SF Begins Search for New Head of Cultural Affairs

San Francisco Director of Cultural Affairs Tom DeCaigny (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

The City of San Francisco is on the hunt for a new director of cultural affairs, since the person whose been running the city's arts commission for the past eight years, Tom DeCaigny, announced he is stepping down late last week.

The San Francisco Arts Commission will be working with Mayor London Breed's office to hire DeCaigny's replacement over the coming months.

In the meantime, the city has appointed Rebekah Krell as acting director. Krell is currently the arts commission's deputy director of finance and administration, and previously served as a legislative aide and mayor's office budget analyst.

In a phone interview, DeCaigny said he is leaving the job to take a new position as executive director of the California Alliance for Arts Education (CAAE).

"It's bittersweet," said DeCaigny of his decision to leave the arts commission. "But I have an amazing opportunity to work at the state level."

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The director of cultural affairs oversees many aspects of the city’s artistic output from commissioning public artworks to giving out grants.

"It’s a difficult, multifaceted job," said former head of San Francisco Grants for the Arts, Kary Schulman. She worked with DeCaigny and "six or seven" of his predecessors over the decades before retiring last year.

"Tom brought a consistent management style based on the needs of the agency that was not capricious or ideological," said Schulman. "He brought a public service lens to the arts commission, really seeing it as serving the public. He also brought kindness to the job." 

During his tenure, DeCaigny doubled the arts commission's annual budget to $40 million. He helped to pass Proposition E, which secured funds from the city's hotel tax revenue for arts and culture purposes in perpetuity. He adopted the arts commission's first Racial Equity Plan, and removed the contentious, colonialist Early Days statue from San Francisco's Civic Center, among other accomplishments.

"What made Tom a great leader and highly respected colleague was that he could play nice in the sandbox while still fiercely advocating for the arts," said City Librarian Michael Lambert. "His strong support of the removal of the Early Days sculpture will have a lasting positive impact for years to come."

But DeCaigny regrets his inability to secure federal funding to create affordable housing for artists.

"Artists are a protected class for affordable housing," DeCaigny said. "But we have not gotten political commitment to get federal dollars for this. So we haven’t yet been able to break ground on any projects, though we do have some sites identified."

DeCaigny said he hopes his successor will make obtaining affordable housing for artists a priority.

He also had to deal with fraught city hall politics, most recently around the the city's stalled plans to build a monument to Maya Angelou outside the main branch of the public library. DeCaigny said his team is working through the issues. He said he expects the new callout to artists for the commission to go out before his last day, on Friday, Jan. 24.

Life has arguably become tougher for artists and arts organizations in San Francisco since DeCaigny took office in 2012. Although the Prop E win will secure more dollars for cultural activities in the city going forwards, the increasing out-migration of the cultural community owing to ever-escalating rents, as well as growing disparities between the haves and have-nots, is likely make the next director of cultural affairs' job particularly challenging.

Members of the local arts community agree the new hire will have their work cut out for them.

"It’s my hope that the next director will take steps to address and support affordable space," said Moy Eng, who runs the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), a San Francisco-based affordable art-space development nonprofit.

"Without a clear vision for the city—not just the arts—we are so fragile," said Yerba Buena Center for the Arts CEO, Deborah Cullinan. "The arts community is so critical and also decimated. We need a bold leader who can engage city leadership around vision and the critical role that artists play in any vibrant city."