By Brad Erickson
I’ve just begun a project working with the Arts Council Napa Valley to train their staff and board of directors on arts advocacy, with the goal of empowering the ACNV leadership to lead ongoing advocacy workshops in their community. It’s a terrific initiative, designed by the organization’s CEO Olivia Everett, and gives me a great reason to drive up to the wine country several times over the next few months.
In the initial meeting with the Arts Council’s board, I asked the group to share their personal visions of what the Valley could be and how the arts fit into making that vision a reality. Napa County is a complicated place. Technically part of the Bay Area, it can seem both a world away and a world apart. The Valley’s reputation is worldwide, and the county draws millions of visitors each year. They come for the wine, of course, and the food, the vistas and the nearly ever-present sunshine. They come for what many on the Arts Council’s board referred to as “the good life.”
Seemingly pulled from the glossy pages of Conde Nast Traveler, for me that phrase immediately conjured images of affluent (white) people sipping wine on a sun-drenched terrace overlooking an idyllic scene—exactly what the Napa Chamber of Commerce might hope! The phrase seemed, at first hearing, steeped in privilege. And yet, it came up again and again. Apparently in this particular community, soaked in natural beauty, an ethos that declares that everyone, not just the well-heeled, deserves a chance to enjoy a “good life,” feels not so far-fetched.
For Napa County, with a third of its population living below the poverty line, that’s crucial. If the vision for Valley is, as one board member put it, to be “where life is good,” then life needs to be good for everyone. And the arts, in the view of the ACNV board, must play a crucial role in enriching the lives of all the county’s residents—as well as its many visitors. Art in the county, the board asserted, must be for all.
That’s a message that can resonate for the rest of us in the Bay Area as well. We know we live in one of the most affluent regions on the planet (there are now more “super-rich” people living in San Francisco than Los Angeles, despite the fact that L.A. is more than three times as populous as SF). And we know that the income gap between rich and poor in the Bay Area is more pronounced than almost anywhere in this country. Income disparity in the Bay Area is replicated in gaps in education, opportunity, health and public safety, as well as gaps in access to the arts.
Bridging the gap in access to the arts is where arts advocacy becomes an issue of social justice—because the arts, as we have made the case to policy makers so many times, really do make a difference in people’s lives and their communities. Bridging the gap in access to theatre is where our work as theatre-makers (and theatre supporters) becomes an act of social justice, a way of making the entire Bay Area a place “where life is good.” For everyone.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.