When considering the social and cultural context of dance making in San Francisco, the environmental factors created by the tech industry cannot be ignored. Encountering article after article during the past two years about the projected effects of the new tech boom, I’m inclined to mine specifically how the ephemeral art form of dance intersects with the reported transactional and consumerist ethos of San Francisco’s “new” economy.
While the presence of tech has fired creative pursuits including media-based arts and data-visualization endeavors like The Creators Project the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and The Bay Lights, the benefits for dance makers and body-based performance seem to be lacking. In addition, I wonder if the attention to digital art versus live art parallels this statement about a widespread atrophied capacity for live encounters with real humans meeting in time and space.
Boom. The density of tech companies and resulting concentration of economic, social and cultural capital impacts how dance makers live and work. Lauren Elder, who worked with Contraband as the primary visual artist recalls the decade from 1985 as one of the hottest artistic periods the city has seen, including a plethora of visual theater companies and healthy competition among groups to make strong work. “It was easier to produce things then. People had more free time and the city was not the real estate hotbed that it is now. There were a lot more open spaces, vacant lots, abandoned buildings,” she recalls.
Wayne Hazzard, Executive Director of Dancers’ Group danced for companies including Joe Goode and Margaret Jenkins in the 80s and 90s. He remembers the time before the digital age in the Bay Area:
“It was pre- what I call the explosion of San Francisco. In 2000 I really felt like San Francisco became like New York in that you had to really make a decision to live here or not because if you didn’t have a rent controlled place or put down roots it might be too expensive to get back in.”
Artist and Bay Area native Amara Tabor-Smith observed similarly, stating, “Artists who moved in [to San Francisco] after the first tech boom had money to afford living inside this new economy.”
Bust. The post-boom economy drove performance makers to have shorter rehearsal periods and conduct more project-based work. Due to the increased cost of living, many choreographers now spend more time on non-art labor than before the digital age to make ends meet. Some moved to academic settings with studio resources. San Francisco’s median income for a one-person household is $72,100 with low income being below $63,350 and very low income below $39,600 according to the HUD guidelines. While it’s not polite to talk about money, sometimes I wonder what the heck we dance people are doing here given the art form’s reputation for being a far from lucrative pursuit.
And yet, the Bay Area’s dance community is the second largest in the country after New York City. Recent graduates of dance bachelors and masters programs flock here to take advantage of artist opportunities and incubation programs at venues acting both as service organizations as well as presenting entities such as ODC Dance Commons and the ODC Theater with Pilot and the resident artist program, as well as CounterPulse, The Garage and Kunst-Stoff Arts residencies and production support. Places to take class abound in the city with the San Francisco Dance Center, Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and the Joe Goode Annex. It’s not that there aren’t wonderfully generative dance organizations, studios and institutions in San Francisco –there are, and some have even grown since the advent of the digital age. Many of the dancers just can’t afford to stay local.
Which brings me to the movement of artists into the East Bay. While there exists an undoubtedly strong presence of dance artists and artistic activity in the East Bay, Oakland is not the “Brooklyn of San Francisco” and performing artists who live outside San Francisco don’t benefit from major funders like the San Francisco Arts Commission, since artists have to be residents of San Francisco to apply. Also worth noting in terms of healthcare is that many San Francisco-based dance artists benefit from Healthy San Francisco, a citywide program providing accessible and affordable basic health care, not available in Oakland. What you gain in space and more affordable rent, you lose in other resources.
Also on my mind are the reportedly transactional and consumerist philanthropic habits of the young tech crowd noted by Ellen Cushing. For dance, a non-object-based art form, the translation threatens:
“A lot of this is about the difference between consuming culture and supporting culture,” a startup-world refugee told me a few weeks ago: If Old Money is investing in season tickets to the symphony and writing checks to the Legion of Honor, New Money is buying ultra-limited-edition indie-rock LPs and contributing to art projects on IndieGoGo in exchange for early prints. And if the old conception of art and philanthropy was about, essentially, building a civilization — about funding institutions without expecting anything in return, simply because they present an inherent, sometimes ineffable, sometimes free market-defying value to society, present and future, because they help us understand ourselves and our world in a way that can occasionally transcend popular opinion— the new one is, for better or for worse, about voting with your dollars.”
Finally, the below articles provide a compilation of recent cautionary messages about housing, privileged consumption and the potentially depleted cultural vibrancy of San Francisco related to the tech boom. Most of the messages are bleak, pointing to the vast lifestyle differential between dot-commers and others:
“Is a new tech bubble starting to grow?” USA Today
“The new dot-com boom” Canadian Business
“San Francisco Tech Boom Brings Jobs and Worries” The New York Times
“How Much Tech Can One City Take?” San Francisco Magazine
“Google Invades” London Review of Books
“The Bacon-Wrapped Economy” East Bay Express
So are there benefits of the tech boom’s impact for performance makers? If there are, I haven’t gleaned them yet, but maybe you can help me see the silver lining? San Francisco’s choreographers have rallied to continue making work here and longstanding dance organizations facilitate new development and nurture the imaginations and talents, even in less hospitable living circumstances for artists.