Can SF's Highbrow Arts Survive Without Tech Money?

Aug 07 at 6am

In San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, a battle is brewing – around funding. The young and rich rub elbows with the old-money Nob Hill crowd while gathered to watch grand operas and beautiful ballets. But one of these groups represents the financial future of SF's cultural institutions – and it's not the oldsters withering away in the box seats.

No one is more acutely aware of the declining numbers of fine arts patrons than the development staffs for the opera, symphony, museums, and ballet. As older generations while away their twilight hours in God's waiting room (and as their families' philanthropic funds spend down on an accelerated schedule), the city is being overrun by tech-savvy imports newly elevated to the high net worth status by fistfuls of Facebook shares, a uniquely San Francisco phenomenon.

Our cultural institutions are losing out on the tech industry’s gold rush cash. For example, at SF Ballet performances, only one in five audience members is under 45, a Ballet rep told me. SF Symphony claims it does a bit better, with around 30 percent of patrons under the age of 45. And according to its website, the opera's young-folks-only Bravo! Club counts a paltry 500 souls as its total membership.

It should be a symbiotic relationship. We, the nouveau riche of San Francisco's tech scene, don't have much culture; but what we lack, the city's jeweled arts institutions are happy to provide. And these institutions don't have much of a financial runway once the old guard is gone. What these organizations need to survive, we have in spades.

The big question is, how do they plan to find us? And how do we find them?

The big answer, as it turns out, is a burgeoning millionaire-matchmaking scheme meant to attract and ensnare young money. For a good cause.

SF foodie-ism is a great parallel for the arts. Take Alta, one of the new Mid Market restaurants. Its investors include every freaking tech mini-titan you could name. But food is accessible, and everyone knows what delicious tastes like. Opera, on the other hand, is all about unapproachable grandeur. 

Like many operagoers in my circle, I started this high-maintenance hobby at a young age. In my family's low-rent trailer, I pored over Wagner scores copped from the library, turning the pages slowly as the mind-altering strains of Tristan und Isolde cascaded over the NPR airwaves.

During get-togethers with various young professionals groups of various SF cultural organizations, I have found that my story isn't so unique. Almost everyone under 40 who chooses to patronize the arts (and drag others with them) has a long-standing, deeply personal connection to classical music and fine arts that keeps them committed to supporting it.

Take Marissa Mayer. She studied ballet through her childhood and teen years. Heck, she danced in The Nutcracker during her time as a college student at Stanford. So for her to grow up, make good, get rich, and sponsor SF Ballet's production of Swan Lake this past season makes all the sense in the world.

The majority of tech workers didn't study ballet, though; they studied programming. Luckily, we all landed in San Francisco, a city that welcomes you into a culture of self-improvement. You like Shake Shack? Guess what, you eat ramps now. Boom! Elevated!

In fact, SF foodie-ism is a great parallel for the arts. Take Alta, one of the new Mid Market restaurants. Its investors include every freaking tech mini-titan you could name: Kevin Rose, Twitter's Ryan Sarver, the list goes on and on (my husband is among the investors). Local cathedrals of coffee worship (most notably Blue Bottle) have major tech funds as investors, and The Melt was started by a tech entrepreneur.

But food is accessible, and everyone knows what delicious tastes like. SF's foodie culture is humble, in its own pretentious way. It's not about crisply folded white napkins and French menu names. In this one regard, it's inviting, and that means SF's food culture is easy for tech workers to appreciate, consume, and fund.

Opera, on the other hand, is all about unapproachable grandeur – which is what young money expects of it. So on the one hand, we want to feel transported out of our element. But part of the reason the tech sector doesn’t generally go to the symphony or ballet or opera is precisely because they are acutely aware just how out of their element they are.

SF Opera chief development officer Jon Gossett thinks the nouveau riche needs to get comfortable if they're going to become the next generation of arts-sustaining philanthropists. But how can they support an institution that doesn't even feel livable to them?

“They're loners,” Gossett said at a recent conference about philanthropy. “How do we make them feel like they're not in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

For that to happen, all these cultural institutions are creating entirely new experiences to court the younger generation.

SF Opera chief development officer Jon Gossett thinks the nouveau riche needs to get comfortable if they're going to become the next generation of arts-sustaining philanthropists. But how can they support an institution that doesn't even feel livable to them?

At the California Academy of Sciences, for example, you have NightLife, a weekly event that brings an adults-only crowd of two or three thousand people each week into the exhibit halls for booze, music, and nerd-friendly conversation. Kelly Mendez, the academy's communications manager, says this “gives people tangible experiences” they can relate to. “It's personal. And we love serving as a global meeting place for science.”

Similarly, the Exploratorium's public programs head Melissa Alexander said of that institution's adults-only nights, “If you come to After Dark, or any adults-only evening, you’ll see that adults are just as excited about our exhibits as kids are.” And to make that happen, she said, “We, if you will, put a party dress on the museum.”

The science angle, like the foodie angle, is an easier sell for the tech-money crowd, she admits.

“Because we are in Silicon Valley, a lot of people from outside the Bay Area [who are] involved in tech obviously have a lot of experience in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. And they want to make others have access to the same kind of education. This is an area where they want to invest.”

In other words, STEM is our comfort zone. So, like Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan or Bill and Melinda Gates, we're happy to pump money into learn-to-code programs, educational institutions (including science museums), and scientific and medical research.

The arts, however, are as foreign as the languages in which they're presented.

Because we are in Silicon Valley, a lot of people from outside the Bay Area [who are] involved in tech obviously have a lot of experience in STEM. And they want to make others have access to the same kind of education. In other words, we're happy to pump money into learn-to-code programs, educational institutions (including science museums), and scientific and medical research.

Putting aside the matter of philanthropy and taking up the matter of mere attendance, SF offers an even more competitive landscape. If you want to kill a couple hours here, you could do so at The Independent or the Kabuki movie theater or some Tenderloin speakeasy, all of which are vastly more comfortable and interesting to younger folks.

“Our competition isn’t the opera or the dance company down the street – it’s anything audiences can do with their leisure time,” said SF Ballet marketing director Mary Beth Smith.

In addressing that issue, the various stages around the city have created new programs to attract all kinds of residents. There's the opera's open-house costume-shop sale, complete with hair-and-makeup demonstrations and sing-alongs. There's the War Memorial Opera House lobby’s welcome center, which is to be outfitted with iPads containing interactive apps and media. Starting with the 2014–2015 season, all evening performances will start at 7:30 p.m. rather than 8 p.m. for the benefit of folks who want to come straight from work (or who want to get home before 11 at night). And a recently piloted open-curtain intermission, where audiences got to see set changes and hear from behind-the-scenes staff, was a huge success.

Both the opera and the ballet offer steeply discounted tickets for the young-professionals crowd, and the ballet has been focusing heavily on social media engagement.

The symphony, on the other hand, stands to gain the most from new tech audiences, but its efforts seem disjointed. Its Symphonix program for young adults offers an annual opening-night gala. The orchestra does play-along film nights. The symphony’s inherent format – cheaper tickets, shorter performances, modern architecture – is attractive to that audience.

One young-audience-development program, however, is particularly exciting, and it stands to set a standard for welcoming in the tech crowd. SoundBox, which will open with the start of the 2014–2015 season, is an “alternative performance space and bar backstage at Davies Symphony Hall … a very intimate atmosphere unique to each performance. The audience will be able to enjoy the music with their drinks, and in less traditional concert seating,” according to symphony PR rep Louisa Spier. These memberships, events, and discounts are a decent start at pulling in new audiences. But these institutions could be doing a lot more. Even the programming, the actual meat and bones of what's offered, could be better targeted at new, young patrons. And, most important of all, the leadership of these arts organizations could be flexible, open to change, and amenable to meaningful discussions about what it's going to take for the arts in San Francisco to survive the next 20 or 30 years.

All of these efforts are designed to bring in San Francisco's average cultural noobs. But the programs to bring in tech money are a notch above.

The opera commissioned a technology recruiting firm in its recent search for new board members. And it is beginning to introduce VIP events and amenities (e.g., private dinners-cum-vocal-recitals) specifically designed to capture the local tech community.

To wit, the opera commissioned a technology recruiting firm in its recent search for new board members. And it is beginning to introduce VIP events and amenities (e.g., private dinners-cum-vocal-recitals) specifically designed to capture the local tech community. It's even, I've heard whispered, thinking of hosting a hackathon. For its part, the ballet is getting the same crowd access to cast parties, dance classes, and Lululemon shopping sprees. And you can bet your bottom dollar the symphony, along with every other cultural cabal in SF, has to be brainstorming its version of matchmaking.

If all that seems predatory, well, maybe it is. In philanthropy, as in dating or job recruitment, high net worth tech folk are moving targets.

But just as dating gets you laid (or even married) and job recruitment gets you a fat paycheck, philanthropy gets you something worth having – aside from the obvious tax breaks.

“Many of us in the arts community know how critical the arts are to a healthy society,” says Smith. “They help us grapple with really important issues.”

The emotional response to art is uniquely human. And I, like the city's great cultural houses, desperately hope that technologists choose to preserve not just our lives but also the things that make life worth living.

Image from Thinkstock

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