Equity and progress: Museums and arts in San Francisco Bay Area

San Francisco, CA, USA

I head over the glorious Golden Gate bridge northwards to Fairfax, self-styled birthplace of mountain-biking.  I’m there to meet Margaret Kadoyama.   For thirty years Margaret has worked in museums (within organisations and as consultant), taught the J.F.Kennedy Museum Studies program and in recent years, been deeply involved in the US Museums and Race initiative.   When I catch up with her, she’s putting the finishing touches to a forthcoming book on Museums and Communities (to be published by Routledge later this year).  I’m there to talk to her about the role and future of museums, civic engagement and leadership.  I want to know more about the issues facing US museums.

“One of the biggest is equity. What does it really look like?  What do we need to do differently?  Museums have got to acknowledge and understand their own histories, as places based on colonialism.  They have to recognise when they exhibit institutional bias and racism.  A challenge is coming from the younger generation and museums are going to have to figure out where the leadership is.”

Margaret tells me how activism is increasing in the field and points to collectives like Museum Workers Speak   as change-makers who show the way for the wider sector. #MuseumWorkersSpeak is an action-oriented platform for social change at the intersection of labor, access, and inclusion.  Formed as a collective of activist museum workers, they interrogate the relationship between museums’ stated commitments to social value and their internal labor practices.

We talk about similar initiatives in the UK and how, amongst some museums, there is a discernible shift towards becoming more pro-social and activist.  I’ve taught on a post-graduate Museology course in Manchester for nearly a decade now, Margaret for double that time and we’ve both noticed a shift in the motivations and interests of students towards wider social impact.

When I ask how she views her role, she laughs.  “San Francisco is not exactly short of activists.  It’s in our DNA.  So I am an activist, but I also think about myself more in terms used by author Debra Myers, as a ‘tempered radical‘”.  She believes in quietly pushing things forward.  Since Trump, however, even she has become more vocal.  I sense a reluctance and even slight fatigue that she’s felt compelled to do this.  But, we both discuss, its no longer enough to be the platform or fora for debate in today’s world. Now is the time for museums to step beyond this, play a more active role.

So, why hasn’t it happened more?  Some of the museums I’m visiting on this trip (like Oakland Museum and MAH Santa Cruz) are doing this but they are the exception rather than the rule.  Margaret puts it simply, describing the qualities and attributes needed to work in this way.  “Its hard.  You need to be open, agile and often, just say yes.  Make things happen. Be at the table.  Listen.  Be part of your community.”  In addition, she tells me how, for some museums, IRS rules are used to limit the scope of socially engaged work you can do.  “If you get government funding however, there is still more you can say and do than you can’t.  It shouldn’t be the excuse to hold back or not step up.  We need to explore the limits.”

Which leads me back across town to the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts (YBCA), a multi-disciplinary contemporary arts centre with a truly compelling mission; to generate culture that moves people.  It describes itself as the Center for the Art of Doing Something About It.  I love this.  I meet with CEO Deborah Cullinan and Jonathan Moscone, Chief of Civic Engagement and what is clear, from the outset, is their fundamental belief in the power of people and art to create more hopeful, equitable solutions.  Since joining in 2013, Deborah has fostered a “culture of invitation”, supporting staff and partners to coalesce around the vision of YBCA as community centre and civic asset.

“Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is the Bay Area’s creative home for civic action. We believe that culture precedes change, and it is the responsibility of arts organizations to spur and support societal movement.

Our community’s biggest challenges require collaborative solutions. We work across sectors to advance the insights, ideas, and projects that can create real change.”

Their YBCA Fellows program brings together creative citizens from across the Bay Area – artists and everyday people alike – to engage in a yearlong process of inquiry, dialogue, and project generation. Each Fellowship cohort explores and responds to a question and together they use art and culture to inspire community transformation.  This year, they’re asking “Where is our public imagination?”

YBCA have a commitment to supporting the arts ecosystem and believe one of the most effective ways to do this is to be part of the broader civic conversation.  This is something Ive been thinking about alot in the last couple of years.  For several months, on secondment to the public health team’s Greater Manchester Ageing Hub and now, as Strategic Lead (Culture) I regularly participate in those civic conversations and culture plays a significant role in shaping the city-region’s wider ambitions for ageing.  I know  colleagues from other sectors value the perspective, solutions and ideas culture and the arts bring.  Exploring how museums and arts organisations can be part of that wider civic conversation, has in large part, driven my thinking and research during my Clore fellowship.  Not surprising then that my interests and values align so strongly with YBCA. Their vision and programme is impressive, consistent and I’m so pleased to have found them. I’m glad they are doing this work.  I hope others follow.


The only disappointment is how the building and spaces don’t yet reflect their purpose. Although the staff are warm, friendly and soon put you at ease, the building feels cool and exclusive.  Also, there are real constraints on activities in the urban park outside and entrance area so their threshold is not as inviting as it should be.  Both Deborah and Jon are upfront about this and as you would expect, are doing something about it.  “We’re going to overhaul our spaces, experiment with them a bit.  There is so much reverence for architects. So we’re looking to a design studio skilled at working in public realm like shopping malls, to help us turn YBCA into a community centre, a voting place.”  Increasingly they’re not just interested in hosting others but in making and leading their own activism.   I’m curious and excited to see what and how this develops.

After leaving YBCA, purely by chance, I come across one of their projects; a People’s Garden in the Tenderloin District, one of the only neighborhoods in the city of San Francisco without a full-service grocery store, making access to fresh, affordable food a daily struggle for the many low-income residents of the Tenderloin. Over 30,000 residents, including families and children, live there.

In 2010 a vacant lot near San Francisco’s City Hall transformed into what is now a  thriving community garden. In partnership with YBCA, it was created as part of the Neighbourhood Development Corporation’s work for food justice and brings together hundreds of volunteers to grow food and build community.  That’s what you call the Art of Doing Something About It.

My final museum visit in the Bay Area is in Oakland, the Oakland Museum of California, neatly summarised as “the Museum of Us”.  I’ll confess, I fell slightly in love with this place.

From outside, it may look like a car park or bunker, but once inside, its a stylish modernist concrete building with terraces for sculpture, planting, views galore and large oak and glass doors leading you into and out of galleries of natural science, history and American art. There’s a sunken park, even a fishpond.  It felt so relaxed and informal (the sunshine does help) and the collection displays are both conversational in tone and thought-provoking. For me, all this makes for a great museum visit.

I spend a day there and meet up with Kelly McKinley, Deputy Director of Oakland Museum and several of her colleagues. Oakland is the third largest city in the Bay area and the most ethnically diverse in the US.  The Museum sits next to Lake Merritt, which Kelly tells me a decade ago, was little more than a muddy puddle.  Today, its a locus for the city.  She tells me more about what matters to the museum.

 “How do we tell stories connected to this place?  What does equity mean here, today?  Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panthers movement and we have a duty to tell that story and if necessary, revisit the trauma.  We can’t do that alone. From consultation to contribution to co-creation, communities inform what we do and show.  If we’re really committed to equity, we’re committed to lifting up stories that haven’t had a stage”

Again, a real focus on equity, that I encounter time and again as a visitor.  Not least in the  Dorothea Lange retrospective commemorating her personal archive, gifted to the museum 50 years ago.  I’m excited about this and have been looking forward to it. I’m not disappointed.  Its a deeply moving exhibition, with striking (and many unfamiliar) images and a clear narrative focusing on her activism and the emotional and political impact of her work.

From documenting the plight of Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression to magnifying the grim conditions of incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II, Lange’s photographs demonstrate how empathy and compassion—focused through art—can trigger political action.

Kelly tells me how they’ve shifted in recent years, from trying to be a Museum for the whole of California to primarily “being fabulous and beloved at home” for the people of Oakland.  This means building the confidence and courage of the staff, cracking out of the curatorial-driven model and the “paralysis of perfection” so prevalent, especially in art museums.  One of their programmes – Friday Nights at OMCA  has led this shift. Its  “Oakland’s most talked about food truck party” and every Friday, hundreds of local people go to this family-friendly event with music, art, dancing and of course food.  I meet its organiser-in chief Cynthia Taylor, Associate Director Public Programs, and for  two hours, beside the Koi carp pond, we chat about the role of museums as social spaces, advocating for social change, Trump, artists, developing exhibitions about the subjects people really care about (most recently at OMCA these have included the story of the Black Panthers and marijuana legalisation) and of course, equity and care.

What I admire about Oakland Museum is both their commitment to change and their recognition of the time and energy it requires.  Evolution, not revolution.  They may experiment (often with radical intent) but their public is engaged with and part of the process. I wish more museums did their thinking in public.  The big issues of equity,  creativity and social change underpin all I’ve seen on my visit and so they should.  Kelly reminds me of Michael Spock’s warning that ‘your museum will close if it can’t be for people rather than about stuff’.  But of course, the very best museums (like Oakland) are those that do both.