This Year’s YBCA 100 Summit Breaks Boundaries

No Beyoncé, sadly, but plenty of W. Kamau Bell, Jeff Chang, and Taylor Mac.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph at the YBCA 100 in 2015 (Tommy Lau)

At this weekend’s YBCA 100 Summit, three questions will drive the discussion: “Can we design freedom?”, “What does equity look like?”, and “Why citizenship?”

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ chief of program and pedagogy, hopes that starting with questions will mean going beyond what he calls the “cultural tourism” that can happen at arts institutions.

“I come, I buy a ticket, I go see a show, I leave, cool,” he says. “As a performer, one thing I always think about is how do you harness the energy in the room? When the community disperses, what do you do with that energy?”

Joseph compares it to  wind or solar energy – he’d like to think what’s generated by the participants at YBCA 100 as a renewable resource to go back to again and again.

YBCA’s staff have gone through a process to choose the 100 people who most inspire them. It’s not just artists, but chefs like Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi who started the affordable, health-conscious fast food restaurant LocoL, comedians like W. Kamau Bell of CNN’s United Shades of America, and the feminist bike brigade, The Ovarian Psycos.

Beyoncé is on the list, and not just “because she’s the queen, which she definitely is,” Joseph says, but because of her involvement with the Black Lives Matter movement. Lots of publications put out lists of influential or inspiring people, Joseph says – but then what? At YBCA, they wanted to try and take it further.

Most lists of this type include people who are already well known and influential, says Deborah Cullinan, YBCA’s chief executive officer.

“Our list defies certain kinds of boundaries,” Cullinan says. “On the Vanity Fair list, most of them are already rich and famous. On ours, we can have the Ovarian Psycos on a list with Beyoncé.”

Some of the people on the YBCA 100 will be at the summit on Nov. 5, some will be part of the programming YBCA does in the coming months, and some have no direct connection. The summit starts with a performance from theater artist and YBCA 100 member Taylor Mac,  who recently came to San Francisco to do A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1776 – 1836, and has had the plays Hir and The Lily’s Revenge produced at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Members of the YBCA 100 will discuss their current work, and some will perform responses to questions at the end of the day with poets Tongo Eisen-Martin and Marvin K. White.

Jeff Chang, author and director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, will be a moderator. He says the process may sound a little weird and ethereal, but it really works.

“Bamuthi is kind of a genius at design, and he’s created this design around taking seriously the notion that artists can be problem solvers,” Chang says. “People come up with things that could be projects and can apply the creative process to questions of social justice.”

Chang was at last year’s summit with artist Jerome Reyes, and he says they ended up generating lots of ideas they used while co-teaching a class on Chang’s book, Who We Be. He’s excited to be going back.

“This is the sort of methodology that when applied to work overall creates a process that opens possibilities and leads to the actual making of a piece or a painting or a collaborative process that ends up in a ballot initiative like San Francisco hotel taxes for the arts,” Chang says, referring to Measure S, which Jonathan Moscone, chief of civic engagement at YBCA, co-sponsored. “Most art institutions think of themselves as boxes into which people must come, and I think Deborah and the people at YBCA think of themselves as facing outwards, and see themselves as part of a community into which they must go.”

That’s what Joseph wants, saying he aspires for YBCA to be a conduit rather than a place of witness.

“Can we use art to design freedom?” he asked. “I don’t know, but we have to try. The times are urgent, and we don’t have the privilege of being harbors or vaults where people can visit art and then leave it.”

YBCA 100 Summit, Saturday, Nov. 5, noon – 7:30, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco, 415-978-2787 or ybca.org

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