The Arts

The Arts

I found that my wounds begin to heal when the voices of those endangered by silence are given power. The silence of hopelessness, of despair buried in the depths of poverty, violence, racism are more deadly than bullets. The gift of light, in our compassion, our listening, our works of love is the gift of life to ourselves.

Janice Mirikitani, former San Francisco Poet Laureate and SFF 2015 Community Leadership Award winner
“The Anastasio Project,” a co-production of NAKA Dance Theater and Eastside Arts Alliance, an SFF grantee. Photo by Scott Tsuchitani
A Region Rooted in the Arts

A region’s art institutions often signify the health of its civic society. For people within that society, art is also a form of cultural expression, of identity, of connection and belonging to a place. For decades, SFF has played a pivotal role in introducing and supporting arts organizations, individual artists and art movements that strengthen our sense of belonging and inclusion in the Bay Area.

Since introducing our equity agenda in 2016, our arts work has also become an integral strategy to advance racial equity and economic inclusion in the Bay Area. In particular, it’s one of the critical ways that we’re working to strengthen and anchor Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color in this region. “Arts and culture provide individuals and communities a vehicle to express themselves freely,” says Esailama Artry-Diouf, SFF’s program officer for arts and culture. “Arts are a platform to dialogue with each other.”

Supporting Arts Establishments and Arts Education

SFF has provided seed or early funding to some of the Bay Area’s best-known arts, culture and media organizations, including KQED. “The first grant that we got was from the San Francisco Foundation when KQED was formed in 1953,” says Holly Kernan, KQED’s chief content officer. “We will always be grateful for that seed money.” Seventy years later, KQED brings arts programming to nearly 700,000 viewers, listeners and readers throughout the Bay Area and beyond.

In our early years as today, SFF also saw the arts as an important part of young people’s education, and our early grants focused on exposing students to the arts (although the focus was limited to classical European arts) and awarding their artistic pursuits. Since 1955, we’ve partnered with our donors to administer the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for young authors and, between 1952 and 1967, the Kimber Award for Young Instrumentalists. We also provided tickets for students to see the Chamber Music Society, as well as scholarships for the San Francisco Boys Chorus.

Did you know?

In 1955, SFF partnered with our donors to create the Joseph Henry Jackson Award (now called the Literary Award), which continues to this day. In 1961, SFF gave the award to Philip Levine. Known for his writings about blue-collar workers, Levine went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1995 and become U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011.

SFF’s 1955 annual report announced the Joseph Henry Jackson Fund, which continues to support outstanding works of poetry, fiction and nonfiction today

Throughout the tenure of our first director, John May, who led SFF during our first 25 years, SFF’s arts funding prioritized the creation and sustenance of major, mainstream arts institutions. In our 1974 annual report, for example, we lauded our funding for the Exploratorium and the San Francisco Museum of Art. Along the same lines, our donor advised arts grants largely supported the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony. 

A Shift Toward Arts Activism

Under the leadership of Martin Paley (SFF director from 1974 to 1986), SFF’s work, including our arts funding, took on a pointed social justice focus. In addition to continuing our support for established institutions, our arts work increasingly funded organizations that were critical to anchoring communities in the Bay Area amid gentrification and displacement. In the 1980s, for example, SFF’s senior program executive for the arts, John Kreidler, helped establish a project dedicated to minority arts organizations that attracted substantial funding from San Francisco’s Hotel Tax Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

This trajectory continued under the leadership of Dr. Sandra Hernández (SFF CEO from 1997 to 2013). John Killacky, SFF’s Arts and Culture program officer between 2003 and 2010, described in a 2011 blog post an arts strategy that included a number of nonprofits led by and serving Black and Indigenous people and people of color but that nevertheless reinforced existing disparities in philanthropy:

What was missing were the multiple perspectives in philanthropy needed to judge excellence in culturally specific organizations. As a result, a separate “other” track was created for these organizations, a kind of affirmative action track with far less resources. By creating this separate track, we may have unintentionally entrenched a two-tiered caste system. … In retrospect, I wish I had presented this kind of framework to the San Francisco Foundation trustees; instead I followed a dispersal method of distributing small amounts of money to as many organizations as possible. Even with miniscule amounts of money, grantees had to elucidate numerous outcomes and activities. Now that I’m a grantseeker again, I wonder if all that paperwork was necessary for grants averaging $12,000.

As of 2011, the majority of foundation arts funding in the United States supports large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million and focused on western European art forms. Despite the fact that these organizations comprise less than 2% of all arts and cultural nonprofits, they receive more than half of the sector’s total revenue. As of 2009, only 10% of art grant dollars explicitly benefited communities of color and people with low incomes. To address this glaring hole in philanthropy, SFF further committed our arts work to vital yet underfunded organizations and artists that are critical to maintaining the rich diversity of the Bay Area.

The Artistic Hubs Cohort
In 2019, SFF grantee [] produced “Priced Out,” an animated film about the housing crisis in San Francisco. Photo: SFF Arts Thursday highlight, March 2022

In 2013, SFF set up the Artistic Hubs Cohort to support 15 arts organizations focused on the intersections of artistic excellence, community access and social justice. Since then, cohort members have included organizations such as the Eastside Arts Alliance, Chinese Cultural Center, BAYCAT, Betti Ono Gallery and La Peña Cultural Center. Artistic Hubs helps keep working artists and anchor arts organizations from being displaced from the Bay Area.

Tere Romo, former SFF Arts and Culture program officer who helped organize the cohort, wrote in 2015: “The Artistic Hubs Cohort approach was informed by studies around ‘creative placemaking’ as well as the concept of ‘placekeeping,’ the enacted identity and activities that allow personal memories, cultural histories, imagination, and feelings to enliven the sense of ‘belonging’ through human and spatial relationships.”

The Heartbeat of Activism

Today, SFF’s arts and culture work incorporates five strategies: our Artistic Hubs Cohort, general grantmaking to anchor arts organizations, our partnerships with donors through our Murphy and Cadogan Scholarships and Literary Arts Awards, our rapidly growing arts funding collaboratives, and policy advocacy for artists who need fair wages, affordable homes and a sense of being rooted in the Bay Area.

One SFF-supported arts project, the AscenDance mural, helps underline many of these strategies. In 2015, when luxury condo developers covered up “Universal Language,” a gorgeous mural depicting the beauty of multicultural Oakland, local artists marched to Oakland City Hall and successfully advocated for a community benefits agreement to have a new “Ascendance” mural erected, with a focused on housing justice, diversity and cultural arts, and to build affordable homes in the parking lot adjacent to the mural. “This is a beautiful story that signifies what we stand for at SFF,” says Artry-Diouf. “It signifies the idea of recovery, rebuilding and reimagining, and what that looks like for the arts and creative sector in our community.”

SFF’s arts and culture work is also an integral part of our all-in housing strategy. Grantees such as Safer DIY Spaces and Vital Arts work with local jurisdictions to create innovative solutions to preserve and produce affordable housing for artists and to make sure that work-live spaces and alternative living spaces meet safety regulations. Another SFF grantee, [], produced an animated film, “Priced Out,” in 2019 to help residents better understand the housing landscape in San Francisco. “People of color and low-income communities must lead on the land-use decisions that affect their neighborhoods,” says Dyan Ruiz, [] co-founder.

Bay Area artists continue to work on the front lines, expressing the heart and spirit of our collective struggle for justice. They provide communities with a vehicle to express themselves freely and to make social and political statements about racial equity and economic inclusion. “In many historically marginalized and silenced communities, arts is a strategic language, a way of talking about, understanding and exercising decolonization,” Artry-Diouf says. “A society is nothing without its arts and culture.”