Arts center gets a happy anniversary

Screams of laughter float across the sun-dappled plaza of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). A dozen or so high school art students are doing a hopelessly bad job of balancing a giggling girl overhead while a nearby teen snaps photos.

Other visitors linger on the lawns, eating their lunch on this elegantly landscaped complex of nature and modern architecture.

It's hard to believe this bucolic urban campus is on the same site that just a decade ago prompted one local artist to remark, "Los Angeles had the Rodney King riots; San Francisco has the Yerba Buena!"

The center was conceived in 1980 as the cultural component of a San Francisco Redevelopment Agency project to revive a rundown district. Due to contentious wrangling among community leaders and local artists over the mandate for a new center in the heart of downtown, it took more than 13 years to emerge. Friday night, YBCA celebrates its 10th anniversary.

The report card on its first decade is surprisingly upbeat, given the friction of the years leading up to its creation.

"Artists from around the world have found a home in the thriving Yerba Buena district," says Mayor Willie Brown, responding to the Monitor via a written statement. "This dedication to artistic development and fresh perspectives has made the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts one of San Francisco's most beloved cultural destinations."

Inspired by the German Kunst- hallen, exhibition spaces that maintain no permanent collections, the center instead has focused on visual and performing arts that showcase emerging talent from across the town's diverse cultural populations. Curators make a special effort to showcase Asian, Hispanic, and African-American artists such as the star's of Friday night's gala: composer Miya Masaoka and African-American choreographer, Alonzo King and his multicultural troupe, LINES Ballet.

The importance of an institution devoted to new and local artists is particularly noticeable given the YBCA's immediate neighbor, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Built in 1996, SFMoMA draws national crowds to blockbuster shows such as the current sold-out show of Marc Chagall's paintings. While other cities such as Chicago and Boston may have similar exhibition spaces for new art, the YBCA is unique in both the strength and consistency of its mission. "Their mission to 'de-elitize' art viewing and art making has been noticeable," says San Francisco Chronicle art critic, Kenneth Baker.

Jim Melchert, a longtime local artist, says the contrast between the two institutions couldn't be more clear. "SFMoMA will bring in work from New York that you might just have read about in 'Art in America,' or one of the other publications," says the 70-something artist. "What you see at Yerba Buena hasn't made it into any publications yet. I see the two as complementary."

While the battles to exist may be over, the ongoing effort to forge a meaningful identity amid so many competing demands has not been easy, says chief curator Renny Pritikin. "Critics from the right said that multiculturalism is just a fad and it will be a disaster as a basis for an art space," he says. "Then, from the left, we heard that nothing this fancy downtown could really be grassroots."

Local voices of discontent can still be heard. Bob Armstrong is president of the Artists Guild of San Francisco, a 30-plus member consortium of artists who support themselves by their trade. But Armstrong says the YBCA is too concerned with being politically correct in the art world to see his group's work.

"We're artists who challenge ourselves artistically," he says, "but we also make the effort to sell our work and support ourselves, and that somehow puts us off the radar of the YBCA."

Nonetheless, say other observers and critics, the decade has been filled with art which would not have been seen without the support of YBCA.

"Yerba Buena tries really hard to facilitate what artists need," says Clare Rojas, a San Francisco painter whose work is now on display there. A highly political artist, whose work is full of sexual and political imagery, Rojas is typical of the edgy new voices that have appeared at YBCA.

"Even if they don't necessarily like the work themselves," says Ms. Rojas, "they have the understanding that other people might and they let it be out there."

Dancer Alonzo King says that the process of designing the 750-seat theater is typical of what has made the center such a success: collaboration. "The entire dance community was invited in, and we walked around in hard hats, talking about what would make the space work best for our needs," he says.

In the sort of setback that is often typical of large projects, because of a budget crunch, the house seating was reduced to its current 750, while the stage remained "opera-sized."

But Mr. King says it allows for an intimate feel. "So often, the audience is way back from the stage and the dancers," he says, "but at the Yerba Buena you can stay connected to the life force of the dancer."

The unusually deep and wide stage also has a perfectly sprung floor to protect dancers' legs, as well as the space to choreograph large dances.

"It's my most favorite place," says the choreographer, whose company tours internationally. The only downside is the fact that because he choreographs for the larger space, many of his ballets have trouble fitting into smaller venues. But the upside, says King, is that he's enlarged his vision of what's possible for the dances.

"Not only can they see the individual dancers, but because the stage is so big, they can see the architecture of the choreography, which is wonderful," he says.

YBCA marks its step into the future with a new director, Kenneth Foster. Local artists will remain the center's main priority, he says. "I am also committed to the idea that contemporary art is not inaccessible," Mr. Foster adds. "People tend to believe that, and I'm working to bring in a broad range of artists to open people's eyes to what's possible."

But pleasing all critics all the time may not be possible, nor is it necessarily a good goal, says critic Mr. Baker. He has watched the YBCA develop and says, on balance, the center has achieved its original goals of being a grass-roots crossroads for a diverse community quite admirably.

"It has been adventuresome with mixed results occasionally," he says, "but at its best, it has enriched the local landscape."

And not just artistically. Local officials estimate that the YBCA has boosted the local economy by nearly $100 million.

For residents of the area who have lived with the changing fortunes of their neighborhood, the Yerba Buena has brought beauty and culture to what was once a blighted area.

Mei, an elderly Chinese woman who has lived here for decades, joins her friends on the YBCA's outdoor stage for morning exercises. She and her neighbors began doing tai-chi here as soon as the stage was built.

In her limited English, Mei says that the YBCA is doing a good thing. It has become a center for the city, and, she adds, "it brings people together."

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