Can The Arts Survive Without Tech?

by Laura Hilgers

Privately, the city’s cultural institutions are wringing their hands. The future of the Opera, the Ballet and the de Young depends on the support of Silicon Valley socialites, but they seem more interested in spending millions on issues with global impact.

For centuries, the vitality of a city could be measured by how much its wealthy residents contributed to the arts. History’s list of patrons has been extensive and includes the Medicis in Florence, the Vanderbilt-Whitneys and Peggy Guggenheim in New York, John and Dominique de Menil in Houston, Dede Wilsey, Charlotte Shultz, Helen and Charles Schwab, and Doris and Donald Fisher in San Francisco.

But what happens when a city’s patrons grow older and the next generation, for the most part, hasn’t begun writing checks? It’s a dilemma now facing San Francisco’s cultural institutions, as the tech community largely shies away from donating to the arts.

“I think every institution would tell you they are struggling to get the level of support they need,” says Andy Rappaport, a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist who cofounded the Minnesota Street Project, which provides affordable space for the arts. “The priorities of the younger generations in San Francisco are different, and we can’t make the assumption that over time they’re going to have the same appreciation for the arts. I think every institution is realizing it needs to work a little harder to figure this out.”

The Asian Arts Museum’s chief philanthropy officer, Nancy McLaughlin Sackson, agrees. “San Francisco, for a long time, has relied upon the same 200 individuals and families to fund most of its civic and philanthropic projects,” she says. “Many of the next generation of those families continue to be involved but a number are also branching out and pursuing their own projects. The arts community is not necessarily having great success continuing on through the generations with engaging patrons.”

The problem is not that San Franciscans, beneficiaries of the recent tech boom, suffer a shortage of cash. According to a 2017 Wealth-X census, the city (and its environs) is home to 60 billionaires, the fifth-highest such concentration in the world. The median home price is more than $1.6 million. The median household income hovers around $100,000.

Yet, that massive concentration of wealth isn’t translating to direct and proportional support for the arts. It’s difficult to gauge exactly how much cultural institutions are being affected because officials won’t say much publicly, and financial statements tell a varying story. The San Francisco Ballet, for example, has seen a drop in “pledges receivable” over the last six fiscal years, as has the San Francisco Symphony, with their “promises to give” (though they received a nice bump in the 2015 fiscal year, the latest year for which numbers were available). Others have seen their contributions rise and fall, but stay relatively the same, even though the median household income in San Francisco has been rising at a rate of 8.26 percent, according to Census Bureau numbers.

“The mandate is really about building a sustainable next generation of audiences,” says Julie Begley, chief marketing officer of the San Francisco Ballet.

Officials confide their concerns privately, but publicly prefer to focus on the positive — and the potential. “I would argue that the tech industry, if you look at it as a larger kind of whole, is supportive of the arts in multiple ways,” says Max Hollein, the outgoing director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “The wealth that has accumulated here because of tech goes very deep, into areas like private equity and real estate. It’s not just 30-year-olds who have sold their first start-up.” Peter Fenton, a venture capitalist who backed Twitter and now sits on the board of the San Francisco Opera, is just one person who would fit Hollein’s description.

The mandate is really about building a sustainable next generation of audiences. Julie Begley


There are San Franciscans in tech who give generously to the arts. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and his wife, Akiko Yamazaki, recently donated $25 million toward construction of the Asian Arts Museum’s new 13,000-square-foot Pavilion and Art Terrace, to be named after them. Kaitlyn Krieger, founder of the Future Justice Fund, and her husband, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, give generously to SFMOMA; the most recent annual report, published in 2016, listed them as contributing between $20,000 and $49,999. Last year, Kaitlyn also co-chaired the museum’s Birthday Bash. Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sits on the boards of both SFMOMA (where she gave in similar amounts to the Kriegers) and the San Francisco Ballet. And tech entrepreneur Trevor Traina formerly sat on the board of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which encompasses both the de Young and the Legion of Honor, making an annual contribution between $10,000 and $24,999.

But many in the tech world have different priorities, says Kaitlyn Krieger, and have been influenced by the “effective altruism” movement, an evidence-based approach encouraging people to act in ways that bring about the greatest positive impact. They tend to focus on global issues such as improving healthcare, eradicating hunger and providing clean water. Marc Benioff, of Salesforce, who Rappaport describes as “the single most philanthropic, socially minded CEO-founder in the Bay Area,” and his wife, Lynne Benioff, gave $100 million to UCSF to build a new children’s hospital in Mission Bay. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $75 million to San Francisco General Hospital, and have pledged much more to tackle a wide variety of issues through their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is a separate entity.

San Francisco’s cultural institutions are concerned enough that they’re all actively pursuing ways to cultivate a new generation of donors — which means they’re also cultivating new generations of art lovers. In order to reach younger audiences, the San Francisco Ballet is offering Unbound, a festival of new works. In the past, it has also offered Sensorium, an evening of art, music and dance events, followed by a dance party, which drew throngs of young patrons. The Fine Arts Museums will be offering an upcoming speakers series aimed at the tech community, Thinking Machines, featuring Mike Krieger, fuseproject’s Yves Behar and Wired magazine’s co-founder, Jane Metcalfe. Over the holidays, the Symphony screened Home Alone, accompanied by a full orchestra and children’s choir, and in the audience were spotted venture capitalist Dave Morin and his wife, Brit, of Brit + Co, among other Silicon Valley millennials. The San Francisco Opera has begun hosting pop-up events at clubs and bars around the Bay Area, featuring younger artists. The Opera’s general director, Matthew Shilvock, estimates that 40 percent of the attendees are new to SF Opera, and that 75 percent are under 45. “It’s just amazing to feel the energy of the crowd,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a well-known aria from La Bohème or an obscure aria from a Handel opera — the audience is riveted, right there with the singers.”

Even so, challenges remain, especially in convincing those in the tech world that supporting local causes has merit. Kaitlyn Krieger says that she and her husband give because they’re passionate about the arts and they “want to be good citizens” of San Francisco. But, she says, people in tech have built their careers on their ability to reach huge numbers of people on global platforms. “I think when you’re talking about small arts institutions that are locally based and that potentially reach 20,000 or 500,000 or even one million people a year, those numbers look small by comparison,” she says.

Another more practical matter may be that people in the tech world work grueling hours, leaving little room for leisure or the arts. And, as Hollein points out, they’re young. According to a 2014 Harvard Business Review survey, the average age of Silicon Valley’s start-up founders of billion dollar businesses was 31. People generally come to art patronage at a later age. For San Francisco’s cultural institutions, it may simply be a waiting game as these founders and CEOs mature.

Andy Rappaport and his wife, Deborah Rappaport, built the Minnesota Street Project in order to address concerns about the arts in San Francisco. As the city’s rents soared, they witnessed a mass exodus of artists and arts organizations. So they built low-rent studios and nonprofit offices, as well as a café, gallery spaces and areas to hang out. San Franciscans responded by showing up, which affirms Rappaport’s belief that the best way to appeal to younger generations is not by catering to their wealth or their interest in technology but by connecting with them as human beings. “Fundamentally, art is an exploration of humanity,” he says. “The unique contribution of the arts is to explore what humanity really means, outside the context of any other purpose. If you take the arts away from a community, you’re taking away an enormous exploration of what it means to think, to be a person, to be part of a community. Most major cities haven’t had to contemplate that because there’s been enormous, or at least sufficient, support for the arts.”

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