Curatorial Projects > Culture Catalyst (2018)

Essay by Arlene Goldbard

If I could take you back in time, it would be to a sunny day in 1971. We’re standing outside the San Francisco Arts Commission at 165 Grove. The Commission’s office and gallery are downstairs, but we’re headed upstairs to the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program. N.A.P., that’s where the action is.

As we can plainly see, it’s bustling. Think of N.A.P. as a community arts clinic — like the place you’d visit for a check-up, medical tests, a prescription. But here the focus is the well-being of the body politic, the cultural development of San Francisco neighborhoods. Who needs access to the means of art-making and dissemination? Who has a great project but needs help bringing it public attention? Who has the sensitivity, ambition, and skill to create a ravishing mural that unearths buried history, but needs paint, scaffolding, and a way to live while completing the work?

The underlying ideas are simple. Lives and communities throughout San Francisco are culturally rich; everyone’s experience is worthy of being uplifted into art; beauty and meaning are fundamental human rights, not elite privileges.

N.A.P. was organized by neighborhood, with each organizer given a territory, a salary, an actual budget and authority to deploy them. Sweet Michael Catlett (most didn’t know his sister was the famous artist Elizabeth Catlett — her 2018 New York retrospective just closed). Bernice Bing — Bingo — a truth-talking, big-hearted, inspiring artist and organizer. Buriel Clay, whose name is memorialized at the African American Art and Culture Complex theater on Fulton Street. That space was fought for in the 70s, folks in the Western Addition, Mission, Chinatown, Bayview, and other neighborhoods claiming a fair share of public funds that had been earmarked for red-carpet performing arts in Civic Center.

We walk through a labyrinth of offices and workspaces. Over here, people inquire about help with an art exhibit, concert, mural project, dance class, poetry reading, play. They talk to Jack Davis, a bear who purrs more than roars as he describes sound systems, a flatbed, and lighting, one object of desire after another drawn from the equipment bank to translate ideas into reality.

Here’s the print and design department where I worked from 1971 to ’73. We designed and printed flyers for community projects. Our technology was to today’s desktop publishing as moveable type was to cuneiform writing: Press-type (wax letters rubbed off onto paper); a photocopier to produce overlays by copying a copy of a copy. A Gestetner mimeograph machine: we made stencils on a fax-style cutter, attaching them to a rotating drum, forcing ink onto paper. It was labor intensive, madly inventive, and one of the purest expressions ever of art for the public good.

Let me emphasize public. N.A.P. wouldn’t have happened if creative, resourceful people hadn’t approached the City with a bright idea for community-building through art, if public funds hadn’t been invested. It wouldn’t have been able to subsidize so many artists if federal jobs money hadn’t been available coming off of the violent summer of 1968. And the idea never would have spread without John Kriedler writing one of the country’s first proposals to the Department of Labor for public service arts jobs.

I still have copies of the Bicentennial Arts Biweekly. December 18, 1974, describes “a queue of 300 unemployed artists — each hoping to get one of 24 new art positions recently made available by the Emergency Employment Act.” January 9, 1975: “Unemployed artists are being hired with federal funds in San Francisco in a program reminiscent of the WPA during the ’30s Depression.” Twenty-three artists had just begun to work at N.A.P. and the de Young Museum Art School at $600 a month. Applications were opening for 90 jobs for muralists to work in schools and housing projects, performing artists to work with community organizations and writers to work on neighborhood oral histories.

By the time the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) was ended by Reagan in 1980, CETA arts jobs had risen nationally to $200 million a year — and just about every artist active in community work had been given one, including local celebrities like Peter Coyote and Bill Irwin. The CETA arts origin story is contested, but I like to think it all started in N.A.P.’s messy, crowded, generative space where people from every background and life-choice built common ground, fed a never-ending conversation, and created a model of art in the service of community and equity.
Now, are you absolutely sure you want to go back to 2018?

Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, consultant and cultural activist whose focus is the intersection of culture, politics and spirituality. She serves as Chief Policy Wonk of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture and President of The Shalom Center. She was named a 2015 Purpose Prize Fellow and one of the YBCA 100 2016 for her work with the USDAC.