By Brad Erickson
For years now—decades, even—arts advocacy has primarily meant beseeching government bodies (local, state and federal) to appropriate more money to their arts agencies, bureaucratic departments whose primary purpose was to dispense grants to artists and arts organizations. For advocates, the “ask” was simple: give more money to the arts. Why? So artists and arts organizations could better serve the constituents of the lawmakers by producing more art and art education programs in their communities.
It was easy to unite arts advocates around campaigns when the task was simply to wrest more public dollars for the arts from government coffers. When infighting broke out (and it did), the disputes were typically around where public dollars should be targeted: large-budget organizations or small? Multicultural groups or mainstream institutions? Urban or rural? Arts education or arts programming? Professional or community-based arts? Scarcity could make the debates desperately heated—and often worked to undermine the entire advocacy effort. When victories came, it was most often when the arts advocates themselves could lay aside the internecine disputes and speak with one voice—as we were able to do earlier this year in both Sacramento and San Francisco’s City Hall.
Today, as the Bay Area experiences a new tech-based economic boom, the issues facing the arts—and arts advocates—are more complex than simply seeking more money for public granting bodies. We’ll need plenty more of that, too, but the biggest challenge lies beyond the purview and the capacity of arts agencies.
The gravest threat to theatre and all the arts across the Bay Area is the skyrocketing cost of living and making art in this superheated economy. It is not news to report that artists and arts organizations are being forced out of their homes. But it bears repeating that in San Francisco the average rental rate for an apartment and the median price of a home have very nearly doubled in just five years. Prices in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties aren’t far behind. San Francisco now ranks as one of the top five most expensive cities in the world for commercial rents—right up with (if not surpassing) London, Tokyo and New York. And the ripple effects of those astronomical statistics are felt all around the region, as we saw when Uber announced the purchase of Oakland’s Sears Building and commercial rents in that neighborhood jumped by double-digit percentages in one afternoon.
Our public arts agencies cannot grant the arts out of this crisis. But something must be done. Activists have generated a welter of options, seeming at times to be following a strategy of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Initiatives are on the November ballot to build more housing—both market-rate and affordable—while others seek a moratorium on new housing in targeted neighborhoods, in an effort to cool down the market and create space for crafting long-range plans to manage development. Meanwhile, opponents say that curtailing construction will only exacerbate the problem—and both sides point to conflicting studies to back up their arguments. Other initiatives and new legislation seek to limit (or open up) short-term rental options (à la Airbnb), expand rent control, legalize alternative living spaces (mother-in-law units), strengthen “legacy” small businesses, establish “cultural districts” or “arts corridors,” open neighborhoods to megadevelopment, change zoning laws and increase set-asides for affordable housing, to name just some of the approaches being proposed.
For many of us arts advocates, navigating this new reality will mean boning up on unfamiliar and often complicated issues. It will mean finding new allies and participating in novel meetings and hearings. It will mean expanding our advocacy vocabulary and our minds.
Just this past week, I was impressed to learn what one Theatre Bay Area member, Peter Papadopoulos, and members of his company, Mojo Theatre, are doing in their Mission District neighborhood: rolling up their sleeves to understand arcane zoning codes; engaging with the city Planning Department; and meeting with City Hall staff to discuss potential legislation that could protect theatre companies, other arts groups and individual artists at risk of losing their work and living spaces. This kind of activism is not easy work. It’s certainly not sexy work. But it’s the kind of work in which all of us, as arts advocates, are going to need to engage if we’re going effectively confront today’s biggest threat to the arts in the Bay Area.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.