By Adam Fong and Nathan Jae-Sun L

 

The Mosaic Festival Silicon Valley features a snapshot of the mosaic of cultures that have made their home in the region. Attendees enjoy a spontaneous concert featuring House of Inanna belly dancers and Indian dhol player Gurdeep Hira sharing their authentic traditions with the larger community. (Photo credit: Miguel Ozuna / Mosaic America)

This article was featured in Arts Essential, a newsletter from the Performing Arts Program exploring the profound ways the arts impact, shape, and define the San Francisco Bay Area. 

The performing arts are both a reflecting and a reshaping force.

In a hyperpolarized era, when communities silo and individuals isolate, can creative impulse bring us together? Can the arts harness the histories and assumptions underlying our discord and move us toward a mutually beneficial future?

Hewlett’s Performing Arts Program makes grants in pursuit of a single overarching goal: a Bay Area in which communities honor and support both their own and each other’s artistic and cultural vibrancy. We believe in the expansive power of the arts — to provide joy, healing, and knowledge to individuals, as well as opportunities for communities to explore their histories, express their individuality, and imagine new futures. Whether it’s a cultural ceremony, a dance recital, street theater, or any other art form in the Bay Area, the performing arts are built on foundations of creative freedom and cultural togetherness. These foundations help communities thrive, and show that supporting the performing arts can be a valuable pathway toward realizing a healthy democracy.

Fostering respect and mutuality

When we cheer as a friend shares their work onstage, make room for others on a dance floor, or even when we just silence our phones before a performance, our respectful presence — in deference to the artists and our fellow participants — becomes part of the live experience. This same sense of interaction and appreciation is at play within many artist collectives and organizations, and across arts networks and communities.

The Performing Arts Program’s goal is for local communities to actively demonstrate this kind of mutuality, and we already see some examples of this in practice. Organizations like Headlands Center for the Arts and Black Cultural Zone create opportunities for artists and community members to share assets in a spirit of respect and mutuality. Whether this involves public land in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area or community development projects at Liberation Park in Deep East Oakland, sharing resources for cultural expression can lead to a potent sense of public ownership. Likewise, there has been a recent surge of interest in more inclusive and participatory grantmaking programs for artists — something we’ve observed in our pilot projects supporting Sonoma County and the city of Vallejo. To escape deficit thinking and winner-takes-all scenarios, the Bay Area’s arts sector is turning to practices that are centered in respect and mutuality, while modeling mechanisms and platforms that mirror, and honor, the democratic process.

Building agency and shared power

For any individual experiencing or participating in the arts, their connection with the art creates agency. Organizations serving young people, like Destiny Arts and RYSE, move beyond developing aesthetic and creative abilities and explore how art can become civic engagement. The youth they serve learn to harness their power and develop their voices, which they can then raise to tell their own stories and those of their communities. That development of voice and perspective is critical to healthy democracies at every level, from the local to the national.

Arts advocates, like those leading the Watsonville Movement for Arts and Culture, are showing how the impact of creative agency reaches beyond performances, influencing economic development, nurturing a sense of belonging, supporting public health outcomes, and more. As co-leadership has grown within local arts organizations, the sector has the potential to become a training ground and a significant force in active civic engagement. With trust in institutions at all-time lows in the United States, the arts — with their ability to attract participation, develop agency, and distribute power — can be both a salve and a solution.

Bridging differences

The Bay Area cultural sector’s history has been shaped by ideas from around the world. The region is home to master artists, culture bearers, and creative innovators actively building bridges between disparate ideas, always creating a new sense of place and possibility. Longstanding arts hubs, like La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley and EastSide Arts Alliance in Oakland, as well as newer organizations like Mosaic America in Santa Clara County, create spaces for artists to initiate community dialogue across cultural, ethnic, and economic lines. With creativity and keen insight, the collective ability of artists and local organizations to embrace individual and community differences can be a powerful unifying force, particularly in a world where so many hesitate to engage with cultures, histories, and ideas different from their own.

“Creative liberty” represents each person’s freedom to express themselves according to their own creative interests, abilities, and imagination. It is an environment that recognizes each person’s unique voice, beliefs, and opinions. It is also what makes differences inevitable in both artistic expression and democratic society. Creating art — presenting and experiencing it, collaborating within and across communities to develop it — can undergird and help foster the highest purpose of a democracy: the articulation of the pluralistic will of the people. In our present age of polarization and discord, we see hope in how our local arts ecosystem so often brings together multiple perspectives to offer experiences that simultaneously honor individuality and propose a better future for all.

In times of conflict, what can the arts tell us about who we are and who we might become? We believe the performing arts have significant potential, not only to help us understand our past and dream of a better future, but also to actively reshape our region in the present moment.