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Film: Be A Creative Home For Civic Action

Jon Moscone,
Chief of Civic Engagement, 
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) believes that arts institutions must fundamentally change how they think about civic engagement, moving beyond public programs and tours, and focusing squarely on advocacy, coalition building, and policy change.

This revolutionary approach is focusing the institutions energies beyond the traditional with civic engagement projects which aim to have deep and noticeable impact.

These initiatives include fellowships which this year focused on a Food Justice project in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighbourhood, committing time and resources to schools in underserved neighborhoods and serving as lead proponents to restore vital hotel tax funding to local arts organizations and family homelessness programs.

What do these commitments mean to YBCA and how they are perceived. Is this the start of a revolution that will change how we think about the role art can play in the lives of cities and communities.

Yeah, I’m loud. Be a Creative Home for Civic Action. That is what I hope to continue to inspire all of us to do. That is what we aspire to at YBCA – Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Hi, I’m Jon. My last name is actually Moscone, though it’s probably pronounced Moscone more often than not. I am new to the world that you have probably been part of for a long, long time. I grew up in San Francisco. I trained as a theatre director and I ran a theatre for many, many, many years. 15 years I ran the California Shakespeare Theatre in the East Bay of the Bay Area in California. I did a pretty decent job, I thought, of transforming a Shakespeare festival into a cultural centre that have repositioned the role of a theatre and its community through Shakespeare and other writers, and people were telling me their stories through Shakespeare.

That was 15 years of work, and it was really exciting and it was really difficult, and at one point I thought I’d done my job and I thought, “I’ve got to move on to a bigger space. I’ve got to move on to a bigger stage.” I’ve got to figure out something where the work wasn’t really about transforming an organisation, but how an organisation can help transform the community. At that time, I found a position at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts run by Deborah Cullinan, who has spoken several times at Museum-X, and is my inspiration and my boss, and she carved out a job for me and it’s called the Chief of Civic Engagement, which is such a great title. It means nothing, but it sounds really important. But it did start out as an organisation that had community engagement as one of its curatorial components, and I came to it with the idea that community engagement wasn’t enough for me, and perhaps not even for the organisation. And that the organisation really wanted to position itself beyond the curation of community engagement, which could simply be the “do good” section of your organisation. The one that gets the grants into the actual lens through which we see all of our work.

Yerba Buena was a centre for the arts that was founded in 1993 as the temporary Arts Centre for the City of San Francisco, part of a large arts district that includes the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, among the only sizeable garden in downtown San Francisco, where arts and other ideas are put on throughout the entire year. Over that many years it had saw many sea changes, and currently in the last five years, Deborah Cullinan took over. And Deborah had come from a very, very progressive arts organisation, the smallest and oldest and probably the most important alternative art space in San Francisco, called Intersection for the Arts. Under Deborah, we looked to reposition and refocus what the role of an arts centre is in the 21st Century. And I know that’s what everyone’s doing here, and how we’re trying to do that is to take civic engagement away from a curatorial silo, a lane in which people do the work. Now, we had to radically, radically … I mean, that’s what I was going to say, “I’m not going to use the word radical,” and now I just used it three times. Sorry. Even when I was saying it, I didn’t want to say it. So forgive me. To reposition the role of engagement. So this is a thing that we do to make the work that you’re doing seem relevant or appear relevant, right? Or that it’s the thing that it enters the public programme, as if all of our work isn’t public, or shouldn’t be public. I don’t understand that. Coming from the theatre, I’ve never understood that, and I never will, right? But the role of the arts organisation to see itself as being civically engaged, meaning something to the communities in which it serves, in service of that, a public member institution.

So that required that art, though essential, no longer was the primary mode of definition of who we are and what we do. So we had to democratise our platforms. And here they are. The first, of course, is Art, and currently we have on in our main gallery Tania Bruguera, who’s a dissident Cuban artist who has helped our institution and the bulk of her exhibit is actually a school called the Escuela de Arte Util, a School for Useful Art. Community members from arts, studying at colleges and universities and the general public come together to learn from people all, around 100 we’ve brought in, how to make art useful. That’s a pretty brave way to have an organisation. In addition, we have a huge [Unintelligible: 00:05:17] industry in which we’re able to put some timely information out, like, “Tweeting is not leadership. Do something.” “This is how ambiguous white supremacy was made.” We are not mutual, we know that, but if we don’t say it, we are. We are.

Certainly we incubate ideas from our fellows who, not unlike … I can’t remember the room at the artists and the neighbouring community that they bring in at the Tate, but we bring in people who we consider change makers, who we help to incubate their ideas on how to answer questions that [Unintelligible: 00:06:12] A lot of these probably believe that the answers aren’t good, it’s because the questions aren’t smart enough. Right? And that’s where we’re go into enquiry, where we bring together hundreds and hundreds of people once a year in our community called the YBCA 100, which we just bring together people who we think are asking the most important questions that change culture. From there, we distil questions with the community of 400 people, and then we bring on fellows to… in keeping their responses to the three questions every year. This year the questions are, “Where is our public imagination? Can creative dissent matter?” And among the others are, “How can we design freedom and why citizenship?” These are to me questions that are profound and also open enough for an organisation to be able to answer with their community.

This convening coming up is on October 28th, and it is our [Unintelligible: 00:07:12] Jill Soloway, who created Transparent. Also Jose Antonio Vargas, “Documented,” Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Abdi Soltani, who’s the Executive Director of the ACLU in Northern California, Lil Buck, to do some dancing, and to get our feet and our bodies soaring, and a [Unintelligible: 00:07:32] of the three questions that will drive a lot of our programme output over the year. And finally, Civic Coalitions. We aim to partner radically – number four – with Government, with corporations, with individuals, with communities, with non-profits, with schools to have the greatest impact possible. So that’s how we’ve democratised our work. Why are we doing this? In service for our mission: to generate culture that moves people. Art is not inside, it’s not the name and the end result of our mission. It is necessary for the cultural shift that we believe. And why do we believe this? We believe that culture precedes change. We know this, we have seen this. “Political change is the last manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.” This comes from Jeff Chang, who runs the Institute for Diversity in Art, and rates in Stanford University, is also a YBCA board member and wrote the seminal book on Hip-Hop [Unintelligible: 00:08:39]. We saw this with gay marriage. The policy happened after the cultural shift. We’ve not seen it with racial justice. That’s why we’re still working on this. The culture has not shifted. That is why we aim to place culture regeneration at the centre of our work at YBCA.

But it’s not just us who leads this. This isn’t just a firm belief of a bunch of leaders with the names “Chief” before them. This is what we have found that San Franciscans think art and creativity can do. From our random survey we did for many, many years, we worked on a grand campaign, and inside of this was a audience limitation study, and 83% agreed that, “Creativity is important to imagining the future.” 79 believed that, “It will take all kinds of creative thinkers to shape the future of San Francisco.” 68 believed that. “Art and creativity can inspire people to improve society and the world,” and around 92% believe that, “Art and creativity will play an increasingly critical role in making our communities better.” So this is what our communities are telling us they believe. We believe the national regard, right?

So that’s why we engage. How do we engage? Well, I’m going to pick three, because I don’t have that much time. We engage with youth, we engage in citymaking and we engage in advocacy. So I’m going to give you some highlights of what we did this year, and what we’re doing this year. Right here you see the word “dream.” 70 years ago, a fantastic artist, Ana Teresa Fernandez, she’s Mexican-born, has done extraordinary work in erasing the border and just out of Arizona in the Mexico border, really amazing work. An incredible artist, and she had this inspiration after seeing at the base of this hill in San Francisco, Bernal Hill. Not a great neighbourhood. Faces the 101/280 merge. When you’re coming into San Francisco it’s a mess, and there’s a hill, and at the base there was graffiti by a group called TDK – Those Darn Kids – about a man named Mike “Dream” Francisco, who was a peace fighter, a former gang member and a peace fighter who was killed, and they wrote “Dream, Dream, Dream” all over this building. She was deeply inspired by that. She brought this project to us. We then decided to create our youth programming based on that, and we had spent so many years in school, at the Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in the Excelsior District in San Francisco to work on ways in which a city, a youth, can dream about their future in San Francisco, through architecture, through urban design, through art, poetry, music, dance, and four years in the making, a public art installation was created. This is 50ft wide, 20ft tall, and it shimmers and it’ll be there for two years, and we just installed it September 27. Boy, it takes a long time to do public art. And it’s so magnificent because I grew up in San Francisco, my father was the mayor of San Francisco. I drove that way to school every morning and, believe me, the last thing you’re doing in San Francisco most of the time is dreaming. But now you can. And I’ll be relevant in the fact that people needed to know that dreaming still is relevant, still matters and it must be protected.

People’s Garden. This is in the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin is extraordinarily rich in cultural assets and severely poor in financial assets in an area in San Francisco, and borders on City Hall. So where I am is City Hall. Over here is the Asian Art Museum. There’s the Hastings School of Law and everything behind it is about 4,000 residents who live near to the poverty line. And there is no full service place to buy your food. So we partner with the Tenderloin Neighbourhood Development Corporation, which offers extraordinary services for the inhabitants, including the 2,000 families there, to create a community garden, a sizeable community garden. But what we did, we didn’t do this, other people did this. This reminds me of what Dr Johnson said earlier, which is we’re a huge, large organisation but we are not the experts in this and we listened to people who were the experts, and so what did they need? They needed a little art to make it show off to City Hall and remind them this was what was going on.

So we created this beautiful piece just here, so people could walk and it wasn’t [Unintelligible: 00:13:22] and also this huge, big mural with [Unintelligible: 00:13:25]. So in that way, we served as a part component, and these were with our youth artists. These were youth fellows who were in there, 15, 16, 17 years old, who were brought together to activate themselves through art to engage in their community, to address very pressing needs to be creative.

[Unintelligible: 00:13:47] dearest to my heart is the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. Like I said, the Tenderloin doesn’t have full service, grocery stores. In fact, the stores look like places you’re going to buy [Unintelligible: 00:13:59] or you’re going to buy booze, because most of the time, that’s who advertises there, right? You can’t advertise slippers but you can advertise booze all you want, so all the neon signs, all the things that are on the drink stands, everything that is stored in the front of placement, everything, so it’s Budweiser. Well, we chose to use art to remarket this, and we’ve changed everything and we’ve moved, and health moved. We’re in partnership with the Healthy Corner Store Initiative in San Francisco, and the Department of Health in the City Government, to move the fresh food forward and create a standard afresh. We have art on the walls, on the outside of machines. The art we’re going to be developing, instead of putting it on signs that say Budweiser, there will be neon signs of vegetables. And we also just redesigned it, and in addition to that, we brought in a steward, a resident of one of the SROs who stewards this and gives towards the neighbourhood residents, to tell them what happens when they’re buying this stew, how many calories versus this vegetable. I love this. I want to do this in every store in the town.

Similarly, we look to citizens to help us solve the problem of how to make our city more inspiring. Our main thoroughfare in San Francisco is Market Street. Some of it is extremely towny, some of it is really, really run-down and blighted, and it is a messy, really complicated thoroughway that does nothing to inspire, to connect and to engage. And so we did two years of festivals with the Planning Department in San Francisco to ask citizens how we can do that, how would you prioritise a solution to that? How would you paint a bench that doesn’t want people to sleep overnight, but allows people to talk to each other and encircle each other? Which seems like an odd thing for people to do, but it was a lot of fun. And also just tons of wonderful things, creating an organ forest, creating activations where youth were doing shows and they were getting more people involved and wanting to get people to stop and interact with each other.

One of the things that this did in addition to creating a wonderful, joyful two-week experience over two years, it changed the policy in San Francisco on how to prototype, how to make, try, to test out solutions. Anyone who knows San Francisco, it is the most bureaucratic city in the world. It takes any just, like, [Unintelligible: 00:16:20] you have to fill out a form, and if you don’t do it right, they don’t answer. But we got some policy shifts, so we solved policy shift in this work. That was a win. Field work, we take our fellows, develop work on all the questions, and we help incubate their work in the community, including Gentrified Chicken, where it’s a group, these guys [Eli and Terry], I think he’s eating some of this chicken right there, they got a game and the more you know about the neighbourhood in which this chicken is being sold, they’ll lower your prices. The less you know, the higher your prices. And the chicken’s good.

We’re a polling place. I called, that was a done deal, pretty easy, and they were so excited. They said, “Well, usually it’s a basement, a church or a garage.” The idea they were getting a really beautiful space with all that room and that’s what we did. I think every arts organisation should be a polling place. That should be … just sign up and do it. If you don’t act as a centre of the community, you don’t do a service. And the work that I did in advocacy. So what I do for a particular … so everything I just told you that I did, I don’t do. I have a team of experts who do this. What I did is this, which is worked to be the co-proponent of an arts merger, excuse me, a [Unintelligible: 00:17:43] that coalesced all the arts organisations in San Francisco for the first time and helped these family services organisations to [Unintelligible: 00:17:53] and to restore historically [Unintelligible: 00:17:55] funding to serve our communities. Over 60 years we saw what was a stable support for housing and for the arts erode until in 2013 it was legally discontinued, but un-transparently

When we found out about this, we went [Unintelligible: 00:18:14]. We ran a really aggressive campaign. We raised $600,000. We should have raised more, we needed to raise more. We got 64% of the vote. We needed 67. I know, right? But the California Supreme Court just ruled that now you don’t need the two-thirds majority to run a citizen ballot measure. We can win by 50 plus one, which means if we hold to the same numbers, we’re going to win and we’re going to get this money for the arts in San Francisco and for the homeless services. So that is where my heart lies, is doing this kind of work where you’re putting arts to work in City Government. Sometimes we work with City Government, and sometimes we work against City Government. You’ve got to do both, right? When they’re listening to you, go for it. When they’re not, make them listen.

Here are our Rules of Engagement. I wrote “Radically partner” well before this. But it’s essential, it is absolutely essential. You cannot do this on your own and you can’t pilot this alone. You have to sustain it. You cannot just go into a neighbourhood and provide something and walk away. So problematic I don’t even need to go into it, right? Listen. Listen to the needs of your community. Like Dr Johnson said, don’t just invite them to your organisation. They may never want to be at your organisation. Where do they need to be? Do they need you at all? And if so, how much of you do they need? Right? Be in service of them. Dedicate those funds. Dedicate that time. Listen. We are experts at organising creativity, but we are not the most creative people.

This is my parting thought. This stuff is hard. There must be a deep desire to do this work. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it, don’t chase that path. There must be institutional commitment. One of the things that really mattered and why we [Unintelligible: 00:20:28] when the Board approved our civic engagement platform, our advocacy work. We have a Civic Engagement Working Committee. We changed our dialogues to put advocacy at the centre of the work that we do. If your Board does not believe this work is important, it will not sustain it in tough times. And third, it’s a long game. You saw my [Unintelligible: 00:20:50], you saw how happy I was when I showed you that “Dream” was up, but that isn’t the point. The point is the work that we did to connect you to a [Unintelligible: 00:21:02] practice had reimagined themselves in the city. That’s a long game. That’s longitudinal, but you’ve got to have some short wins right? You’ve got to build a show [Unintelligible: 00:21:11] you’ve got 30 more down the road, so you’ve got to be in it for the long game. But I think if we try, we can reimagine the role that art and creativity plays in our world. Thank you.

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