If attendance at last night’s Arts Town Hall is any indicator of San Francisco policy makers’ interest and investment, the arts are in trouble. Of the eleven city supervisor incumbents and candidates who committed to attending, only three were present for the full discussion, which was about an hour long; four never showed at all, while others were late or left early. Meanwhile hundreds from the arts community gathered to hear incumbents and candidates give their views on supporting the arts in these challenging times. Over the course of the evening, the empty chairs on the stage came to signify the gravity of the challenges ahead.
The event was hosted by 75 cultural organizations of varying sizes, across a spectrum of disciplines including dance, theatre, film, music and visual arts. The event was kicked off with a brief introduction by YBCA Executive Director Deborah Cullinan, who talked about how essential the arts are to the character of San Francisco and the need for the community to come together to face the present challenges. Following Cullinan’s introduction, Jazz bassist and composer Marcus Shelby performed Paul Chambers’ “Whims of Chambers” to set the tone, but not before putting on a Giant’s hoodie, to great applause. Laura Sydell, Digital Cultural Correspondent for NPR, moderated the discussion.
Among the candidates fully present were Juan-Antonio Caraballo (candidate D2), Jamie Whitaker (candidate D6) and Tony Kelly (candidate D10). Partially present were Mark Farrell (incumbent D2), Jane Kim (incumbent D6), Scott Wiener (incumbent D8), Malia Cohen (incumbent D10). Absent were Michael Nulty (candidate D6), David Carlos Salaverry (candidate D6), George Davis (candidate D8), and John Nulty (candidate D8).
Much of the conversation focused on affordability, sustaining the arts, retaining the presence of artists amidst shifting real estate — at one point Sydell admonished the speakers to keep in mind, “We are losing our arts community to Oakland” — as well as questions about regulating Airbnb and the $25M in back taxes it owes the city, the use of publicly owned buildings and the future of arts education. Sydell also noted that though the city budget has increased significantly in recent years, funding for the arts is down 22% since 2004.
The conversation became heated at certain moments, especially on the topic of Airbnb’s back taxes with some supervisors and candidates speaking in favor of collecting the $25M owed to the Hotel Tax Fund and others speaking against the effort. Kelly, a strong advocate for pursuing the money specifically because it would benefit the arts, said, “San Francisco is a great, liberal progressive city until money gets involved.” Jamie Whitaker (candidate D6) countered this as short-sighted, “We are going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire city attorneys to go to court and hope that we get every bit of that $25 million? Stupid.”
Though the focus of the evening was on the arts, there were times when it was plain that not everyone agreed that San Francisco’s art community was vital. Juan-Antonio Carabello (candidate D2), calling himself “just a tech guy,” stated, “Unfortunately San Francisco is not one of the world’s great art cities, neither for artists or for watching art” and talked about “the need to make San Francisco the greatest city in the world for art.” He later also said, “The only thing that makes me cry in this world, other than personal tragedy, is seeing a beautiful, perfect work of art. And it’s happened to me many times, but not in San Francisco yet,” before going on to discuss the greater importance of STEM, emotional intelligence, the design of the iPhone and innovative private/public partnerships.
Even as the evening offered the arts community limited information in terms of how invested various incumbents and candidates are in the arts specifically, there was a vital piece of advice shared by Jane Kim (incumbent D6) that was also agreed upon by Scott Weiner (incumbent D8). Kim encouraged the arts community to start meeting in December and to come together to formulate a budget for the board of supervisors to advocate for in the spring, noting that many other sectors are successful in doing this. This, she said, is how the city has been able to advance the conversation around pedestrian safety issues, educational funding and funding for shelters. “It’s hard sometimes,” she said, “to understand what the priority of the arts community is, but if we have it as one gifted package, it is very easy for us to know what to fight for.”