Will Art Save The City Or Will The City Save Art? Mayoral Race Frontrunners And Community Leaders Weigh In

By Max Blue

Daniel Lurie, Asha Safai, London Breed, Aaron Peskin, Mark Farrell

San Francisco has long been an epicenter of arts and culture. It still is. But if you read the news, you might think it was just a hotbed of crime and poverty. Even the arts have been caught in the cross hairs of “doom loop” reportage. While it’s true that the same issues facing many of the city’s communities affect the arts, from cost of living to public safety, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s also a sense, perhaps an expectation, that the arts will save San Francisco. This is a tension that candidates in the 2024 mayoral race must navigate. Will art save the city or will the city save art? Arts and entertainment are combined a roughly $1.7-billion industry in San Francisco, sustaining about 36,000 full-time jobs, sponsored by a mix of private and city funding. Since 1961, the city of San Francisco has supported arts organizations through Grants for the Arts, a competitive grant program funded with 1.5% of the 14% Hotel Tax Fund. But huge deficits in the tourism sector during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the hotel tax to be a volatile source of funding.

The most recent mayoral administration has made various attempts to aid the arts community, including launching an albeit short-lived guaranteed income pilot program in 2021, administered by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which provided $1000 to 130 artists for up to 6 months, as well as launching both the Drag Laureate program and Vacant to Vibrant, which filled empty downtown spaces with arts installations.

“I think what would be good to do would be to have a complete survey of all of the different sources of funding to be able to have a clear picture of the volume but I think it would be better to know how consistently the funding will be there,” said mayoral candidate Ahsha Safaí who, in his current role as District 11 Supervisor, has worked closely with local arts nonprofit ArtSpan and secured funding for the SF Parks Alliance/Noise Pop concert series Due South, as well as other public cultural events.

“The certainty of knowing that money is coming is extremely important,” said Incumbent Mayor London Breed. “Part of that is making sure that there’s a component of accountability and that we’re investing our resources into the most impactful organizations that have an economic benefit to San Francisco in a way that will allow us to maintain our stabilized funding … We’re in a very difficult budget time.”

“Maybe the time has come to have a conversation about a baseline set-aside for the arts,” said District 3 Supervisor and mayoral candidate Aaron Peskin.

Some candidates would prefer to continue relying on the Hotel Tax Fund and feel that deficits in the tourism sector are rooted in issues of public safety.

“We need to create an environment where residents and visitors feel safe patronizing the arts,” former mayor and current candidate Mark Farrell said. “We need to focus on public safety as a city.”  

For many of the candidates, including Farrell, this boils down to policing.  

Public safety and policing plans are top priority for many mayoral candidates, but the sentiment that downtown is unsafe isn’t necessarily echoed from within the arts community. Image courtesy San Francisco Travel

“We need a fully staffed police department,” said mayoral candidate Daniel Lurie, whose Civic Joy Fund has given stipends to street performers as well as paying artists to paint utility boxes, and rallying volunteers for city clean-up projects. “We need cops patrolling the street. If you talk to employees at SFMOMA, they’re scared to walk out on 3rd Street after dark. Once we have people feeling safe we can bring conventions and tourism back, which will create the ability to fund the arts and cultural institutions that we rely on.” A source at SFMOMA said this sentiment was not universal among staff.

Some candidates boast a track record of working with police.

“I passed a very forward-thinking community policing plan,” Safaí said. “I’ve spent time with the Tenderloin station captain and others. We’re going to see a major drop in crime and a definite sense of security and safety.”

Farrell, for his part, has vowed to fire the chief of police and boost the ranks of the department.

But the sentiment that downtown is unsafe isn’t necessarily echoed from within the arts community. Some see it as more a perception than a reality.

San Francisco Playhouse

“People we talk to that live just across a bridge or are coming from the South Bay say they're afraid,” said Susi Damilano, co-founder and artistic director, with her husband Bill English, of San Francisco Playhouse, in Union Square. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” “It's not really unsafe in Union Square” English agreed, and took it a step further: “I don’t know that the arts are in desperate trouble in San Francisco. I think it’s more a perception that it’s not safe and there’s a sense of poverty that pervades the downtown area.” But that perception alone can be detrimental.

“The reality and perception of public safety is critical to these organizations’ well-being,” Peskin said. “Whether it is ambassadors present on Van Ness when the symphony lets out or police, particularly in the theater district; that is the number one thing that is not only keeping patrons from coming, but is stymieing the recovery of the in-person arts writ-large.” Though he admitted that “the number of complaints is going down and the level of people feeling safer and being safer is going up.”

Breed agreed that the reality of public safety in the city is trending upward.

“Crime continues to decline,” she said. “The perception is not catching up with the reality of what is happening downtown.”  

Jonathan Carver Moore. Photo © Drew Alitzer

Jonathan Carver Moore, who opened his eponymous gallery on Market Street between 5th and 6th in 2023, agreed.

“I’ve only lived in this neighborhood since I moved here almost a decade ago,” he said. “I think the focal point of unhoused individuals is in the Tenderloin, because of the resources that are available to those people. But I’ve never been done any harm by anyone here. This is downtown, this is what a city looks like. If you don’t have a neighborhood like this, then is it even really a city?”

Steffan Schlarb, who co-founded Schlomer Haus Gallery on Market and Church Streets, with his husband Brandon Romer, in 2021, said witnessing drug usage is an “everyday occurrence.” He also witnessed someone die of an overdose in the doorway of his gallery last year.

While this tragedy represents the extreme of the issues facing San Francisco that necessitate change, a total reactionary backlash would also undermine the arts. Schlarb wouldn’t necessarily trade the broader economic downturn for what the arts community has going for itself.

“San Francisco has always been a boom and bust town,” Schlarb said, “and the arts flourish during those busts because that’s a time when artists can afford to live here and when they have something to say directly, because of the situation.”

Schlarb drew comparisons to New York City in the 1970s and 80s, an era in that city’s history that helped to define modern art.

“The Lower East Side became a burgeoning gallery zone because people could afford to put their galleries there,” he said. “Like in the tenderloin, for example, there are galleries opening up because real estate is less expensive. Those are also neighborhoods where artists can afford to live, so you have a concentration of creative people trying to build communities around that.”

To stretch the comparison further, the reactionary, conservative attitude and policy with which Giuliani enacted “civic cleanup” in the 1990s wouldn’t be welcome in San Francisco’s art community, either.

Carver Moore also sees a potential for the downtown area to become a major arts destination.

“If you go from 9th Street to 3rd Street you cover six blocks of the entire art scene, including major museums and many theaters,” he said. “I would love to see the next mayor focus on committing to this being our arts and cultural hub. It’s something that’s going to help the city bounce back, because culture does exist here … It would be great to see artists be able to live and work downtown and afford to do it without having three jobs.” The solution might look something more along the lines of making the city more hospitable for artists themselves, rather than simply palatable for the arts audience.

“Housing continues to be a big issue,” Farrell said. “We need to do a much better job to build affordable housing throughout San Francisco.”

Creating affordable housing is a unanimous position among the candidates, though their approaches vary.

“My plan is focused on workforce housing,” Lurie said. “Simply put, if you build more affordable housing, we’re going to be able to have more artists living here.”

Safaí felt similarly. “One of the things that I want to do as mayor is have dedicated affordable workforce housing set aside for artists, something that the city of Boston did.” Megan Wilson, co-director of Clarion Alley Mural Project, sees proposals to build more housing as collusion with developers, not a solution.

“They’re building it for people’s portfolios and stuffing the financial sector,” she said. “They have no interest in housing people.”

According to recent surveys, there are currently more than 52,000 vacant housing units in San Francisco, which is more than 10 times the number of the city’s unhoused residents. The recently passed vacancy tax, which became effective in January of this year, would potentially help to remedy this, though it’s too early to tell whether it will be a big enough incentive for some real estate companies to fill units.

“I actually see the [recent] economic downturn as an opportunity to invest in permanent affordable artists residential housing,” Peskin said.

Peskin and Breed worked together last summer on legislation that would convert downtown buildings into live/work hybrid spaces, similar to the Goodman Building and Project Artaud. Artists Hub on Market and Mercy Housing of California recently filed plans with the city for an affordable housing development for artists on Market Street, supported by a $100 million gift by anonymous donors.

The growth of the tech sector in the Bay Area over the last two decades has contributed greatly to the rising cost of living. Some artists see that opposition as the continued source of strife, while others see it as an opportunity for partnership. Many of the candidates also take the amicable approach.

“The tech community has been a big part of San Francisco for decades,” Farrell said. “But San Francisco was over-indexed to tech heading into COVID, and since COVID has been over-indexed to work-from-home, which has really damaged our city’s economy, especially when City Hall wasn’t proactive about diversifying our city during the pandemic.”

“We’ve made it such that it’s too costly to keep the next generation of artists,” Lurie said. “I’ll have a strong relationship with the business community and that will include tech. I had that at Tipping Point. I was eager and engaged to have them giving back to issues of poverty in San Francisco,” and suggested “recruiting young tech CEOs to be patrons of the arts.”

But can art and tech really work together?

“To get [tech companies] to invest locally in the city, aside from their offices, is not even on the radar,” Damilano said. “And yet it's the city that their employees live in – can afford to live in, and artists no longer can. It feels like the food chain isn't a proper circle.”   “The ‘doom loop’ is the tech boom and bust loop,” Wilson said. “That is the problem. Tech is the most volatile thing there is here. The city made a big mistake when they kowtowed to tech in the first place. We need to come up with creative ways to bring people to our city that are not tech related. I think we look to the things in San Francisco that make it beautiful in the first place and stop with these short-term fixes.”

Long-term, sustainable fixes have been proposed before. In 2006, the city commissioned the San Francisco Arts Task Force, a report, the purpose of which was “in order to make recommendations for action to strengthen and enhance the City’s arts infrastructure, and to increase access to, and participation in, the arts across the diverse neighborhoods and communities of our city,” according to the report’s introduction.

“To date, very little of it is embedded into our policy and our financial streams to arts organizations,” said Joen Madonna, executive director of ArtSpan and a member of Arts for a Better Bay Area (ABBA), which will host a forum with mayoral candidates the last week in September.

“So much has changed,” said Farrell. “I think it’s high time for a new report to be commissioned.”

But a new report won’t do much good if the city fails to implement its recommendations. “I don’t know what the solution is,” Schlarb said, “but it doesn’t feel like any of the candidates have an answer, and that’s their job.” Meanwhile, he says “the art scene is burgeoning.”

San Francisco's art scene has always been politically and socially radical. It has always been small but mighty. It has always been about working together to support each other and bolster the community and creativity we have here. What we need now is for civic leadership to take the same approach. Maybe it isn't about launching new initiatives or building new developments, but about making sure that what we have doesn’t disappear. Because what we have might well be the perfect art world.

Max Blue
Max Blue
Max Blue is the art critic for the San Francisco Examiner and has contributed to Artsy, Cultured, Hyperallergic and KQED, among others. His short fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin and North Dakota Quarterly, among others. He lives in San Francisco.
Max Blue is the art critic for the San Francisco Examiner and has contributed to Artsy, Cultured, Hyperallergic and KQED, among others. His short fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin and North Dakota Quarterly, among others. He lives in San Francisco.
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