On Friday night, Dec. 8, Mayor Ed Lee was at Stevens Books in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, viewing the work of artist Aaron de la Cruz and talking with other artists who’d created storefront installations funded by the city.
Tom DeCaigny, cultural affairs director for the San Francisco Arts Commission, saw the mayor there that night. According to DeCaigny, Lee’s regular appearances at this and other local arts events prove the importance of the arts to the mayor, who suffered a heart attack and died Monday evening at age 65.
“I think he really saw the value of arts and culture, particularly at the neighborhood level,” DeCaigny says. “Many people have spoken about how he wasn’t a flashy politician. He much preferred meeting with a local artist, in a local storefront — and that’s where he was, late into the evening just last Friday, before he passed.”
Such stories about Lee’s embrace of the arts, however, clash with a prevailing narrative in San Francisco’s creative community: specifically, that Lee’s tech- and developer-friendly policies sparked rent increases, low vacancy rates, and evictions that cumulatively pushed artists out of the city.
A 2015 survey from DeCaigny’s own San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) showed that of 600 artists polled, 70 percent had been displaced from their home or studio. (Multiple artists contacted for this piece did not want to go on the record, citing Lee’s too-recent death, before unleashing a string of words that either started with “F” or had to do with tech’s takeover of San Francisco.)
Stuart Shuffman, a.k.a. Broke-Ass Stuart, ran for Mayor against Lee in a 2015 election on a platform that included the protection of artists.
“When there are policies to help the rich get richer, you can’t be an artist in San Francisco anymore,” he says. “Art doesn’t come from the top. Art is a bottom-up thing. And when you push out all the working-class people, all the poor people and artists, you just get a boring-ass city.”
Lee should have been able to see the direct connection between his tech-friendly policies and artist displacement, Shuffman says — a stance shared by most artists he knows. “Ed Lee wasn’t out there personally evicting artists. I don’t think he was a bad person, and I’m sure he liked art and artists. But the policy of tech by any means necessary was harmful to the city.”
That conclusion — that Lee was friendly to tech and thus an enemy to artists — is an oversimplified one, says Jonathan Moscone, civic engagement chief at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and son of the late mayor George Moscone.
“There are a lot of forces that make arts difficult to sustain, in any city in this country,” says Moscone. “I don’t think it’s a one-to-one ratio that tech caused this, considering the complexity of issues that San Francisco faces.”
Moscone was the leading proponent of Prop. S, a 2016 hotel tax initiative that would have restored lost funding for the arts. Lee did not come out publicly for the proposal, and it failed at the polls by a narrow margin. Despite that, Moscone says, he understands that Lee had other priorities, and “insofar as we were able to get his ear, he did love the arts, that was very clear.”
Those in nonprofit arts organizations around the city echo the sentiment — that though Lee may not have loudly campaigned for the arts, he did understand their importance, and worked behind the scenes to mitigate the creative class’ exodus from San Francisco. Often that involved committees, meetings, boards, grants and other “not-so-sexy to the public” activities, says DeCaigny, but had tangible, and massive, results.
“One of his signature accomplishments was a historic million-dollar increase to the Cultural Equity Endowment. That’s the endowment that the Arts Commission manages that grants to both individual artists and small, mid-sized budget arts nonprofit organizations,” says DeCaigny of the 50-percent increase. “That endowment had been around for 20 years, so it’s something to say that it hadn’t been done before.”
Also as a result of that 2015 funding package, the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) was able to secure long-term leases for both the Luggage Store Gallery and CounterPulse, both well-loved institutions. Moy Eng, CAST’s executive director, characterizes Lee’s approach with the funding package as “not just a kicking the can down the road, but finding a long-term and permanent solution.”
And yet in San Francisco, those approaches — wonky, not easy to digest, full of bureaucracy — didn’t quell his critics. Perhaps the loudest artist expressing anger toward Lee was longtime San Francisco hip-hop artist Equipto, who confronted the mayor at Max’s Opera Cafe in 2015. “You have no heart, man,” the rapper told him in a widely shared video. “The people that built this city, you’re kickin’ ’em all out of here, man. You’re a part of it, I know you are.”
Equipto — part of a dwindling hip-hop community in San Francisco, where the black population rapidly diminished under Lee — did not respond to requests for comment. But his musical collaborator (and fellow Frisco Five activist) Selassie took a conciliatory tone on Twitter: “Even though we were adversaries in the ring of social justice in San Francisco, I respected him,” Selassie wrote. “Disagreed with him, but respected him as my elder. #RIP.”
Terri Winston, executive director of Women’s Audio Mission, which teaches women recording and engineering skills, says Lee was especially helpful when Women’s Audio Mission faced displacement in 2014.
“His support helped us keep the only professional recording studio in the world run by women in San Francisco and set us on the road to permanently owning our facility — which we now do,” Winston writes in an email to KQED Arts. “Mayor Ed Lee understood the importance of amplifying the voices of young women and girls of color and how our work was changing their relationship to technology.”
That intersection of arts and tech was key to Lee’s efforts to revitalize the Central Market district, which he sought to populate with arts organizations and tech companies alike. It is also central to the mission of the Gray Area Foundation — and Josette Melchor, Gray Area’s founder and director, says that when she started in the Tenderloin, Lee’s support was crucial in helping them get their first city grant.
“Gray Area had only been a nonprofit at that point for like two years,” Melchor says. “Taking a risk on a young entrepreneur is always really hard for a government official to do, but that signaled more support from other departments, which was instrumental to our growth.”
When Gray Area leased the former Grand Theater on Mission Street in 2014, “it took us two years to get our permits through because of the historical nature of the building, on top of the backlog of permits with the city,” Melchor says. “We were on the brink of throwing our hands up.”
Melchor emailed Lee with her plight, and Lee responded within an hour. “He immediately got his staff on task,” Melchor says. “I don’t know if our project would have even happened without Ed Lee stepping up.
“I know a lot of people have negative things to say about what he did to support tech companies. On the other side, I know he was supporting arts groups as well — but I guess it wasn’t as big of a headline.”
In the same Mission District neighborhood is Galería de la Raza, whose director Ani Rivera first met Lee when he was the director of public works during the establishment of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District.
“What I want to really honor and celebrate was his commitment to keeping San Francisco a sanctuary city,” Rivera says. In addition to his housing department’s Small Site Acquisition Program for long-term residents, which directly helped Rivera stay in her home, it was Lee’s understanding that art and culture weren’t mutually exclusive that drove his neighborhood approach, says Rivera. “It was part of keeping people in place, and securing culture.”
“Securing culture” isn’t exactly how other artists would characterize Lee’s tenure.
“What’s always made this city special is the outsiders, and rebels, and people who never fit in anyplace else,” Shuffman says. “And under Ed Lee’s tenure, that was killed. You can’t be an artist in San Francisco anymore.”
Shuffman points to the many artists “living in warehouses or making stencils in their living rooms” who never had the benefit of grant writers and thus were forced to leave, eroding the cultural fabric of the city.
“While there has been criticism about the social fabric of the city, particularly with the influx of tech workers here, it’s tough to be the mayor,” says SFJAZZ’s executive director, Randall Kline. “It’s a no-win thing.” (The well-known artist Jeremy Fish, who once had a day proclaimed in his honor by Lee while an artist-in-residence at City Hall for its centennial, says simply: “I don’t think people understand how hard a job that guy had.”)
At least for SFJAZZ, Lee was a key part of the SFJAZZ Center being built and opening in Hayes Valley in 2013. “It was not an easy project to embark upon,” says Kline, recalling how the mayor swung a sledgehammer at the groundbreaking and helped push the project through. “We owe him a great deal of gratitude for that.”
With many jazz musicians having had to move to the East Bay or beyond, “One of the things I’m most concerned about is housing for artists,” Kline says.
“I believe there were things brewing to make the city more affordable for artists, more livable for artists,” Kline says. “And it’s such a shame, because if the right project were put in front of him, I know he’d support it.”
That complexity, of weighing so many priorities in a city facing myriad issues, is echoed by YBCA’s Jonathan Moscone.
“I’m just sad,” says Moscone, “that we lost a mayor who was really trying his best, in a very difficult context, to do right by a lot of constituents.”