Could a world-class arts festival save the foundering America's Cup?
AMERICA'S CUP Clear your mind, if you can, of brawls over San Francisco piers and other obscenely expensive parcels  of waterfront real estate. Focus solely on the inevitability of the 34th annual America's Cup.
Summer 2013, it'll rip into town, offering self-described "adrenaline sailing at its best" to jet-setting yachting enthusiasts. In 2010, the 33rd contest was won in Spanish waters by Oracle Racing, headed up by billionaire Larry Ellison. In 2013, Ellison plans to defend his trophy as the competition (ironically, dealing with its own financial struggles; the San Francisco Business Times reported March 23 that America's Cup officials laid off half their staff) makes its San Francisco Bay debut.
Of course, average San Franciscans — often found ransacking their couch cushions to scare up burrito funds — couldn't give a rat's ass about an event blatantly catering to the one percent. But they should, and here's why: unless we want to see all those Top-Siders stride directly to wine country after each day of racing concludes, we need to give the visitors (estimates vary on the numbers: 10,000? 200,000?) a reason to hang out in SF, visit its neighborhoods, and spend money locally.
One idea: organize an arts festival with programming complementary to the America's Cup races. Such an event would potentially offer a huge boost to the local arts scene.
The most passionate supporter of an America's Cup arts festival has got to be Andrew Wood, executive director of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Last fall, he announced the 2013 SFIAF would shift its dates from May, when it usually takes place, to July through September. That way, SFIAF could coincide with the race — and be a component in what he envisions as a much larger, citywide event.
"We first contacted the America's Cup about including an arts component before they even confirmed San Francisco as the venue," Wood remembers. "They've never really had a strong arts component to the America's Cup before, but they've never tried to do anything like they're trying to do here."
He's referring to this particular race's unique appeal for "a land-based audience." Geographically speaking, some America's Cup races are viewable only to television audiences and anyone who happens to have a boat hanging out within sight of the course; the San Francisco Bay obviously offers far more viewing opportunities for landlubbers.
"If you do either of the two largest sporting events in the world — the Olympics and the World Cup — an arts festival is mandatory. You can't even bid on the Olympics unless you have a festival that's going to run alongside it," Wood explains. "[The event will then] appeal to more people. People will stay in the locale longer and spend more money — [especially important for] the America's Cup, where there's only racing for an hour a day."
Money is always a factor when planning for an arts festival of any size, particularly something large enough to entertain 200,000-ish people.
"We can raise a lot of our own money, but what we need is some type of agreement that says we can go out and raise it as the name 'America's Cup'," Wood says, noting that he's already broached the subject of fundraising with some of the consulates representing countries with boats entered in the race. He'd like to bring artists from all of the participating countries (so far: Italy, Spain, France, South Korea, New Zealand, China, and Sweden) to San Francisco to perform alongside Bay Area arts groups. His grand vision includes theme weeks for each country revolving around the various holidays that happen to fall within the race dates — for example, France's Bastille Day, July 14.
Wood was optimistic after his first meeting with Mark Bullingham, then the America's Cup director of marketing, in April 2011.
"Then I jumped into SFIAF in May," Wood remembers. "When I came back in June or July, he'd resigned. We were never able to get traction with the America's Cup after that."
As time for fundraising grows short — and the America's Cup deal shrinks and evolves as development plans are tinkered with; the latest incarnation was presented to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors March 27 — Wood holds out hope that an arts festival will be included in the deal. A little bit of hope.
"If they let the deal be signed without including an arts component — or even just mentioning 'Well, we'll have a future conversation around this' — then Larry Ellison can do what he wants. Oracle can have some entertainment if they wish, or they can cut the entertainment if they wish," he says. "The way the actual America's Cup legislation is written at the moment, the city is going to let the America's Cup Event Authority escape without having to commit to any type of arts program whatsoever."
From the city's point of view, that's not entirely true. San Francisco's Office of Economic and Workforce Development acknowledged the importance of having an arts component in a memo titled "America's Cup Neighborhood Engagement Strategy" presented to the Board of Supervisors February 22, 2012 — though so far, that's been the only official word on the subject.
"We're still trying to get our approvals here so we haven't really moved much beyond [what's in the memo]," says the OEWD's Jane Sullivan, Communications Director for the America's Cup project. "I think what we in the mayor's office are concentrating on is trying to make sure the economic benefits spread across the city, and probably using the neighborhoods as a focus of how to do that. But certainly that would include the arts component in the neighborhoods and maybe beyond."
One promising idea outlined in the memo is to use a smart phone app to help alert visitors to neighborhood activities, including arts events.
"There's an app that exists right now called Sfarts.org that is a project between the [San Francisco] Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts," Sullivan explains, noting that working with the San Francisco Travel Association would be a way to market the app to visitors.
Though discussions are "ongoing," Sullivan says the city is focused on "coordination and promotion, and then helping to develop or further develop a robust technology platform to support that."
When asked if she thinks an official, large-scale arts festival would make its way into the America's Cup deal, she's straightforward: "I do not think that's going to happen."
Tony Kelly — facilities manager at Bindlestiff Studio, and a longtime participant in San Francisco's arts and political scenes — believes that arts events are "the only way to save the America's Cup" in terms of reaping any of the event's promised neighborhood economic impact.
"It's not just having arts events, it's putting them in places to draw people to the neighborhoods," he says. "If people go to the races in the afternoon, then you draw them out into the neighborhoods for arts events in the evening, then they actually stay in the city longer. They go to restaurants, bars, hotels, and merchants."
However, he cautions, "If you think this many people are showing up, you better have things for them to do. If you don't think this many people are showing up, you better create things so that people do show up. Either way."
He's concerned about the city's strategy of promoting existing arts events without offering additional support to arts groups.
"If the city pretends that we have this ongoing international arts festival any weekend of the year, and therefore we'll just promote what we already have, and that'll be our festival during the America's Cup, that essentially works as a budget cut," Kelly says. "There's a certain amount of funding that dribbles down to the arts right now. It is what it is. And then they're like, 'We're gonna add this whole other thing, and we hope you guys can add capacity to handle this stuff, because here come all these people. But no, we're not going to support it at all.' That's a classic unfunded mandate. 'Oh, you can take this on too.'"
Kelly, Wood, and other members of the arts community have brainstormed a hypothetical list of festival events: an America's Cup-themed parade, allowing Sunday Streets on Market Street throughout the weeks of racing, outdoor musical performances, an art walk along the Embarcadero, and more, tapping into publicly-owned venues around the city. A sample budget was also drafted.
"It is definitely an example of what could be done fairly quickly and efficiently in this year's budget, if anyone at City Hall chose to do so," Kelly says.
Unsurprisingly, Wood shares Kelly's frustration with the city's let's-promote-what's-in-place plan. "San Francisco has this enormous arts infrastructure that it isn't using properly," he says. "Why not hotwire the system to create a program of events that would also complement [arts events which are] already going on? There's been no real effort to try and corral what's going on and figure out how it fits together, so that's what we've been trying to do."
Kelly remains skeptical that the America's Cup will even draw the promised crowds; he suspects its actual impact on the city will more resemble the X Games — which San Francisco hosted in 1999 and 2000 — than an event "as big as multiple Super Bowls."
He also views the city's reluctance to support an arts festival as part of a larger, long-standing problem.
"San Francisco is this great, hip, fun, creative city — why is that? It's because of the artists. But housing prices keep going up, so more artists have to leave," he says. "However, when there's an event that's counting on us to actually deliver this stuff to the neighborhoods, there's no support for it. Push is coming to shove and has for a number of years now, and this is just one more obvious, obvious example of it."