Trying to explain the Bay Area arts scene to people from other parts of the country can be a frustrating experience. ASD theater critic Chloe Veltman explains why.
Today I'd like to talk about perceptions of Bay Area culture by people in other parts of the country. In short, they don't think we have any. Over the weekend, I was at a conference in Chicago. I can't tell you how many times I got into conversations with well-educated people from elsewhere (I was at a symposium for doctors aimed at ingraining humanistic care within the medical profession) about the Bay Area which would go something like this:
Dr. X: "So, you come from San Francisco?"
Chloe V: "Yes."
Dr. X: "I love San Francisco. It's a beautiful city."
Chloe V: "Yes, it really is. I love it too. I came here thinking I'd stay a year or so and now seven have passed."
Dr. X: "So what do you do there?"
Chloe V: "Well, I'm an arts journalist. A theater critic mostly, in fact. I work for a publication called SF Weekly."
Dr. X: "Theater? Huh." [long silence.]
"Is there much theater in San Francisco?"
Chloe V: "Yes, quite a bit actually."
Dr. X: "Is it any good?"
Chloe V: "Some of it is very good, actually. We have a great scene over here. It's the third biggest theater scene in the country after New York and Chicago."
Dr. X: "I had no idea..."
At this point, the medic's eyes would glaze over and we'd move on to discussing more approachable things such as life on his hospital ward or his visit to San Francisco for a catheter conference in 1998.
It doesn't seem to matter how often I tell people about how great this city's arts scene is. Our arts just don't seem to have much of a reputation outside of the Bay Area. Why is this? I can understand people in other parts of the country being ignorant of some of our more esoteric events like the the Faux Drag Queen and King pageant and even, maybe, the Fringe Festival (though shame on them for not knowing about these events.) But to have no idea about the global reputation of, say, SF Ballet or the national significance of A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep is like never having heard of the Chicago Bears or Cubs.
I'm not blaming the doctoring community. These are people who know about the arts. Many of them attend the theater, opera and other cultural events in their own communities and read widely. They know quite a bit about what's going on culturally around the country. The fault is ours. We need to do more to get our work out beyond the narrow confines of the Bay Area. People need to see it in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. And we need to get visitors to this part of the country in to see our cultural offerings.
Of course, this is easier said than done. For any of the above to happen, our local authorities need to see the arts as one of the most important aspects of Bay Area life. City Hall needs to get behind the arts and promote them -- make insiders and outsiders see their significance. Here's hoping that one day I might not have to make stump speeches like the one above in front of a few befuddled medics.