay Area). The published mission statement affirms the belief that it is the “responsibility of arts institutions to spur and support social movement,” and YBCA vows to fulfill that mission through producing and presenting contemporary art, exploring new creative ideas, connecting with various ethnic and cultural communities that comprise its constituency, creating coalitions.

San Francisco’s ever-morphing circumstances have compelled Cullinan and her team to continually reconsider how to “develop an ecosystem of artists… whose work is really essential to civic issues.” YBCA, she explains, is both an arts and a civic organization that’s focused on building the capacity of artists to interact profoundly with the community.

And it has been doing so since its inception, with its contemporary (non-collecting) art gallery; its 750-seat theater for prominent dance companies; the flexible Forum for experimental performances; and a screening room. In all, YBCA presents hundreds of programs annually, both on-site and throughout the community.

“YBCA has never veered from its essential promise to provide the culture of art to a wide variety of community members . . . notably the dance community,” says Moscone. “To have not just the real estate but the intention of being a home to artistic entities” is necessary in a city where, as he notes, there will never be enough physical space for the ever-growing number of artists and arts nonprofits. Cullinan’s greatest current focus, he says, is “How can we best sustain artists? What can we do to place them in the community working on issues that are essential to the physical, the economic, health of the community? Artists can create positive change, and Deborah wants to do that in as many ways as possible.” He himself is currently developing internally driven programs for next season—programs that bring artists and speakers together in ways that reflect YBCA’s deepest beliefs.

YBCA recently announced a partnership with Blue Shield to raise awareness of the relationship between art and health—for example, exploring the impact of music on patients, or, say, the effect of visual art in hospitals. Fellowships, commissioned programs and community events are part of the plan.

Among YBCA’s other ongoing activities is its artist-in-residence program. Current artist-in-residence Meklit Hadero, an Ethio-American composer and singer whose music derives from Ethiopian and American forms (Ethio-jazz), and who is committed to cultural activism, has been working with the Center in various capacities (including on the board) since 2008. Her current, six-month project, about exploring artistic relationships, involves talking to fellow artists who have worked with YBCA in the past with the hope of involving them in community-related projects on an ongoing basis—finding out about their hopes and vision for what YBCA could be in the future. A core idea that’s come up so far in those talks, she says, is the idea of “social practice art,” creating art that’s not necessarily about “hanging a painting on a wall” but rather about creative forms of “dialogue, interconnection, change, social engagement—galvanizing people toward bigger social and political aims.”

For her own artistic path, she especially values the ways in which YBCA has enabled her to bring other artists into the fold through grants, residencies and commissions (in particular the East African artist community of the East Bay). “When you make space for others, you’re always making space for yourself,” she says.

Choreographer Margaret Jenkins, who served on the YBCA board for several years, points to the excellent, and desperately needed, stage for dance and the fact that YBCA sometimes co-commissions work. Its opening 25 years ago, she says, “unlocked a kind of provincialism that [the] San Francisco [dance world] was stuck in.” It brought in international artists, giving, for example, both Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet the opportunity to work in collaboration with artists from around the world and the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, which has staged several major home seasons there, the chance to engage with international artists. “I think now, with Deborah, the Center is once again trying to redefine its relationship to the community,” she continues. “It has to—the city keeps changing. The literal architectural landscape downtown is completely different.

“Twenty-five years ago there was a handful of [dance] companies here,” she adds; now there are many more. “How can artists afford to live here? How [can YBCA] make the best impact and keep this a vital and vibrant city?” she wonders.

“We don’t really do anything by ourselves,” Cullinan emphasizes. “Collaboration is the only way forward.” YBCA has ongoing connections with Alonzo King, SF Performances, SFMOMA, Opéra Parallèle; maintains arts programs with several schools; and is in partnership with a consortium addressing issues in the Tenderloin, and with an organization that collects guns, takes them back to their original materials and commissions artists to transform them into art objects.

On a macro level, says Cullinan, “We want to support artists as investors in the community, and understand their contributions as valuable.” Moscone agrees, and adds that the commitment is “to use our spatial and other resources to position artists as essential and to [help promote] the change we need to make this city and the Bay Area more inclusive, more equitable, more inspired.”