Meet a Changemaker: Ralph Remington at the San Francisco Arts Commission
In this installment of “Meet a Changemaker” — where we talk to individuals driving civic innovation — Ralph Remington, Director of Cultural Affairs at the San Francisco Arts Commission, shares insights about centering equity, diversity and belonging in the arts sector and beyond.
Ralph joined the Arts Commission in January to direct public cultural programs, special projects, grantmaking and policy in San Francisco. In this interview, Ralph speaks about his role, his passion for the arts, and how community art can be a city’s heartbeat.
You joined the Arts Commission as the Director of Cultural Affairs in January of this year. Can you please describe your work and what drew you to this position?
So a lot drew me to San Francisco. It’s a wild ride, you know, moving to a new city and starting a new job during a pandemic. But this role offered so many challenges and opportunities, especially in a city that is known globally for its deep investment in the arts.
My job is to effectively steward public support for the arts so that artists may create and present their creative vision for the City and beyond. The Arts Commission’s mission is to champion arts as essential to daily life. We invest in a vibrant arts community to enliven the urban environment while shaping innovative cultural policy.
The agency’s stated commitment to racial equity also drew me to this role.
We believe in creating a city where all artists and cultural workers have the freedom, resources and platform to share their stories, art and culture, and where race does not predetermine one’s success.
And the Arts Commission’s focus on equity — as we confront systemic inequities of the past reveal inequities of the present and develop strategies to move all of us towards an equitable future — resonates with my own commitment to racial equity and social justice. It’s incredibly important work. We have a long way to go. But we’re well on the path and that’s what is important.
What role do you believe the arts play in the civic fabric of San Francisco? How does this role further equity, diversity, and belonging in the City?
The arts in any city shape what that city is. It manifests its values. It offers us an opportunity to learn who is in the city and how they interpret the place they call home, and how a place is defined. So ensuring that all artists are heard — especially those who don’t have as much access to having their creative voices heard — is paramount.
San Francisco is a leader in so many ways, and I believe we can really demonstrate how to significantly move the dial in the direction of a more equitable and just society through arts and culture — including amplifying all the voices that make up this incredibly diverse city.
COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way residents engage and interact with the City. As an agency that champions the arts as essential to daily life, how has the Arts Commission responded to these changes?
So, like everyone else, we are waiting for the City to reopen so we can interact in-person with each other and with art as we did before. The in-person experience enables us to commune and share in the energy art delivers and to give energy back to actors, musicians, and even to a visual arts space. So that’s irreplaceable and we can’t wait to return to seeing live art.
San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries did pivot quickly to present programs online or through social media channels in 2020. So we were still able to promote local artists and help amplify their visibility.
We also commissioned 10 artists to create visual love letters to healthcare workers, which were posted along Market Street and distributed at COVID-19 testing and treatment sites. These were beautiful public health messages to promote safe behaviors like mask wearing.
The Arts Commission also continued our Art on Market Street poster series, so that there’s always fresh and engaging art about San Francisco along the City’s main thoroughfare.
Our grantmaking did change fairly significantly and quickly to ensure we were giving out as much general operating support as possible and not just tying the grants to projects. This helped cultural organizations meet their most critical needs, while not having to worry about delivering a project. And we instituted a number of new responsive grant programs like the Re-Opening Safely grants to help organizations be ready to open their doors to the public. April 15 will begin to see those steps to re-opening indoor performance venues, and if COVID cases don’t spike, there will be even more opening up in mid June. It’s been an endurance test for sure!
And of course there’s the universal basic income grant. This is the guaranteed income of $1,000 per month for six months for 130 working artists that are most impacted by COVID. This grant leans heavily towards BIPOC and LGBTQ artists — so equity is at play here as well.
Art can be a source of inspiration and empowerment to individuals as well as a community as a whole. How have the arts of San Francisco inspired and empowered you? When and how have you seen the arts inspire and empower the people of San Francisco?
I’ve been here for just a short time, beginning in January. And when I got here, I was locked down because I had COVID-19. But even in this short time, I’ve seen the impact of San Francisco’s arts in a number of ways. Like distributing 20,000 artist-designed masks to the City’s cultural district and community hubs, which has been incredible. It makes people excited to support the arts and to fight COVID-19. It’s a way for communities to feel united and hopeful about recovery.
I also attended an event in the African American Arts and Cultural District last month for the unveiling of the Black Panther mural. It was incredible. It was great to see the community out on 3rd Street being excited to share stories and experiences and being brought together through and for art.
Then there’s the Paint the Void murals that are all over town where artists have painted messages of hope on plywood boards covering storefronts. And these messages are incredibly inspired and help unite a community while also helping to deter crime. It’s an initiative I’m really glad we’ve undertaken and one that makes me feel very hopeful.
Another poignant exhibition was a video projection installation called “We the People” where images of people in the Tenderloin were projected onto the side of City Hall. It was really fascinating and gave a nobility to the people that we typically would just walk by and not pay attention to. It centered these people and said these people all have three dimensional lives and are beautiful and deserve to be noticed and to be honored.
As we look, hopefully, towards an end to the pandemic: What role do you see the arts playing in the City’s recovery? How will your work power this vision?
The arts have a huge role to play. The San Francisco arts sector is a $1.45 billion industry. It supported 40,000 jobs pre-COVID-19. As we support the arts through innovative programs like Re-Opening Safely grants and the guaranteed income for artists, the arts will help San Francisco recover. As I said earlier, the arts define a city — they tell you about the city, its people, its values. So as the arts reopen and are reborn, it will help the City find itself again.
And I believe firmly in centering BIPOC voices in these conversations because for so many hundreds of years they were largely excluded from the cultural conversation or pushed to the margins. It’s only when bypassed communities are centered that we become America. Because this is what America looks like. This is what San Francisco looks like.
What does civic innovation mean to you?
Civic innovation means being willing to take risks — using new methodologies, technologies and tools to enable the City’s vision. It means being progressive, inclusive and accessible so that the City can serve everybody equitably. And to make it a place that people want to visit and live and experience all that a place has to offer.
In the context of my work, my role is really that of a servant leader. I’m not here to come into the City and say, “This is what you should do. I have the answer.” Because you don’t necessarily have the answers — you have what’s in your head. You have to go into any new community with a certain amount of humility and listen more than talk. So that’s why I’ve been meeting with cultural leaders, independent artists and city staff so that we can put together a strategy for how we’re going to move forward into the future.
Fun question! What’s your favorite landmark in San Francisco?
Well it’s got to be the Golden Gate Bridge, right? It’s my favorite landmark for now, but I’m sure there’ll be other things I discover this year.
About San Francisco Arts Commission
The San Francisco Arts Commission is the City agency that champions the arts as essential to daily life by investing in a vibrant arts community, enlivening the urban environment, and shaping innovative cultural policy.
The Arts Commission envisions a San Francisco where the transformative power of art is critical to strengthening neighborhoods, building infrastructure, and fostering positive social change. They believe the arts create inspiring personal experiences, illuminate the human condition, and offer meaningful ways to engage with each other and the world around us. They imagine a vibrant San Francisco where creativity, prosperity, and progress go hand in hand. They advance artists’ ideas to improve the quality of life for everyone through a united cultural sector whose contributions are vital and valued.