Amid one of the nation’s worst recessions, an unsuspecting group has helped prop up local businesses as they struggle to recover from the weak economy — artists.
While San Francisco’s jobless rate has hovered at 10 percent and storefront vacancies have turned into an epidemic, the arts community has managed to thrive, giving The City a much-needed economic boost.
Museums alone have drawn consumers into San Francisco in record numbers. At the height of the recession, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art experienced a 34 percent increase in visitors since 2007, and The City’s three public art museums had a 42 percent increase in patrons from February 2009 to February 2010, according to the City Controller’s Office.
The trend includes the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum, which had record-breaking attendance during its King Tut exhibit. A notable exception is the Asian Art Museum, which recently had a dip in visitors and is battling its creditor to stay out of bankruptcy.
Struggling businesses have leaned on these museums, along with local artists’ exhibits, to create a critical mass of shoppers, bar hoppers and diners who might otherwise just stay home.
“It’s ameliorated the effects of the recession,” said Luis Cancel, the director of cultural affairs for the San Francisco Arts Commission. “There has been a lot of economic spinoff.”
Public art investment went from $1.1 million in 2008 to $3.3 million this year, according to city arts officials.
In 2008, The City estimated that nonprofit art groups were generating $615 million in earned income and revenue. This compelled city leaders to further invest in San Francisco’s arts community, taking boarded-up storefronts and turning them into cutting-edge art zones.
Where vacancies were among the highest — Bayview, Chinatown and parts of Market Street — the Arts Commission doled out more than $33,000 to 66 local artists so they could fill the empty and blighted space with creative artwork and exhibits.
Niana Liu was one of those local artists who used the economic downturn as an opportunity. With the money from the Arts Commission, Liu created an art installation inside a long-vacant storefront in the heart of Chinatown.
Before Liu installed her artwork, the vacant store was riddled with graffiti and litter, which was costing the property owner time and money. But her art installation changed all that.
Within the storefront, Liu created an intricate dining room table set, and placed dirt inside the antique dishes. Within the dirt, she planted vegetable seeds, drawing pedestrians all over Chinatown to watch the edible garden grow.
“It could be just a dead corner,” said Liu, who is planning her next storefront installation. “But it’s a win-win — the community gets cool art and artists get exposure.”
Businesses, which have praised the storefront art program, have capitalized on local artists themselves, hiring them to paint murals over unwanted graffiti and design the interior for cheap. Some business owners, such as Paulo Cabezas of Mama Art Cafe on Mission Street, tapped local artists to design promotional materials to help brand its products.
“People think the arts are easily expendable in economic duress, but we are showing that the arts can be an effective tool,” said Jill Manton, the director of programs for the Arts Commission. “I think it plants a seed for future economic development and a future customer base.”
In July, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that The City had secured a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to remake the mid-Market Street area as an arts district.
The art influx has not only given artists new venues to sell their work, it has revived some depressed neighborhoods in the Mission and Chinatown and along Market Street, said London Breed, director of the African American Art and Culture Complex.
“In this down economy, people feel like there is still something for them, and it’s not costly,” Breed said. “It’s not like they are digging in [taxpayer] pockets.”
Officials throw weight behind Asian Art Museum to keep it afloat
The growing arts community has become so vital to the region’s economy that San Francisco lawmakers have inserted themselves into an ongoing battle between the Asian Art Museum and one of the nation’s largest banks, JPMorgan Chase.
Last month, the financial institution declared it would be cutting off the museum’s $120 million line of credit when it expires Dec. 21. The museum has been business as usual while lawmakers and attorneys work on its behalf to clean up the mess.
Staffers for Mayor Gavin Newsom huddled with officials from JPMorgan late last month, which resulted in the city attorney firing off a letter to the bank’s chief executive, James Dimon, threatening legal action should it force the museum into bankruptcy.
In the letter, City Attorney Dennis Herrera said JPMorgan’s move to cut the museum’s credit line and take $20 million in collateral from the Asian Art Museum Foundation raises potential issues of “unfair business practices.”
“If JPMorgan continues down its current unreasonable path, The City will be forced to take steps to protect the museum and the public. I trust this will not be necessary,” Herrera said.
JPMorgan officials declined to comment on the letter, but a spokesman said in an e-mail, “We continue to work with all parties toward a mutually beneficial outcome.”
While San Francisco owns the museum building and its collection, it is not on the hook for the foundation’s financial obligations.
At the same time, city officials have emphasized the cultural importance the museum for the region, and therefore they are prepared to protect it and the foundation, according to the City Attorney’s Office.
The museum — which is preparing for its January exhibition “Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens” — averages 300,000 visits per year and has 17,000 members. Its attendance recently dropped to 250,000, according to Tim Hallman, a spokesman for the museum.
Hallman thanked The City for its support, and then quickly gave people another reason to visit the museum.
“We have free admission on Sunday,” he said.
— Erin Sherbert
San Francisco’s Arts in Storefronts program:
Arts generated $614,794,215 in revenue in 2008:
5 Percentage of support that comes from The City
3 Percentage of support comes from feds
Snapshot of the arts in San Francisco:
450 Local arts groups
85 Percentage with budgets under $1 million
Source: San Francisco Arts Commission