Are You Living in an Arts Suburb?

Posted by Johnny Kolasinski, Apr 18, 2013 1 comment

Johnny Kolasinski Johnny Kolasinski

Full disclosure here: when I relocated to Silicon Valley in 2009, I told my friends and family in Ohio that I was “moving to San Francisco.”

At that point in time, the two were basically synonymous in my mind—Palo Alto was, to me, a “San Francisco suburb” that happened to be the home of Facebook, and most of what I knew of San Jose came from the Dionne Warwick song.

San Francisco’s cultural reputation is what brought me to California, and because of that city’s reputation, it took me more than a year to really connect with the artistic community in my own back yard.

Silicon Valley has an interesting dynamic. We’re known worldwide for innovation, creativity, and our DIY atmosphere. The technologies being created here are changing world culture in new and revolutionary ways.

Silicon Valley has a population of 3 million to San Francisco’s 800,000. Why is it, then, that so many of our residents feel that they need to travel north to “The City” for an artistic or cultural experience?

What can we, as an artistic community, do to build a reputation that holds up to the high bar our tech industry has set? Are we destined to be known San Francisco’s cultural suburb?

By no means am I trying to say that the art being created here in Silicon Valley is in any way inferior to San Francisco. On the contrary, recognizing the innovative and collaborative nature of our artistic community is what led me to set down roots here in Silicon Valley rather than up north.

There are organizations like Zero1, which blends art and technology to “provoke new ideas, spark experimentation, and seed creative strategies.” In addition to its biennial festival, Zero1 has recently opened a permanent exhibition space, the Zero1 Garage, and has artistic fellows working on location at Google and Adobe.

The Children’s Discovery Museum is also fusing the arts and sciences, giving future audiences the cultural experiences that are so necessary to their development.

Multiple theatres in the region are working to foster emerging playwrights:

  • TheatreWorks has held an annual New Play Festival for more than a decade
  • San Jose Repertory Theatre has recently created an Emerging Artists Lab, with late-night presentations immediately after its mainstage productions
  • My own organization, City Lights Theater Company, holds multiple readings of plays by new Bay Area playwrights each season.

Organizations like San Jose Taiko, Abhinaya Dance Company, and MACLA (Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana) aren’t just representative of the diversity of our community, each reaches out to a truly multicultural audience.

Government and city funders are doing their part as well. The city of San Jose works hard to support the region’s artistic innovators. In 2011 and 2012, the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) invited seventeen arts organizations of various sizes and missions to participate in EMC Arts’ New Pathways for the Arts program, which brought together the members of the organizations’ staffs, boards, and audiences to challenge their organizational structures and identify new methods of problem solving. The OCA is currently sponsoring the Creative Industries Incentive Fund, which provides project-based funding to for-profit arts-based small businesses in San Jose.

Arts Council Silicon Valley, on top of being a resource and connecting point for arts organizations, supports genARTS, the Silicon Valley Emerging Leaders Network. With their backing, genARTS was able to send nearly a dozen participants to last year’s Americans for the Arts Annual Convention and Emerging Leaders Preconference, and we hope to send just as strong a contingent this year.

The School of Arts and Culture hosts MALI, the Multicultural Arts Leadership Initiative, in order to identify, connect, and support the many leaders of color in our arts and cultural institutions.

Despite all of these amazing institutions, though, Silicon Valley faces some unique challenges. I’ve mentioned the fact that many of our local arts patrons are choosing to travel to San Francisco. The reverse doesn’t happen quite so often.

Traveling south from San Francisco isn’t easy; BART, the underground rail system that connects San Francisco to Oakland and the rest of the East Bay, doesn’t reach far into the South Bay. An extension has been in the works since the 1990s, but only broke ground in 2010, and service isn’t expected to hit San Jose until 2025.

Additionally, while innovative tech companies are the region’s lifeblood, a significant portion of their young employees choose to live in San Francisco. The companies even provide private busses from San Francisco to their campuses to make commuting hassle free. It’s hard to build a relationship with these 20- and 30-somethings when there’s a mass exodus at 5 p.m.

I know Silicon Valley isn’t alone—there are regions all over the country that sometimes feel like they’re living in the shadow of “The City,” whether that city is San Francisco, New York, or Columbus, OH.

What are you doing to bring your neighbors in and strengthen your region’s reputation?

1 responses for Are You Living in an Arts Suburb?


April 19, 2013 at 1:47 am


Sounds like an interesting and challenging culture to work within. Zero1 is an interesting model to inspire cross-collaboration or in-company situated art experiences in the valley. Perhaps your company could do something like this, but instead of in a shop window you could situate playwrights in the eatery/food areas of the big tech companies.

As for those buses ... a captive audience for situated performances for a radio play :-)

Thanks for sharing.

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