Artistic free spirits have always flocked to SF

Artistic free spirits have always flocked to SF

When did San Francisco become an arts mecca?

If you ask Bill Issel, San Francisco State University’s history professor emeritus, it always has been.

Issel said “the three P’s” — pioneer spirit, patronage and Pacific orientation — were instrumental in forming The City’s artistic and cultural identity.

“It was the place to be if you were young and adventurous,” said Issel, pointing to San Francisco’s instant population explosion during the Gold Rush and the fact that newcomers stayed because they weren’t tied down by institutional constraints.

Larry Eilenberg, a professor of theatre arts for S.F. State, said The City was home to more than 1,100 productions — plays, operas (in five languages) and minstrel shows — from 1850-59.

“It was an extraordinary hub, all this money was rushing in,” Eilenberg said.

Barons in business — Leland and Jane Stanford, Charles and Mary Crocker, Levi Strauss, Isaias Hellman (great-grandfather of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman) and Mayor James Phelan — were among those whose funds started and supported institutions that remain active today.

Pacific influences ranged from bustling Chinatown endeavors to Japanese art, and even immigrants from Russia fleeing persecution. In the 1920s and ’30s, Russian-American painter Victor Arnautoff and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera were among those who created murals for Coit Tower.

And when it comes to the operatic arts, it’s “been in the DNA of San Franciscans since 1851, when the first Italian touring troupe dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay and gave performances of Bellini’s ‘La Sonnambula,'” said David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera.

Choreographer Brenda Way, founder of ODC/Dance who came to San Francisco in 1976 specifically because it was a cultural mecca, said, “My impression is that ever since Isadora Duncan at the end of the 19th century, important things had found a home here, had grown up here, had flourished here — from Anna Halprin to the San Francisco Ballet to Wayne Thiebaud and [Richard] Diebenkorn to the Pickle Family Circus and American Conservatory Theater, to Snake Theater and the Magic [Theatre] to the San Francisco Symphony and the Grateful Dead. And the list goes on.”

AP FILE PHOTO Dance pioneer Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco and laid the foundation for future groundbreaking dancers. AP FILE PHOTO Concert promoter Bill Graham had a huge influence on The City's rock 'n' roll scene.

Dawn Holliday, owner and operator of Slim’s and the Great American Music Hall, was dazzled by counterculture troupes the Cockettes and Angels of Light when she came to The City in 1971, often haunting four clubs a night.

“It was like there was no fear. It was a wild, different world, just an amazing scene, with all the lights and colors and talented — and talentless — at the same time,” she said, adding, “Bill carried that through with the music,” referring to concert promoter Bill Graham, who created The City’s far-reaching 1960-70s music scene, booking the Fillmore and Winterland with groundbreaking local rock acts (Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead) and jazz, blues and soul artists.

On the literary front, S.F. State’s Poetry Center was founded in 1954 from a donation by W.H. Auden and City Lights Bookstore, Eilenberg said, and it “was at the dead center of the Beat movement” that challenged authority in the 1950s.

The same goes for theater, from the political San Francisco Mime Troupe to evolving vaudeville and circus communities, to alternative companies that premiered Pulitzer Prize-winning works (Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” at Magic Theatre and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” at Eureka Theatre).

As for film, Eilenberg said that although studios were in Hollywood, talents such as Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock “wanted to make their movies here.”

While The City’s connection and influence in visual arts goes back to the thriving San Francisco Art Institute, which was founded in 1871 by the San Francisco Art Association, its future also is looking dynamic, said Fine Arts Museums Board President Dede Wilsey, who looks forward to celebrating the 10th anniversary of the modern de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park in October.

After successfully bringing major exhibitions on King Tut and Impressionist masterpieces from Paris to the de Young, Wilsey said she experienced a turning point while watching visitors at last year’s exhibit of works by British artist David Hockney.

“It was a defining moment,” she said. “I personally felt that the museum had become a museum of the people.”150th AnniversaryBelliniDiego RiveraGrateful DeadLa SonnambulaSan Francisco artsSan Francisco cultureSan Francisco State UniversityVictor Arnautoff


Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a well-known poet and author of "A Coney Island of the Mind," is also the founder of the progressive City Lights Bookstore in North Beach.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a well-known poet and author of "A Coney Island of the Mind," is also the founder of the progressive City Lights Bookstore in North Beach.

Just Posted

A large crack winds its way up a sidewalk along China Basin Street in Mission Bay on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
San Francisco’s sinking sidewalks: Is climate change to blame?

‘In the last couple months, it’s been a noticeable change’

For years, Facebook employees have identified serious harms and proposed potential fixes. CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have rejected the remedies, causing whisteblowers to multiple. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)
Facebook’s problems at the top: Social media giant is not listening to whistleblowers

Whistleblowers multiply, but Zuckerberg and Sandberg don’t heed their warnings

Maria Jimenez swabs her 7-year-old daughter Glendy Perez for a COVID-19 test at Canal Alliance in San Rafael on Sept. 25. (Penni Gladstone/CalMatters)
Rapid COVID-19 tests in short supply in California

‘The U.S. gets a D- when it comes to testing’

Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo led a late-game comeback against the Packers, but San Francisco lost, 30-28, on a late field goal. (Courtesy of San Francisco 49ers)
The Packers beat the Niners in a heartbreaker: Don’t panic

San Francisco is no better and no worse than you thought they were.

A new ruling will thwart the growth of solar installation companies like Luminalt, which was founded in an Outer Sunset garage and is majority woman owned. (Philip Cheung, New York Times)
A threat to California’s solar future and diverse employment pathways

A new ruling creates barriers to entering the clean energy workforce

Most Read