Kate Goldstein-Breyer "interviews" her daughter Annabel on stage at the Sydney Goldstein Theater before a City Arts & Lectures event.
Kate Goldstein-Breyer "interviews" her daughter Annabel on stage at the Sydney Goldstein Theater before a City Arts & Lectures event.

Q&A: She picked up City Arts & Lectures where her mom left off

One could safely say that Kate Goldstein-Breyer followed in her mother’s footsteps. Goldstein-Breyer, 43, is co-executive director of City Arts & Lectures, the San Francisco nonprofit her mother, Sydney Goldstein, founded in 1980 and led until retiring in 2017.

The organization brings together highly respected and cutting-edge writers, artists, performers and others for free-flowing conversation onstage in the ornate Sydney Goldstein Theatre — formerly known as the Nourse and renamed after Goldstein died in 2018. Programs are also broadcast on more than 130 public radio stations across the country.

Goldstein-Breyer’s father is Charles Breyer, senior judge for the U.S. District Court in Northern California, and she is the niece of recently retired Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Those two jurists will appear in conversation with U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria as part of City Arts & Lectures on Jan. 7.

Goldstein-Breyer is a native San Franciscan who still lives in the city.

 J.: Did you spend a lot of time with your mom at the Nourse growing up?

Kate Goldstein-Breyer
Kate Goldstein-Breyer

Kate Goldstein-Breyer: I would often go to the theater in the evening and hang out backstage when the program went on, and make my way out to the lobby and talk to the ushers. I’d also accompany my mom on work errands, stuck in the back of her overheated Volvo station wagon. We’d go to the printers and other places, and I’d even go with her to the airport to pick up guests. It was a pretty big part of my life. As a child, I definitely was interested in her work — for many years, her office was in our home. I was going in and out of there, probably absorbing some of her work.

Did you always plan to follow your mother’s career?

After college, I tried a bit of law school but dropped out. 

Did your father encourage you to go into law?

No. I think he thought it would be ultimately unsatisfying for me.

What led you to change direction?

I was living in New York and went to a Tony Kushner production of [the musical] “Caroline, or Change,” and was jolted out of my ennui. I pretty quickly dropped out of law school and got a job with the production. I spent some years working on and off Broadway.

When I returned to San Francisco, I made the decision to try working with my mom. I began in 2010 in a lower-capacity position soon after Holly Mulder-Wollan was hired. Together we sort of took on more responsibilities. When my mom retired in 2017, we both took on her job.

What is the budget for City Arts & Lectures?

It’s around $1.5 to $2 million a year. Until the pandemic, we were largely supported by earned income through ticket sales and paid very little attention to fundraising. We are a nonprofit; we give a lot of free tickets to students and teachers. We’re simply not driven by a profit incentive. That has been one of the pleasures of my job, which is to program and oversee so many big and very small details of our events and our radio broadcast.

What do you look for when booking people?

Writers traditionally constitute the majority of our guests, and still do. Sometimes programs are issues-driven. We want to have a balance of established figures and emerging talent. We’re also bringing in other elements like music, performance and cocktails.

Does your audience tend to skew older?

The audience is going to reflect the programming. When Holly and I stepped in — and we’re getting older — we felt that it’s always really important for us to look to the younger people we work with, and people outside of our organization, to present a range of guests. I love when I’m unfamiliar with the people who are onstage, because I get to learn something, too, and because they are not like me.

Who are some of the future guests you are personally excited about having?

[Essayist and critic] Hilton Als — he’s always terrific — and [Indigenous poet] Natalie Diaz Feb. 9, and [journalist] Isabel Wilkerson Feb. 17. I’m also looking forward to having [cult artist] John Waters in the spring.

Growing up, was your family religious?

I think you could call us Christmas Jews. My mom had always been countercultural in her own way, definitely going against the grain. She was a bit of a rebel.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.