Sydney Goldstein, Founder of City Arts & Lectures, Dies at 73

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City Arts & Lectures longtime leader Sydney Goldstein (right) is retiring after 36 years at the helm of the San Francisco-based public talks presenter. Here she is with one of her main collaborators on the Nourse Theater renovation project, contractor Moti Kazemi.  (Drew Altizer)

Sydney Goldstein, the founder of esteemed conversation series City Arts & Lectures, died Tuesday, Sept. 25 in Los Angeles, her daughter Kate Goldstein-Breyer confirmed. She was 73.

The San Francisco native launched City Arts & Lectures in 1980 and oversaw programming, which involved pairing guests such as Ta Nehisi-Coates and Edward Snowden with interlocutors including Dave Eggers and Michael Krasny, until her retirement in 2017. An enduring cultural figure, Goldstein also masterminded renovation of the 1,600-seat Nourse Theater in 2013.

After organizing talks at College of Marin in the 1970s, Goldstein built City Arts & Lectures into a lean organization with remarkable access to leading intellectuals and celebrities and a keen sense for maintaining relevance. Yet the spartan setup—a vase of flowers between two chairs, conversation and questions from the audience—has changed little over the decades.

Goldstein also partnered with KQED to broadcast the talks to the Bay Area, as well as more than 130 public radio stations nationwide. The partnership continues to this day, while the historical tapes are archived at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.


In 2012, when the series’ longtime venue Herbst Theater closed for renovation, Goldstein oversaw refurbishment of the sleepy Nourse Theater on Hayes Street. Facing an estimated cost of some $20 million, Goldstein pulled it off for less than $2 million.

“It was an incredible feat,” said KQED Forum host Michael Krasny of the renovation. “And she was exactly the person to make it happen.”

Krasny, a regular City Arts & Lectures interviewer, remembered his longtime friend as a local institution. “She had an extraordinary talent for pairing people in conversation and she built a program that really became a model for the entire country,” he said.

Author-publisher Eggers, who sits on the series’ board, also credited Goldstein with forerunning the live conversation trend. “It’s almost wholly replaced the lecture as the way to know what’s on the minds of the world’s thinkers,” Eggers told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Goldstein was born Oct. 13, 1944 to shopkeeper parents in San Francisco, and graduated from Lowell High School before working as a writer, artist assistant, and cocktail waitress, among other gigs. In 1975, she married federal court judge Charles Breyer. Her daughter Kate was born in 1979, followed by son Joseph in 1983. Kate became co-director of City Arts & Lectures, alongside staffer Holly Mulder-Wollan, upon Goldstein’s retirement last year.

Goldstein is survived by her husband Charles Breyer, sister Dorian Lewis, daughter Kate Goldstein-Breyer, son Joseph Breyer, and three grandchildren.

Listen to Sydney Goldstein on a 2013 episode of KQED’s Forum here.