The San Francisco Arts Commission:
Five Questions with Ralph Remington
by Emily Trace
by Kalya Ramu
“San Francisco seems to have more of a commitment to humanity and to the soul of individuals, and realizes that artists drive a society. Artists not only tell us who we are, but also who we were and who we aspire to be.”
In less than a year, San Francisco’s public and artistic spaces have undergone a substantial transformation that has only picked up speed since two statues of slaveowners were pulled down by protesters last June. With the safety of citizens in mind, Mayor London Breed had a third long-disputed statue of Christopher Columbus removed before it could be thrown off Pier 31 into the bay…perhaps the same dock Otis Redding sat on to watch the tide roll away. However, the cost to store his 12-foot, 2-tonne likeness comes to about $400/month. While the bottom of the bay might have been a more affordable storage facility, plenty of questions about the use of the city’s public space remained unanswered on land.
Favourite thing about SF’s arts & culture?
I admire not just the beauty of the built environment, but the beauty of the natural environment.
One book that helped sustain you through 2020?
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.
Most important quality that policy makers need in this era?
Top value you want to bring to this role?
Integrity and authenticity.
True or False: once a theatre kid always a theatre kid?
Primarily, that of a Maya Angelou monument designed by artist Lava Thomas to commemorate the iconic poet, writer, activist, and San Francisco’s first Black streetcar operator who snagged the job when she was only 16 years old. Though they initially approved the proposed design of what would be the city’s first monument to a real historical woman, the San Francisco Art Commission weathered criticism in 2020 after they rescinded that approval and concerns were raised about their mandate of racial equity. The approval was reinstated before the year concluded, but these incidents fuelled a rigorous civic dialogue about how the history and soul of San Francisco should best be expressed through public art.
Enter Ralph Remington, brand new Cultural Director of the SFAC. Formerly the Deputy Director of Arts and Culture for the city of Tempe, Arizona, Remington began his career as both a City Council member for Minneapolis and the founder of its Pillsbury House Theatre before serving as the Director of Theater at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in Washington, D.C. With a generous background in government, arts leadership, and the non-profit spaces where they make contact, Remington will co-chair a committee evaluating San Francisco’s nearly one hundred public monuments and memorials through 2021, engaging the public to decide which will stay and which will go.
Fresh into the new role, it was genuinely inspiring to chat with Ralph about how artists drive a city’s identity and how whitewashed depictions of history can be remedied by centering BIPOC voices. As a former theatre producer, director and playwright with firsthand experience in how the arts can jumpstart an audience’s empathy system, Ralph struck me as an ideal leader to oversee the payout of basic income to local artists, supply supports for educators operating in a digital environment, and provide much-needed funds for arts organizations through the SFAC’s robust granting apparatus. With US vaccination rates on target to allow the safe reopening of many spaces in the arts and culture sector by summer, Remington and the Commision are focused on ensuring that the arts landscape people return to is significantly more vital and equitable than they left it.
How is the SFAC contributing to the DEI efforts of San Francisco organizations?
SFAC has a legislative mandate that dates back to the early nineties, requiring our public funding to prioritize BIPOC communities and artists as well as women and people with disabilities. So this cultural equity endowment fund is one of the first of its kind in the nation. We give millions of dollars a year to these historically underserved communities. But our work has evolved to do even more over the last decade; we’ve upped our game in terms of outreach and technical assistance to ensure that the artists we commission for public art, who exhibit in our galleries, or those we fund through our grants are representative of these BIPOC or LGBTQ communities that define San Francisco’s rich diversity.
The cultural centres we support are rooted in communities of colour, and more recently, San Francisco voters passed legislation to stabilize arts funding from year to year with an emphasis for funding BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving organizations. We’re also going to roll out, in the coming weeks, funding to serve the Black community as part of the city’s effort to reallocate funding from law enforcement. Post-George Floyd, Mayor London Breed moved $120 million from law enforcement to cultural efforts. So doing our work with an anti-racist lens is ongoing because inequities will remain for a long time. Our country was built on it—in fact, I almost left and went to your country if the election had gone otherwise (laughs). Fortunately it didn’t, not that I wouldn’t have wanted to live in Toronto.
[The fund reallocation] is pretty exciting and forward-thinking. The whole Defund the Police movement is really taking shape with a practical lens. It’s one thing to say Defund the Police, but it’s another thing to ask if resources are going to be reallocated, where are they going? And I was a city councillor in Minneapolis; George Floyd was killed right down the street from where Pillsbury House Theatre is, the theatre I founded in Minneapolis, so I knew that community intimately… yeah. Life is wild.
What are some affordable and impactful goals that the Commission might pursue in 2021 to support SF’s artistic community?
COVID hit the arts community art hard; our artists and arts organizations are hurting, and the end of financial duress is not yet in sight. What the SFAC is doing now is administering, through a non-profit organization, a Universal Basic Income grant that will support 130 artists with $1000 a month for 6 months. And we’re providing funds for organizations to reopen safely so they can get back to serving the public and earning revenue. We’re providing arts educators with the supplies and support that they need to do their work in a digital environment now, and we’ve pivoted just about all our funding and general operational support so that organizations can use these grants for their most pressing financial needs like salaries and rent. So the city of San Francisco is incredibly committed to its non-profit arts sector because we know that the arts are a cornerstone to recovery—not just for our sector but for the city as a whole.
This pandemic has made everyone think differently about what is a workplace, what is the role of society, what is the role of government in a society for everyday people? How does government work? Canada has a great history of subsidization and the United States has just depended on the free market in a lot of cases, just letting people fend for themselves in a Darwinian way. San Francisco seems to have more of a commitment to humanity and to the soul of individuals, and realizes that artists drive a society. Artists not only tell us who we are, but also who we were and who we aspire to be. That’s why arts and culture are so important and why people fight over it, why they fight over statues coming down because they sometimes have an erroneous idea of who we are or who we were, and they have a discordant idea about where we’re going and what that’s based on. Is it based on white supremacy, or is it based on some new future that we can imagine together as a progressive society? Those are the battles; that’s what we’re fighting for right now.
But the US is in a worshipful relationship with money; and not just the US, but the western world worships money in a way that’s unhealthy. It’s given us technology and benefits too—look at us right now, talking from across the continent—but the bad things, the greed, the colonialism, taking over space and pushing people out of space, the space itself becoming unaffordable… it’s a crucial problem that we need to get our arms around to become a better place in the future. We often say in the United States, “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” but do we really mean that? I’m assuming that we do, so let’s put our money where our mouth is.
How will the SFAC evaluate which of the city's monuments should be retained, and what will you bring personally to the process?
We’re about to launch the Monuments and Memorials Advisory committee process that engages the public in determining the guidelines we as a city should follow, especially when considering which monuments should come down and which should stay up—and that they have additional didactics that tell the full historical narratives which are so often whitewashed with these statues. So it’s important that the city doesn’t make those decisions in isolation because it's the public that we’re serving.
Too often, Black and Indigenous communities are traumatized by seeing the ideal of white supremacy venerated in the public realm. We can talk about equity and representation but until we address the celebration of colonialism, slavery and violence embedded in the narratives of these monuments, then it’s just talk. So we’re looking at how the future monuments can venerate ideals, events, and individuals that speak to inclusion, racial equity and feminism in these public artworks. That’s the focus, and I’ll be co-chairing that committee.
My personal mantra is to try to give space and voice to marginalized and disenfranchised people, to provide a platform for them. To me, in this new role with SFAC, if we centre the BIPOC community then we are centring America, and ostensibly the globe as well. It’s only when we don’t centre BIPOC people that we aren’t actually centring the country, that we aren’t centring the globe. And if we don’t centre women, we’re not actually centring the country. It’s by centring marginalized and disenfranchised populations—the LGBTQ community, the disabled, the economically disenfranchised, youth, our senior community—these are people that are often forgotten or abused or misused and pushed to the margins. If we don’t centre them we’re not actually centring America and we’re not adhering to “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” And that’s what we should be doing. That’s who we are. That’s who I am.