How We Care for Each Other

San Francisco arts spaces find alternative ways for experiencing art as a community.

Before San Francisco ordered a city-wide lockdown, the local arts community was figuring out what they could do in the midst of a crisis. The ongoing pandemic demands that people keep their distance, but the arts thrive on full audiences, packed venues, and shared experiences. 

But ironically, staying home or staying away is sometimes the most selfless thing to do. We rounded up a few heartwarming stories about the San Francisco arts community in one of its most dire eras. This is how we care for each other:

Solidarity in Asian-American Arts

Baysia, like many March events in San Francisco, had to be cancelled during the pandemic. Hosted by Kearny Street Workshop and Balay Kreative, Baysia was supposed to be a ten-day-long celebration of Asian-American art and food. Its tagline was “Asian American Culture Rising,” and it felt big, with numerous pop-up dinners and art shows.

But it can still happen. Organizers Kimberley Arteche and Gina Rosales have been working on ways to host Baysia online. The continuation feels crucial — while physical health is of utmost priority, it often goes together with mental health, hand in hand. 

“The messaging is leading us towards isolation,” Arteche says. But even within her own community, artists have been able to find ways of banding together, from a distance. Arteche says that she and a group of poets have floated ideas like video chat meals.

And as for Baysia, it’s a time for an artistic industry to get even more creative. The team pitched ideas: What if you hosted musicians via video chat? Or held a panel online? 

There might even be a way to experience highly-anticipated events like virtual pop-up dinners.

“Okay, what if the chefs shared a really awesome recipe with everyone? And people bought these ingredients beforehand, and they cooked it together, or cooked it before?” Rosales says.

There’s a lot you can do with a laptop and wifi, though the two acknowledge that reconstructing an event like this has shed some light on “blind spots” within their communities. They’re currently brainstorming ways that older generations — who may not have access to the internet as readily as other generations do — can still join in.

Nothing is set in stone yet. But Baysia is thinking about its digital revolution.

“It’s such a unique situation and we don’t have it 100 percent figured out yet. We don’t have our dates. We don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like,” Arteche says. “It’s a huge opportunity for us as an organization to think really creatively about ways to offer remote community.”

Isotope Comics

James Sime, owner of Isotope Comics, “came of age” in the early 1990s when an AIDS crisis left a generation traumatized.

“It was devastating,” Sime wrote to SF Weekly in an email. “We knew so little, our government refused to talk about it, but all around us our friends were dying. And dying. And dying. It was a really scary time.”

It’s what Sime reflects on when he talks about our current pandemic, and how he builds these experiences into his philosophy surrounding Isotope Comics.

“We learned how to take care of ourselves and others around us, how to stick together, support each other, celebrate life, and help keep each other safe and sane,” Sime said.

That’s why — before the city-wide lockdown — Sime posted on Facebook on March 12 an alternative for immuno-compromised people, offering a way for them or their loved ones to come into Isotope while the shop was closed to the public to minimize their chances of exposure: “Private times are available six days a week. And curb side pick-up so you don’t have to leave your car is always available any time.” As of March 13, Sime was also offering home delivery.

Social media response was overwhelmingly positive, with many people praising Sime for giving people the option of shopping for comics safely — a privilege that many of us take for granted.

Taking care of your mental health is crucial during distressing times, and Sime hopes that Isotope can play a part in relieving people’s anxiety.

“I think being a source of happiness and escapism in troubled times is the most important thing a comic store can be,” Sime said. “A small comfort in troubled times.”

A.C.T. Goes Digital

Restrictions against gatherings don’t mean the death of art. It’s the 21st Century, and the A.C.T. is working on a video alternative for those who purchased tickets to its productions of Gloria and Toni Stone, but haven’t been able to see it amid the cancelations.

It’s not a complete substitution for live theater. “There’s that interplay when you’re in the audience, there’s an energy you get,” Jennifer Bielsten, executive director of the A.C.T., says. 

But it’s something.

“We’re hoping that people will be delighted that there is some way — even though it’s not live, which we would prefer — that they’ll actually get to see the show,” Bielsten says. 

For those concerned about the future of theater competing against online platforms, don’t worry. The A.C.T. knows what its post-pandemic priorities will be.

“We really believe in the power of bringing people together. We’re one of the few ways that large groups of people can come together to have a shared live communal in-person experience,” Bielsten says. “That will remain the focus of what we do.”

Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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