O+ Festival trades health care for music and art performances

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The Center SF will host music acts and a pop-up health clinic.

Artists struggle for their art, but they shouldn’t also have to also sacrifice their health. That’s the basic premise behind this weekend’s three-day O+ Festival in San Francisco, where musicians and other artists will perform in exchange for medical, dental, and wellness services at a pop-up clinic at The Center SF art space on Fillmore Street and other offices around town.

“Bartering the art of medicine for the medicine of art,” is the tagline for a festival that is making its debut outside of New York, where it began. The lineup includes local folk rockers Papa Bear & Friends, soulful singer Quinn DeVeaux, mashup DJ Zack Darling, and many more, performing in venues that include Inner Mission and the Make-Out Room.

The festival began in 2010 in Kingston, NY, when painter Joe Concra had a dentist friend who had the idea of bringing a band he liked up from Brooklyn and paying them in free dental services. The idea resonated with Concra, who knew well how much New York’s artists struggled to make ends meet.

“Artists are not only being pushed out, but they’re not able to get the healing they deserve,” Concra told the Guardian, saying the first festival was such a hit that it took on a life of its own. “Once we do it, once people go, then they really get it. And it goes back to the age-old idea of trade.”

Long before modern health insurance debacles, doctors and dentists were members of their communities, and people would pay them with whatever they had to offer. But today, larger and larger companies providing care in collaboration with insurance companies, even the basic community clinic is becoming a thing of the past.

“We’re breaking down that access to care barrier, because some many people don’t know where to start,” Concra said, saying he was surprised at the flood gates opened by his simple idea. “Now, we’re at the point where we have 220 bands applies for 40 spots...We were not prepared for the amount of need in the artist community.”

Concra had started thinking about where to expand the festival when he was contacted by Deborah Gatiss, San Francisco-based artist and event coordinator, who had heard about the concept from a friend in the Burning Man Project.  

“It goes back to May of last year, and I was lamenting the fact that I have no health care, because I had a really bad toothache. I was talking with a friend of mine and we were discussing things people could do for health care when they have no dental insurance and this was one of the things that came up,” she told us.

Concra was already talking about a Bay Area event with Aimee Gardner, who he knew from an art gallery in Kingston before she moved to California, and Gardner and Gatiss ended up spearheading the creation of O+ Festival-San Francisco.

“Coming from New York, I feel like San Francisco is going a similar direction,” Gardner said of artists who can’t afford to live here. “I think it’s a really revolutionary idea. It’s activism in a very thoughtful way.”

The pair managed to line up sponsors and a list of volunteer health practioners from a variety of disciplines, people that Concra called “the real rock stars of this event.” So while the performers get free health care, those who buy the $25 tickets get three days of free music and art, discounted drinks at various venues, and even free yoga classes at Yoga Tree’s new Potrero Hill studio.

The festival opens tomorrow (Fri/15) at 6:15 at The Center SF, 548 Fillmore, with a health care panel discussion featuring Concra, Artist Xavi Panneton, Dan Kitowski of the Actors Fund, and me, Guardian Editor Steven T. Jones.

Gatiss said it’s been a challenge to pull together such an ambtious festival and she hopes that Bay Area residents — who love art and music and are accustomed to gift and barter economies through things like Burning Man — will turn out to show their support.

“I thought that people were used to that mindset, so they’d be up for the idea of bartering their musical talents for health care and vice versa,” Gatiss told us. “It’s been harder than I thought. But it’s been fulfilling and magical and I’m glad that I did it, and I think Aimee would say the same thing.”