Creative conditions: Expanding our support for Bay Area artists

(Left to right) Zawaya, Aziz Isaiah Abbatiello performing a Sufi dance for the Aswat Ensemble’s Sufi Music Concert at the Islamic Community and Cultural Center of Northern California in Oakland (credit Najib Joe Hakim); Youth Speaks, Performer at the Brave New Voices Festival (credit Daniel Schaffer); CounterPulse, Jose Abad in “This Is What I Want” (credit Robbie Sweeny); Youth Speaks, Performers at the Brave New Voices Festival (credit Desirae Lee)

The Hewlett Foundation has supported the arts in the San Francisco Bay Area since its inception. We believe the arts are essential for individuals and communities to thrive and that artists are the cornerstone of cultural practices that enrich our lives and the region. Artists help us connect to our heritage, better understand our present moment, and reimagine what’s possible.

Artists and culture bearers have long struggled to find support, and that challenge has been accelerating over the last two decades. After many waves of economic devaluation and political marginalization, artists and culture bearers increasingly face conditions that do not protect, support, or enable their best work. Many organizations are fighting against this rising tide, but the scale of interlocking crises involved — in affordable space, labor protections, social safety nets, and transportation costs, to name a few — now threaten the bedrock of the Bay Area’s cultural communities.

In response to the challenges that artists continue to face, our Performing Arts Program is updating its strategy to expand our support to artists through a more holistic approach to their well-being. In the past, we have provided funds to organizations that help artists make their work, learn from each other via peer networks, and learn from technical experts in marketing, fundraising, and other industry essentials. Our expanded strategy will add support for organizations that help artists have a say on the policies and industry practices that affect their lives the most. This begins with groups that can help identify the key issues that impact artists’ creative agency and economic well-being. By engaging directly with artists, these partners will clarify the challenges and opportunities in a way that builds understanding not only for artists but also for the many other people who invest their time, resources, and knowledge in them. Our expanded effort will also support organizations that can help drive change on those key issues. Finally, we’ll support innovators who are building new and stronger ways that artists can not only get by but thrive, both creatively and economically.

This renewed effort updates the Artists strategy we launched in 2019. Our revised goal is to ensure that Bay Area artists and culture bearers both shape and benefit from the services, policies, and practices that most impact their creative agency and economic well-being. We are significantly increasing the amount of funding allocated to supporting artists — from 15% to 30% of the Performing Arts Program’s budget.

We are using the term "creative agency" to mean a person’s ability to act freely, make independent creative choices, and impact their own creative and cultural working conditions. It’s the ability to express one’s own creativity, but also to do so on one’s own terms. "Economic well-being" refers to financial security, in the present and the future. This includes the ability to meet basic needs like housing and health care, to have economic independence, to be able to absorb financial shocks, and to have the opportunity to build assets while maintaining adequate income throughout one’s life.

There are many strong leaders working toward this vision in both the creative and economic realms. Some are engaging and organizing local artists to identify priorities and create new solutions. Others are forging cross-sector alliances or integrating artists into ongoing movements. Our Performing Arts Program will seek to partner with these leaders so that artists can articulate their needs, build effective alliances to advance change, and create new and more accessible pathways to thriving in the Bay Area.

It’s critical to note that, at this time, our strategy is flexible about which issues artists tackle. We strongly believe the changes artists and culture bearers bring to the Bay Area’s local arts ecosystem should be determined by them — not by outside financial interests, political agendas, or philanthropy, no matter how well-meaning. As we build new and stronger partnerships, we will strive to improve our ability to help artists secure greater control over their creative lives. This is critical work, and not only for the sake of the individuals involved and their industry. What’s truly at stake here is the artworks themselves, with all of the power they carry, and which can only be transmitted and expressed through the minds and bodies of those carrying them forward as a creative practice, a living culture. Bay Area performing artists and culture bearers are stewards of artistic traditions, disciplines, forms, and networks from around the world, stretching back centuries. They are essential to the health and vibrancy of the region and all its communities.

What policies or practices need to shift to ensure artists and cultural bearers can realize their fullest potential? What new forms of cultural infrastructure might we nurture together? By recognizing that artists and culture bearers are the people best equipped to shape their own creative lives, we believe we can help set the conditions for the performing arts and creativity to truly thrive in the Bay Area for generations to come.

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