Search Museum Next

Film: Prototyping Places for People with Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts

Deborah Cullinan, CEO, Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts, San Fransisco shared her thoughts at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2016 on “prototyping places for people”. This initiative addresses the growing issues of disconnection and lack of empathy among the diverse people of San Francisco.

Deborah: A little after lunch quietness. Let’s just do it again. How happy are we to be here? Thank you. My name is Deborah, and I am the CEO of Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts. I was trying, Mary-Ann, to think of something like Chief Engagement Officer, and I just couldn’t.

So, YBCA, as we fondly call it, is a contemporary, multidisciplinary art centre located in the heart of downtown San Francisco. We think at YBCA that the 21st century will be about revolution in institutions, and we’re talking about institutions of healthcare, institutions of finance, institutions of public service, and most significantly, we think that it’s the institutions of culture that can lead the way, those institutions that are uniquely situated to inspire us to see beyond what we have in front of us.

So, I’m switching this … There we go. So, I am from San Francisco. Like many other places on the planet, it is a rapidly changing environment. We are home to incredible wealth, great natural beauty, edgy politics. Our headlines right now are also dominated by the fact that we’re undergoing major and massive development. There are a skyline full of cranes; you can see sky rises coming up all around us. So, the public dialogue is polarising; I would argue it’s simplifying, and I think when we’re polarised and we are either helpless or hopeless, we stay stuck; we don’t move forward.

But, at YBCA, we understand the value of art and culture, and we believe that art and creativity are essential to bringing us together across boundary, in order to think about the kind of change that we need in the world together. We just recently polled about 1,500 Bay Area residents, and we found that an overwhelming majority of these people believe that art and creativity are essential to their lives, not just going to a museum, but to their lives, their daily lives. They believe, more than two thirds believe also, that art and creativity are essential to empathy, essential to our ability to work together across difference, in order to make change.

Our mission at YBCA is to generate culture that moves people, and by culture, we mean that broad set of things, the stories, the traditions, the values that make up a community, those things that allow us to act together, to act politically, and to act with conviction, and we need more and different kinds of people defining culture in order to make cultural movement. It is culture that proceeds change. Any major cultural shift has come out of cultural movement, and so together, we want to be able to assure that it is more and different kinds of people helping to achieve the kind of cultural movement we need.

Our vision at YBCA is then a community that thrives on inspiration. To be inspired is to see the world differently than what you see today, and to see yourself into that future.

Imagine that future; we’re all dancing together. I think of Burning Man, and what Marian probably didn’t probably communicate as much as I can is that Burning Man is not just in the desert – it is literally shaking the culture of the Bay Area. Together, we are making something better than we can make on our own.

So, YBCA is a home for creative citizens of all kinds. We believe that it’s going to take more, and different kinds of thinkers, coming together across cultural ideas, in order to shift things, in order to have the kinds of questions and breakthrough dialogues that we really need to have as a community, and as a society.

We believe that we are a citizen institution. As a public benefit institution, it is our mandate to be a resource to our community. It is our mandate to think of how our resources can be contributed to the broader good, or how to turn ourselves from inward to outward, to be part of public dialogue, moving the dial, and working with the citizens in our community.

How do we do this? We believe in a creative ecosystem. I mentioned earlier that we really believe that creative people of all kinds have a seat at the table. It’s artists, it’s planners, it’s architects, it’s designers, it’s activists, it’s teachers, and we want people to be coming together in order for us to think differently, and more smartly, and in a more sophisticated and complicated way about very, very difficult questions.

I’m going to tell you just a little bit about our framework, and then I’m going to spend the rest of the time talking to you about this project that we’re doing with the San Francisco Planning Department. So, at YBCA, we are no longer driven specifically by curatorial departments. We are driven, as a team of curators, by leading questions that will help us to gather as many different kinds of thinkers and creators and activists as we can, around the questions that we think are more pressing in our community.

This is how we do it: every year, we announce the YBCA 100. This is the list of the 100 people who are inspiring us most. They are people from all over the world; they are artists; they are creative citizens; they might be scientists; they might be engineers. They are the ones that are asking the questions that we think will lead to the breakthrough change that we need.

We then gather as many of those list makers as we can with our community, and we ask them to tell us what are the questions that are keeping you up at night. What are the important, poetic and nuanced questions that we can ask as an institution in order to shift culture?

We had about 400 people gather this year, and out of that day we came up with three questions. One, can we design freedom? Two, what does equity look like? And three, why citizenship?

We then launched a fellowship programme. Over the course of a year to 18 months, 90 people will be gathering around these questions. We do an open call; we jury the fellows in. 30 people per question. We host them; they eat together; they make work together; they push policy; they come up with answers to these pressing questions. The idea, again, is that this is a cross-disciplinary cacophony of ideas, in response to broad-based, but very complicated questions, the theory being that the more different ways that you look at something through different perspectives, the more likely that you will come up with things that are truly breakthrough.

We then incubate the best ideas. We do a thing twice a year called the Public Square. This is an opportunity, sort of science fair style, for us to showcase all of these different ideas in prototype form. Might be a policy; might be an idea for a start-up; might be a design intervention; might be a public art project.

From here, we then look for the ideas. What are the good ideas here? What are the things that we need to incubate? How can we, as an art centre, which is made up of gallery spaces and theatre spaces, and film screening spaces, how can we as an art centre, incubate the best ideas in today’s world? Is it through partnership? Is it through resource development? Is it through artistic residency, or other kinds of community residencies? We want to figure out how to make the best ideas happen.

We do this also through a culture of invitation, a very important theory for us, which is, we invite you to participate, and in turn, we ask you to invite another, and we multiply. We become bigger and more important, and this is not about participating as an audience member, it’s about participating as a creative citizen.

So, now I’ll tell you a little bit about the project that we are undertaking with the San Francisco Planning Department, unprecedented relationship between an art centre and a major city’s planning department. Our project is called the Market Street Prototyping Festival. We had a think tank that was looking at who gets to design the urban future. Out of that think tank, we had an idea that, because we knew our major thoroughfare in San Francisco, Market Street, would be undergoing a once in a lifetime infrastructural shift, from the sidewalks to the transit systems, that if we could take the opportunity of this large scale investment that our city would be making in change, and turn that change and how it happens on its head, that we might be able to create a more equitable and inclusive approach to urban planning, that could be replicated all over the world.

So, we took the two mile stretch of Market Street, from our Waterfront to our Civic Centre. We divided it up into five different districts. At the Waterfront, the financial district, the retail heart, the Civic Centre, and our central market. We then did an open call for ideas, so not top down planning, bottom up. People who use the streets every day, tell us what you think you need in your community. Tell us what you think it will take for our streets to be places where the public can interact, collide, and come to know one another.

We got about 250 fantastic ideas. We juried those ideas; we chose 50 of them; we paired each of the projects with a leading edge design firm; we worked with [Genzer]; we worked with Autodesk; we worked at the Exploratorium, Studio for Urban Projects. We incubated the ideas, acknowledging that those ideas came, sometimes from the greatest design studios in the world, people with immense expertise, and sometimes the idea came from somebody who’d never done anything like this in their lives. So, we supported their thinking; we helped with fabrication, and we put the 50 projects down on the street for three days. A million people engaged. One million people got to tell us what they felt, what is going to make my street more moving to me? What’s going to help me feel joy and inspiration in the public realm?

Now we’re in the second round of an open call. We’re incubating more deeply ten of these projects, with another fantastic Bay Area organisation called Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, and we are assured that these projects will permanently be part of the longer term Market Street redesign, so we’ve changed something.

I’ll tell you a little bit about a couple of the projects. I’m going to just show you a couple of them so you get a sense of what they look like. What we learned, most importantly, is that people were looking for opportunities to play in their street – Burning Man – and they were looking for opportunities to interact with one another. So, this project required that you figured out getting people to position themselves around the planter boxes, that you moved in such a way that you could get those plants watered.

This project is an example of us working in community with an organisation called Larkin Street Youth Centre, along with YBCA and our youth programme, so that young people could feel invited into this project as designers and activists, and people who can influence their streets.

This one, Bench Go Round requires that two people sit on the bench, and you have to make it spin.

This project reminds us all, particularly those of us from the Bay Area, and who understand the Tenderloin and Central Market community well, we understand that there are so many children and families that live in these neighbourhoods, but they remain invisible. There are no parks, zero parks, no public spaces for these kids to play. Their street needs to become their public space. We found that kids would play on the street if you gave them the opportunity to, and they would come to know each other.

This one, my favourite ever, is a gorilla project. It was not juried in; it was not invited in. It showed up, which is the best testament to success, if you ask me. This is called the People’s Table, and this is a ping pong table made by some people who live in the Central Market community, and it was their way of saying, ‘Hey, look, we’re here’, and not only are we here, but we want to play together, and we believe that people who are very different from each other can actually have a good time. I have a photo of this table with some police officers and some kids playing ping pong.

So, I will say again that this project has been extraordinary. I just recently was in Perth, Australia, where they did Australia’s first ever Prototyping Festival. It’s happening in cities all over the States, and we are so pleased to be able to say that it is not just the role of the art centre to invite people inside of your walls, it is the role of the art centre to be a civic institution, to be an asset to your community, and to believe that, in fact, an art centre can change policy, that through cultural movement, we can make change.

It couldn’t be more perfect that Marian was here earlier talking about Burning Man – I can’t emphasise enough that it’s cultural movement we’re talking about. It’s inspiring people of all kinds to believe that they are creatively empowered to impact what happens in their own communities. And, before we inspire people to do anything, to vote, to participate, to walk through the doors of your museums, we need to empower them in their own right as creative citizens, as people who are important to what happens in their communities, and can imagine and be in a future that is different than what we have today.

Now, I think I might need some technical help, because I’m really hoping we can play this video. Let’s see what happens. No sound? It doesn’t quite do the trick without the sound, because if you could hear this little boy’s belly laugh, it’s like one of the best things in the world. I actually listen to it almost every day, so I’m sorry that you couldn’t hear it, but I will say that this is a testament to the fact that you can make joy in public space, and that our arts community has enormous resource across the planet, in order to contribute to a more inspired population that sees itself in the future.

Thank you.

Deborah Cullinan, CEO, Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts, San Fransisco shared her thoughts at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2016 on “prototyping places for people”. This initiative addresses the growing issues of disconnection and lack of empathy among the diverse people of San Francisco.

To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week