Culture keeps us human, say artists at JCCSF panel

Nurturing creativity is vital to a community’s health. And four leaders of San Francisco arts organizations see the new JCCSF as playing a leading role in keeping the cultural scene thriving.

Representing theater, fine arts, dance and music, they came together to discuss “The Cultural Connection” at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s grand opening on Sunday, March 28.

Taking center stage before some 200 people at the center’s Kanbar Hall were Carey Perloff, American Conservatory Theater artistic director; Neal Benezra, director of SFMOMA; Margaret Jenkins, artistic director, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company; and Randall Kline, executive director of SFJazz. Renee Rothmann moderated.

Perloff sees the arts as having the power to change lives. Originally, she wanted to be an archaeologist, and she entered theater through the back door.

“I wanted to excavate Troy but instead fell in love with Greek theater,” she said. Her mother, an Austrian refugee, instilled in her the sense that culture keeps people human. “I always think of Judaism as a religion of the word. Language is so important. It can illuminate or obscure.”

That love of language metamorphosed into love of theater. “Theater should matter,” Perloff said. “It should be a metaphor for our lives.”

For Benezra, early exposure to the Bay Area’s cultural offerings proved pivotal. When he was a young boy growing up in the East Bay, his father, an art teacher, took him to San Francisco’s modern art museum.

“I remember looking at a Clyfford Still painting then titled ‘Self Portrait 1944’ and asked my father to explain this very abstract work. It was a turning point for me,” he said.

Benezra, who began his studies as a political science major, described his love for the world of art — “the artists, dealers, collectors, and shows.” He explained that one of his challenges is to honor history by showing well-known artists while still exhibiting living artists. “We show masters to engage a larger audience, but then ask the public to suspend disbelief with the more experimental work.”

Among the common challenges: finding funds, locating performance venues, balancing the old with the new and the safe with the risky. The arts leaders agreed that San Francisco is an ideal place to foster creativity. It is “a place full of educated and opinionated people where the audience is another character in the play,” said Perloff.

San Francisco’s compact geography, panelists said, has allowed for collaboration among the various arts. ACT’s students, for example, have worked with San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas. And Kline’s jazz musicians have teamed with Benezra to bring music to SFMOMA, particularly in connection with the current exhibit of African American artist Romare Bearden.

Panelists also discussed their efforts in community outreach, their struggles for financial support, their efforts to challenge their audiences, and how, in some ways, their Jewish background informed their professional choices.

Jenkins also shared her passion for the creative process. A native San Franciscan, she grew up in a leftist political family. “I remember protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee and being washed [hosed] down the steps of City Hall. I left the next day for Juilliard.” Jenkins returned to San Francisco in 1970 to move away from her mentors and discover her own vision. She is now celebrating the 31st anniversary of the founding of her company.

“It’s a struggle,” she said. “I have built, remodeled and been evicted from many spaces. If it weren’t for Jewish philanthropy, I wouldn’t exist.”

Kline, who grew up in a family that loved all kinds of music, also has strong ties to San Francisco. He formed SFJazz in 1983 under the name Jazz in the City. His organization is now the second-largest nonprofit presenter of jazz in the country.

The new JCCSF has served as a rehearsal hall for the jazz group, which practices in front of the children in day care. SFJazz also brings its music to San Francisco middle schools where, as part of the English curriculum, students write poetry to the music. “They may not become jazz fans but they will learn about the creative process,” Kline said.

Panelists agreed that audiences need to be challenged. Perloff wants to “extend people’s concentration time — at least past three minutes.”

Said Kline: “Good culture is about being in the present. But to take risks you need trust.”

Jenkins said “audiences are hungry for social interaction as expressed through dance.”

And Benezra wants to exhibit art “that is edgy.”

Summing up the cultural connection, Perloff said, “Culture keeps us human; it is not an adjunct of life but its center. In many ways, it has saved the Jewish people.”