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?