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How a Grassroots Program Shaped the SF Art Scene, 50 Years On

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Installation view of MACRO WAVES' work in 'Culture Catalyst.' (Phillip Maisel)

“The N.A.P. was going like a house afire.”

When interviewed in Susan Wels’ 2013 book San Francisco: Arts for the City – Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932-2012, former San Francisco Arts Commission Director Martin Snipper described the Neighborhood Arts Program (N.A.P.) in terms that perfectly capture the thousands of creative sparks that illuminated the program in the late 1960s. Culture Catalyst, the tightly curated and deeply considered exhibition now on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, honors both those fiery early years and its influence on today’s cultural landscape.

Detail of work by Joe Ramos in 'Culture Catalyst.'
Detail of work by Joe Ramos in ‘Culture Catalyst.’ (Phillip Maisel)

The SFAC formed the N.A.P. in 1967, profoundly influencing the San Francisco arts scene well into the early 1980s (the program ended in 1984). Born of artist and activist demands that the city support arts programming in San Francisco’s ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods, the program provided free or low-cost support services to local artists, including portable stages, costume and scenery banks, AV equipment, arts and crafts supplies, and so much more.

Federal dollars later fortified the N.A.P. under the 1973 CETA (Comprehensive Education and Training Act) block grant, which funded employment for hundreds of artists who then shared their skills in schools, community centers, hospitals and prisons. Like its Depression-era predecessor Federal Project Number One (collectively identified under the Works Progress Administration), CETA came into being amidst a deep recession and high unemployment. Also like the WPA, federal funding for N.A.P. brought art, its production and appreciation, to the center of cultural life in economically fraught times.

Culture Catalyst curators Kevin B. Chen and Jaime Cortez faced a daunting task: present 50 years of cultural history shaped by thousands of participants and programs throughout San Francisco, and convey how that rich legacy registers today.


The first mark was met through intensive research. Interviewing arts administrators and artists who collaborated with the program—including artist Rudy Lemcke and the peerless René Yañez, whose passing on May 29 devastated many in the San Francisco arts community—Chen and Cortez came to understand and shape the exhibition around what they describe as the N.A.P.’s “decentralized support for the arts.” By acting as a support agency, the city enabled radical grassroots engagement that mirrored the turbulent socio-economic changes unfolding in San Francisco and across the nation.

Artists René Yañez, Katie Gilmartin and Dominic Chen.
Artists René Yañez, Katie Gilmartin and Dominic Chen. (Courtesy of SFAC)

In Culture Catalyst, that engagement is presented in the numerous flyers and posters Chen and Cortez borrowed from the San Francisco Public Library History Center and Special Collections. Though inexpensively produced, these vibrant artifacts—a representative sampling at best—visualize the broad scope of programs, creativity and social engagement around art the N.A.P. unleashed.

And five decades on, what is the legacy of the N.A.P.?

Chen and Cortez posed that and many other questions to directors and curators of the city’s six cultural centers—four brick-and-mortar and two virtual spaces that are the living embodiment of the N.A.P. Their answers manifest in the artists selected to represent each organization.

From L to R: Work by Eustinove P. Smith, Việt Lê and Eugene E. White in 'Culture Catalyst.'
From L to R: Work by Eustinove P. Smith, Việt Lê and Eugene E. White in ‘Culture Catalyst.’ (Phillip Maisel)

Situated at the center of the gallery, MACRO WAVES‘ installation Pt. 1: 仕方が無い “Shikata ga nai” / but it can be helped represents the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center and addresses the intergenerational trauma of Japanese internment camps.

Representing SOMArts Cultural Center on the gallery’s far wall, Việt Lê‘s video piece Love Bang! playfully examines collective memory, queer love and modernization through a pop music filter in post-war Cambodia and Vietnam.

Tucked between MACRO WAVES and Lê’s multimedia pieces, Cousin Nanny and Aunt Julia and The Jump Rope, two oil paintings by Eugene. E. White represent the African American Art and Culture Complex, demonstrating the contributions of countless artists of color to the city’s cultural diversity. These selections are but three examples of work that doesn’t necessarily get the attention it deserves in San Francisco’s more conservative arts institutions.

Orlando de la Garza with his painting and friends at the SFAC gallery.
Orlando de la Garza with his painting and friends at the SFAC gallery. (Courtesy of SFAC)

Has San Francisco abandoned its commitment to the grassroots arts programming and community engagement that the program ushered forth?

Not at all.

Against long economic odds, radical demographic changes and creeping drift toward cultural conservatism, the cultural centers that are the vestiges of the N.A.P. live as what SOMArts Executive Director Maria Jenson describes as “the emotional centers of the city.”

“If you can walk out of one of these shows learning one new thing about a people and/or a place and/or a particular moment in history—maybe all three—then we have done our job by providing exhibition opportunities and space to those dedicated to the pursuit of creating mind-opening artwork and events to help create a more equitable society,” she says.

Culture Catalyst proves that the creative fires lit by the Neighborhood Arts Program still burn hot and bright.

‘Culture Catalyst’ is on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery through June 16, 2018. Details here.

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