Category Archives: Articles

On Economy, Civic Capacity and the Endangered Mid-size Arts Org

This week the Coalition on Homelessness is hosting an art auction at SOMArts, an annual event that raises money for the “Street Sheet,” a newspaper on homeless issues. It is their 25th anniversary and the SF Chronicle wrote a story about its origins. (did anyone reading this know the role Phil Collins played in Street Sheet history?)

I vividly remember taking the 19 Polk from the Tenderloin to SOMArts in September 2008. It was the night before my final interviews to lead an organization that was experiencing a tough transition, and the MUNI bus was filled with a group of Hospitality House artists who were auctioning their work at the event.

We were all excited to be going to a special event so we started talking on the bus, the way people do when they are happy and excited. It was a classic SOMArts night—bridging the city’s residents and visitors across our many differences, discovering a wide range of art and performance with the Coalition’s art auction in the Bay Gallery, and an exhibition of contemporary art from Mongolia opening in the main gallery. Contributing to the wellbeing of others through donations of art, space, time and resources.

Looking back at that night it means even more to me than it did at the time. Looking back, it speaks to the role that arts centers of all sizes can play in connecting communities, building empathy, making this “our city” and collaborating toward a better future for more people. Earlier this week I heard YBCA director Deborah Cullinan speak very eloquently on these themes in her Knight Foundation interview with Carol Coletta. Well worth listening to.

Looking back, I also wonder how small organizations can be appropriately identified, protected and encouraged as grant makers turn their attention to civic capacity and civic commons. For those readers unfamiliar with the principles of civic capacity, Diane Ragsdale wrote a compelling and influential article The Arts In A Civic World Upside Down on the topic that was read and discussed among Bay Area arts leaders.

As I notice more large organizations investing in a civic commons role (as they did previously with innovation and creative placemaking), I wonder what this means for small and mid-size organizations and arts participation. Like Amazon, large organizations have the benefit of efficiencies of scale. They have more resources to distribute and can take on added administrative burdens (such as measuring impact) with greater flexibility.

However, there is a price to efficiency, and that price might be participation. The small and mid-sized organizations are like the mom-and-pop bookstores of the arts. We do things less efficiently with more people, it’s true! But those people all contribute to the arts economy and participation. When large organization get large grants to offer small stipends to the smaller community-based organizations, impact is more likely to be measured. And sometimes, the smaller organizations leverage those funds to raise more money from within their communities (the watering-can effect). But another reality of this model is that the administrative costs for civic engagement funding of large organizations go to bigger salaries at the bigger organizations. The big organizations paying stipends to smaller organizations are off the hook for things like affordable wages to all the people working on the project. Smaller community-based organizations often work for exposure (as individual artists so often do) and because of this their work is less likely to build capacity or stability within their organizations.

Thinking about the hollowed-out middle class in San Francisco and recent closures and contractions of arts organizations, I wonder if we are also experiencing a hollowing-out of mid-sized arts organizations. As the share of Hotel Tax for the arts diminishes and national and regional funding trends toward civic engagement, attention must be paid to the full potential impact of this model.  As economist Robert Reich might say: is there a shift? can the arts economy tolerate this shift? if not, what are we going to do about it?

HERE | NOW: Notes from Emergence

I wrote the following as notes to prepare for a keynote discussion at Emergence, an annual convening organized by Emerging Arts Professionals San Francisco/Bay Area, which was held at The Women’s Building on June 2, 2014. The theme of the free-to-attend keynote was State of the Network: Tactics Towards Action. The opinions are my own.—Lex 

Panelists: Michelle Mansour, Executive Director, Root Division;  Lex Leifheit, Executive Director,SOMArtsRamekon O’Arwisters, Social Practice Artist – Facilitated by Melonie and Melorra GreenAfrican American Arts and Culture Complex

SOMArts (South of Market Arts, Resources, Technology and Services) turns 35 this August. Right now, we are perceived as a thriving mid-sized organization in San Francisco. We have studio spaces including a print studio and darkroom that are used by working artists. We provide fiscal sponsorship, professional development and technical support in the form of stages, wheelchair lifts and pa systems for festivals such as the Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival in Oakland and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Easter Celebration. We provide deeply discounted space for 10 or more classes each week including martial arts, photography for people who are low-income and homeless, and after-school classes for teens.

Many people know SOMArts for its exhibitions and artistic partnerships. Between 50 and 60 organizations and artists produce their exhibitions, events and other activities annually at SOMArts and they range from fully-produced stage performances such as Man Dance Company’s Harvey Milk-inspired NutcrakOr ballet, to bicycle art fundraisers and Xicano graduation ceremonies, to the Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits third annual powwow.

Like many of you I’ve been closely following the news about organizations contracting, moving, and—in a few cases—embarking on ambitious capital campaigns. The role that SOMArts has played in the Bay Area arts ecosystem has shifted over the years in direct response to the needs of artists and organizations. For many years SOMArts was best known for our staging and support services, the organization was founded with the name “Friends of Support Services for the Arts”.

Six years ago, following several years of a support-services-mostly model, we owed $50,000 to individuals and organizations, and $20,000 to the bank. CONTINUE READING ]

Good Weekend

I love this photo Dan snapped after an early morning beach walk. I’m happy. Ewan’s relaxed. The pale grey stucco of the house echoes the marine layer haze of our neighborhood. On this particular morning I started our morning walk in one mood and ended in another, much better, frame of mind. The image is a reminder of how much I love my family and also of how a short routine at the beginning of the day can make a world of difference in one’s mental well being.

This Friday, it’s sunny and there are dozens of surfers on the beach. We’re heading to a McSweeney’s picnic and are looking forward to a long weekend filled with art, nature, friends and good food. I hope to finish Zadie Smith’s NW. I also have some reading and writing to do in preparation for the Arts Dinner-Vention, so I’m thinking about leadership, and place, and working with a community. I’m excited to hear what the other guests have to say and thinking about how to choose my own words since there is limited time and I must choose carefully.

This week my cousin Hannah sent me a quote by Lao Tzu that has stayed with her during her year in Tanzania with the Peace Corps. I have heard it before but not in a while and was glad to be reminded of it:

Go to the people.

Live with them.

Learn from them.

Love them.

Start with what they know.

Build with what they have.

With the best leaders,

When the work is done,

The task accomplished,

The people will say

“We have done this ourselves”

-Lao Tzu

 

August: In Progress

SOMArts exteriorOver the past six months this blog has taken a back seat to some ambitious new initiatives at SOMArts, and to the everyday joys of being a mom. However, there is so much good stuff happening this August, I feel compelled to share:

  • Thanks to a $97k grant by Museums Connect, SOMArts is embarking on a creative and cultural exchange with youth in San Francisco and Kuala Lumpur, a new partnership with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.
  • Our most recent exhibition, Electronic Pacific generated some thoughtful press including this interview with artist Jenny Odell where she shares her approach to making people aware of the world around them, and the influence of place on her work.
  • The first artist meeting for the annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition took place last Tuesday. Fifty people gathered to share their ideas on the theme Imagining Time, Gathering Memory, which is dedicated to people whose lives have been affected by cancer.

The past few months have been challenging and the usual hallmarks of summer—warm nights, lazy mornings, a slightly slower pace—have been in short supply. Despite a serious lack of sleep and an endless to-do list, I am more grateful than I’ve ever been to be here, now, and am trying to make the most of every moment.

I snapped the pic above early one morning when I was the first person to arrive at SOMArts. A rare calm moment!

A Few Thoughts About ‘Lean In’

Seven weeks after I had my son Ewan in late January, Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” was published. I originally thought I’d be able to catch up on a lot of reading during maternity leave—now I know better. Between sleepless nights and 6+ hours of nursing each day, baths and pediatrician appointments and finding childcare for when I return to work, there is not as much free time as I had hoped.

And yet … the discussion  and emotions around”Lean In” were so intense I felt I had to read it. I downloaded the audiobook and finished it in two days while breastfeeding.

Because I listened to the audiobook, it’s hard to write a proper review with detailed quotes and excerpts. Which doesn’t matter, because I have a newborn and can only type with one hand these days, and because my main takeaway is Read. The. Book. The content of “Lean In” is far superior to the commentary, and more entertaining. Just do it. It’s only 6 and a half hours long as an mp3 and is very well suited to the medium.

Here’s my one-hand-typing review of the book: CONTINUE READING ]

Maker Months: July/August Update

My pregnancy-induced nesting binge has brought home the fact that I have not been much of a “maker” in recent years. Planner, editor and organizer? Yes. It takes a lot of work to run a cultural center, buy a home, and get married and all those things happened in the last two years. But actual, real-world assembly of parts and materials? Not so much.

So, in July and August I took time to re-learn some basic skills. I signed up for a few sewing classes at Workshop SF, checked out some how-to books at the San Francisco Public Library, began collecting online tutorials, ordered a sewing machine, and jumped in. So far, I’ve made three baby bibs and washcloths, a dog coat for Riggins, a baby snuggler, a blanket and some bloomers. I also hemmed our curtains and made some tablecloths for Feast of Words, SOMArts’ literary potluck.

People get crafty for all kinds of reasons and the main provocation in my case is to 1) save money, 2) have nicer things than I could otherwise afford. Not surprisingly, saving money and reaching above one’s financial means are two things I also think about daily in my work at SOMArts. At work, I like to call this “fighting above our weight.” It’s not about cutting back, it’s about doing more: how can we support more artists, reach a bigger audience, give them deeper experiences and make those experiences truly excellent? CONTINUE READING ]

Survival Instincts: June Update

June getaway in Mendocino + morning coffee=bliss.

I love this reflective post by Nina Simon about her first year as Executive Director at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Even more, I love hearing from so many friends who run organizations that since the 2011-12 season came to a close on June 30, we can safely say it was a good year. Not a perfect year (by any means!) but a year where many artists, organizations and groups—particularly those who are passionately creating/presenting work of, by and for communities—are feeling more stable, confident and prosperous.

June was filled with art for me and included two new exhibitions at SOMArts, The Lab’s art auction, and a Mother’s Day performance of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit starring the incomparable Rhodessa Jones (here’s a pic of me on stage as a rabbit). After the performance, I came home and there was a free music show at Mollusk Surf Shop featuring Yesway, who performed at SOMArts during the exhibition Frontrunners. I stopped by and it was full of familiar faces of all ages who I see walking around my neighborhood. The music was great, it was the kind of thing I dreamed of 10 years ago—living right next door to the ocean and a small local shop with good art and music.

Later in June Dan and I escaped to Mendocino and Fort Bragg, where we tried to visit Lost Coast Culture Machine (it was closed). I went on a summer reading binge which included four books in four weeks: The Botany of Desire, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, The American Heiress and Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. June closed with the performance festival This Is What I Want and a weekend of game development workshops in the gallery to prepare for the Nov/Dec Commons Curatorial Residency by Come Out And Play.

My personal “June gloom” was talking with yet another friend who works in the arts who is moving out of San Francisco because she wants to put down roots and can’t afford to buy here. She was the fourth person I’ve spoken to in two weeks who loves the city but is moving out because once you are in your mid-30s you start feeling like paying the highest rent in the country is maybe a bad financial decision. As much as I love San Francisco, the thought of so many smart and interesting arts workers leaving depresses the hell out of me even though I know it is a smart thing to do for survival.

 

Birthdaytimes

Dan and I take a break from wedding festivities in Piedmont Park, Atlanta.