Ebony McKinney, a tireless advocate for the arts who pushed for diversity in the community and for unity among local organizations, died unexpectedly on Saturday from complications related to pneumonia and lupus. She was 41.
The San Francisco Art Commission (SFAC), where McKinney has worked off-and-on since 2005, announced McKinney's passing in a statement released Monday afternoon.
"Ebony was a beloved leader in the Bay Area and national arts communities and we appreciate the outpouring of love and support from friends and colleagues," SFAC's Director of Cultural Affairs, Tom DeCaigny, wrote. "This is a shock for all of us."
McKinney worked for 15 years in the art world, starting at a theater in Pittsburgh before coming to San Francisco in 2005. Here in the Bay Area, she held many positions that found or provided funding for various arts organizations and projects. She also served on the boards of influential organizations and committees, such as the City of Oakland's Funding Advisory Committee and the Citizens Advisory Committee to Grants for the Arts.
"She was an absolute force in the San Francisco arts community. Ebony was a coalition builder, a deeply analytical strategist, and she walked the walk," arts consultant and friend Marc Vogl said.
Though she worked enthusiastically on the funding side of the arts world, McKinney's friends said her legacy will remain with the two organizations she helped start: Emerging Arts Professionals/San Francisco Bay Area (EAP/SFBA), a network focused on training the next generation of arts and culture workers; and Arts for a Better Bay Area, also known as ABBA, a coalition of San Francisco arts organizations that works to ensure the city funds the arts.
McKinney started EAP/SFBA in 2008 with local composer Adam Fong, who says the idea came up at a focus group hosted by the Hewlett Foundation. The topic was finding new people to fill leadership positions in arts organizations around the Bay Area.
"There hadn't been a concerted effort to prepare young people to work in the arts community," Fong said.
McKinney and Fong decided that the diversity of the local community needed to be represented in the next generation of leaders, and they began holding meetings on their own. After hosting two events at SOMArts, an art center in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, EAP/SFBA started a fellowship program in 2010. Since its inception, the program has trained around 100 budding arts professionals, Fong said.
In the fall of 2014, McKinney attended an arts symposium where Supervisor Jane Kim told the local arts organizations in attendance that they needed to present a unified arts budget in the face of disagreements over the allocation of funds.
Once again, McKinney saw an issue she was inspired to fix. She partnered up with Lex Leifheit, the executive director of SOMArts, and together conducted a series of interviews with various city leaders and heads of organizations to find what needed to be done to bring everyone to the table. This lead to the creation of ABBA, which used its clout to lobby the city for more arts funding. The plan worked: San Francisco's 2015 budget saw a $7 million increase in arts funding, its largest in years.
"ABBA wouldn't have happened without her," Leifheit said.
Leifheit, who now works in San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said that McKinney was always focused on what needed to be done for the arts in San Francisco. And while she accomplished so much in her short life, she still had more to do when she died.
"She was always looking ahead," Leifheit said. "She never stopped. She was always challenging everyone to be better."
The SFAC will be holding an informal get together in honor of McKinney this Thursday, Aug. 3 at SOMArts from 4pm to 7pm. A local memorial is expected to be held at a later date.