On Wednesday, April 1 — National Census Day — the team at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco launched “Come to Your Census.” This beautifully collaborative project was originally planned as a physical, city-wide, artist-driven activation that we quickly reimagined into an online art and civic experience. We first came to this project — long before the coronavirus — because of a fiercely passionate activist and curator named Amy Kisch. I want to tell you why we opened our doors and our resources to Amy many months ago and why it makes even more sense now.
First, the story. In the summer of 2019, Amy approached me with a project she had been developing with San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA) focused on the 2020 Census. Her big and bold vision was to develop a broad-based coalition called Art+Action made up of artists, activists, community-based organizations, tech companies, public agencies, and more in order to design and deploy an artist-driven campaign to raise awareness around the fundamental role this once-every-decade population count plays in our democracy. Amy and the leaders at OCEIA were, and continue to be, particularly focused on reaching the people living in San Francisco who are most vulnerable and hardest to count.
The invitation to consider was whether or not YBCA would be a lead partner and the headquarters for this vision. There are a couple of reasons why this was a very easy invitation to accept.
Reason One: Artists as Essential Mediators
This unique partnership between a city agency and a curator is formed around the simple idea that artists are essential mediators in their communities with a unique ability to reach people where they are and remind them of their value and their power in our democracy. This thoughtful campaign starts with artists who can deploy creativity to help people understand the tangible stakes involved in the Census, including fair representation in our government and equitable federal funding for essential local services.
Equally as compelling, artists can reorient the process so that it is also provoking us around pressing questions about what it means to be counted in our country: Who is seen? Who matters? Who is afraid to be seen? Who are we and who do we want to be as a nation? These provocations help us locate deeper meaning in something like a population count and can lead us to engagement and action well beyond the act of taking the census.
I think of artist Joan Osato who was originally showing five photographs as part of the exhibition component of this project. Recognizing the power in congregation, whether that is in a physical or digital space, she is now inviting people to send census selfies with a response to prompts about the importance of this population count to their community. YBCA will be posting Osato’s “remixed” photos online as a way to digitally gather this community of people who are exercising their power.
Reason Two: It Was Already Time
Well before the coronavirus pandemic, YBCA was undergoing a serious transformation in pursuit of a much more inclusive, responsive, and relevant model. We were striving to be not only an arts center but also a forum that fuels creativity and collective action in service of a better world. We recognized that the systems and structures we had built to support art and creativity in our communities were inequitable and inadequate. We had transformed our approach to programming and collapsed our multi-disciplinary curatorial structure into one collaborative program and engagement team. We had launched open calls, residencies, and fellowship programs in order to surface and support the immense creativity, the extraordinary talent, and the powerful ideas that exist all around us but that our institutions often fail to see, lift, and celebrate.
Amy’s call to us was not only an opportunity to incubate this new coalition and help mobilize a critically important arts-driven civic campaign, it was also an invitation to allow this collaboration to indelibly change our institution by letting Amy and her team of partners and artists lead our way. Just before the pandemic, we were about to open the Art+Action headquarters at YBCA to the public. But we had decided to also take this opportunity to reimagine how we think about our public spaces and also how we think about an exhibition.
The “Come to your Census” opening that was originally planned for March 27 was taking the shape of a beautifully interactive and textured art and civic experience that would blend the best elements of a public square, a participatory installation, and a dynamic exhibition experience. Rather than a discrete exhibition that would go up and come down, we were striving to transform more permanently into a civic commons, an open hub for engagement.
Though we reconstituted that opening into an online and ongoing virtual experience, we have no plans to lose the momentum of this transformation. Indeed, we have no plans to return to a previous way of being and doing.
Reason Three: Put Art and Creativity to Work
For us at YBCA, this work is about the role that art plays in leading us forward to a better future. Our mission is to catalyze cultural movement because we know that cultural shift — the changing of hearts and minds — can spur positive and progressive change. We believe culture is not inert; it does something and, if we follow people like Amy, we can provoke new ways of working toward transformation.
Because we consider artists to be world builders and change-makers, the YBCA team has been in active pursuit of big ideas and powerful partnerships that put art and creativity to work on getting us unstuck and propelling us forward. Specifically, over the past several years, we have been diligently opening and exploring new pathways for artists and their businesses to be invested in and hired to help achieve better outcomes in communities. Our deep collaboration with Penelope Douglas on our CultureBank initiative is another example of YBCA listening for and responding to a powerful vision — in this case, a vision for a new paradigm for investing in artists who are having a measurable impact. For Penelope, an artist and also a long-time leader in community development investment, the artist is the missing piece in a newly imagined and beautifully integrated system that invests in creativity and community in order to achieve equity and collective wellbeing.
Now, as we move through this pandemic and beyond, we are witnessing bright spots of quick and inventive action. Cities like Berlin which defied its own reputation by quickly distributing relief money to small businesses and freelancers including artists, hairdressers, and designers. The state of California is rapidly transforming hotels, housing facilities, and convention centers in order to house people who are living without homes through this crisis.
We know — we are proving in real-time — that we can create new social and economic strategies that unleash the creativity that is all around us in service of a newly imagined and better world. We can support big thinkers and doers like Amy and Penelope, whose ideas and actions help us to build whole new ways forward.
Let’s imagine arts organizations to be inclusive incubators of community vision. Better yet, let’s reimagine it all.
Let’s employ our artists and entrepreneurs to build infrastructure that catalyzes humanity’s capacity for invention, imagination, and evolution. Let’s imagine arts organizations to be inclusive incubators of community vision. Better yet, let’s reimagine it all.