Vallie Brown Appointed to Lead SF's Main Nonprofit Arts Funding Agency

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Vallie Brown.
Vallie Brown's appointment to Grants for the Arts was announced Thursday by Mayor London Breed. (Andrew Rettmann)

San Francisco Mayor London Breed and City Administrator Carmen Chu announced the appointment Thursday of Vallie Brown to the role of director of its main agency for nonprofit arts and culture funding, Grants for the Arts

Brown comes to the job as a strong ally of Mayor Breed's.

The two women go back a long way, first meeting in the early 2000s when Breed ran San Francisco’s African American Arts and Culture Complex and Brown was a community activist in the Haight. When Breed was a city supervisor, Brown was one of her aides. When Breed became Mayor in 2018, Brown took over the District 5 supervisor seat, which she lost in 2019 to a progressive, Dean Preston.

A former sculptor who specialized in metalwork, Brown said she won the job because of her many years in City Hall and her background fighting for equity for arts programming in underserved neighborhoods.

"I think my experience speaks for itself," Brown told KQED in a video interview shortly after her appointment was announced. "As we know, the city administrator and the mayor are your bosses, and so they have to feel like they can put someone in there that they can trust and that also can push their agenda. And I know Mayor Breed has been very vocal about equity as her agenda."

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“Vallie Brown is a dedicated public servant, with a passion for community and the arts in San Francisco,” said Mayor Breed, in a statement. "Her extensive experience and steady hand will serve San Francisco’s arts community well as we navigate the challenges created by COVID-19 and work to recover as a city.”

Brown succeeds interim director Jason Blackwell in her new position with Grants for the Arts. Brown said Blackwell will return to his role as associate director as soon as she begins her new job, which she expects to do as early as next week.

Grants for the Arts, which has been around for 60 years, provided $12.9 million in general operating support grants in 2020, and increased funding for small- and medium-sized arts and culture groups by 28% over the previous year.

"Vallie Brown is a new woman leader in the arts who knows how to work within the political system of the city and the budget of the city," said longtime former director of Grants for the Arts, Kary Schulman, in a phone interview. "In these difficult budget times, the big task for Brown will be to secure the revenue stream for the arts—the hotel tax—because hotels have been struggling during the pandemic."

(Schulman referred to the passing of Proposition E in 2018, which dedicates 1.5% of the base hotel tax—a 14% tax levied on hotel stays in the city—to support arts and culture programs in San Francisco. More about that here.)

Brown said she plans to continue to focus on equity for community arts groups in her new role, especially since so many of them have struggled to survive in recent years—not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of the high cost of living in San Francisco.

"When you have a festival that is getting $10,000 or $15,000 from the city to put on their event, and you think, 'OK, we're going to cut them 10%,' that could actually completely make it where they can't put it on," said Brown. "So we really have to look at equity first. We have to collaborate with the community arts. And we have to listen to them."