"...for Kenneth Foster, the center's 57-year-old executive director, big-picture thinking is precisely what has distinguished his four-year tenure at an institution that has variously enticed, angered, entertained, frustrated, enlightened and baffled the Bay Area community in its 15 years of shape-shifting existence."
Ken, we're really proud of you. Here it is:
Ken Foster and his Big Ideas forge a new identity for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Sunday, May 25, 2008
In a recent six-day stretch, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts offered programs running the gamut from the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players to a "women in hip-hop" summit, Smuin Ballet's "Dancin' With Gershwin" to an evening of performance art that featured multimedia wrestling and work by an artist known as Devil Bunny in Bondage. A pink-walled installation festooned with photographs of nude men in "The Way We Rhyme: Women, Art & Politics" had visitors buzzing in the gallery. Sergei Parajanov's classic 1964 film, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors," unspooled in the screening room.
Trying to find some pattern in that fairly typical week at San Francisco's capital of multidisciplinary art might be a fool's errand. But for Kenneth Foster, the center's 57-year-old executive director, big-picture thinking is precisely what has distinguished his four-year tenure at an institution that has variously enticed, angered, entertained, frustrated, enlightened and baffled the Bay Area community in its 15 years of shape-shifting existence.
Foster's widely heralded success in creating a vivid new identity for YBCA springs from his conviction that even the most daringly experimental or politically charged art can speak directly to a wide audience.
"I don't think contemporary art should be available only to this thin slice of the educated elite," he said in one of several long conversations at his office in the center's sleek South of Market facility. "I do think it can be confounding. People say, 'I don't go to a contemporary art museum or dance performance because I don't understand it.' Our job is to help them get past that. I do think people are innately curious. The challenge is to pose the right questions and ideas that help open the door."
Foster's approach is especially clear when it comes to dance, a keen area of interest for him. "There's an audience for whatever you want there to be an audience for," he said. "A lot of presenters say, 'Oh, we have no dance audience.' If you don't have a dance audience in your town it's because you haven't worked at it, you haven't cultivated it, you haven't brought in the right companies and developed it over time."
That could serve as Foster's defining mantra. Not surprisingly, for someone who has thought as carefully as he has about his field, he's written a book on the subject: "Performing Arts Presenting: From Theory to Practice," published in 2006. In it he describes the arts presenter's role as a fusion of mapmaker, educator, storyteller, essayist, explorer and provocateur.
Soft-spoken and self-effacing by temperament, Foster is anything but reticent on the job. In his methodical, quietly purposeful way, he has done one thing after another to find new points of entry for the public into YBCA's programs, without pandering or dumbing down. And he's done it while remaining a largely under-noticed, under-the-radar figure in an arts community with a full complement of thriving egos. Foster may be the least well-known important person in the Bay Area arts scene.
Since taking the center's top job in 2003, Foster has presented an impressive range of performing artists from across the world spectrum, a number with African provenance or roots, who had rarely or never been seen here. The 2007-08 season has featured the Bay Area premieres of works by Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula, Vietnamese choreographer and performer Ea Sola, the Dutch theater company KASSYS, the Ilkhom Theatre of Uzbekistan and a fervent collaboration by the Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women and Compagnie Jant-Bi of Senegal. Many of the shows have sold well.
A key innovation of Foster's leadership are his "Big Ideas" - broad themes laid out in the center's program books and other publications that invite the public to make connections between the various performances, exhibitions, films and other programs. Foster has also funded and helped facilitate important collaborations between local and international artists. One of them linked a San Francisco dance troupe with a company from Kolkata, India. The resulting production, Margaret Jenkins' embracingly heartfelt "A Slipping Glimpse" (2006), is one of the signal achievements of Foster's regime.
The YBCA director has earned high marks across a broad spectrum in the arts world. "As far as I can see, Ken is succeeding at this better than anyone else before," said Daniel Levenstein, director of Chamber Music San Francisco. "He's presenting very interesting and unified work. Even if he didn't verbalize it, he's conveying a message." Deborah Cullinan, executive director of Intersection for the Arts, called Foster "an extraordinary presenter, one of the best in the country."
Jennifer Bilfield, artistic and executive director of Stanford Lively Arts, described Foster's cross-cultural work is as "a model of programming in the urban environment." Olga Viso, director of Minneapolis' noted Walker Art Center, praised her colleague's determination to escape the "silos" that confine art and artists in their disciplines.
Detractors tend to question Foster's administrative policies, point to his lack of experience in visual art - a charge he freely acknowledges - or belittle the "Big Ideas" as marketing tricked out in pompous art-speak. What they don't doubt, for the most part, is his judgment as a presenter and his ability to connect to artists.
For spoken-word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Foster is "one of those rare presenters - and I've dealt with tons of them all over - who has a feel not just for where we are but for where we're headed." Circo Zero director Keith Hennessy singled out the "excellent work from Africa" that "responds to the contemporary global movement of bodies, culture and capital."
Unlikely career trajectory
A career arts administrator who had spent most of his working life booking performing arts series on college campuses before coming to San Francisco, Foster may be singularly well suited to the protean nature of his job. Blending ideological certainty with a gift for empathic listening and a bedrock faith in art's transformative power, he seems at once keenly attentive to the demands of leading a complex organization with a $8.2 million annual budget and serenely comfortable in his professional skin.
His personal story of self-exploration and revelation is strikingly congruent with his career path. Raised in a Denver suburb, he hewed close to home for a decade after graduating from college. He married his high school sweetheart at 19, fathered two sons and taught drama at the high school he had attended. But there were buried forces at work beneath that conventional crust.
In 1995, while vacationing with his wife of 25 years, Foster came out to her as a gay man. He remained in the house with his family for three more "turbulent" years (they lived in Tucson, at the time). "We'd had a wonderful marriage," Foster said. "I was not having this other secret life on the side. I'd been able to compartmentalize those feelings for a long time. But what was going on inside was, well, it was pulling me apart."
In 1998 Foster moved out and began making a life with the man who has been his partner for the past 10 years. Nayan Shah, 42, teaches history at UC San Diego. It's hard not to view Foster's fascination with multiple narratives and his work in what he calls the "blurring, bending and breaking" of walls between artistic disciplines as subjects deeply grounded in his own experience.
Foster's trajectory was not preordained by precocious beginnings. Born in Connecticut to a pipefitter father and a mother who worked first as a housewife and later became a nursing home activities director, Foster grew up in Littleton, Colo., in a family with five siblings. What he calls a "sheltered suburban life" left him unprepared for Macalester College. He withdrew after his freshman year. Foster graduated from Denver's Metropolitan College in 1972 and took the teaching job back at his high school.
Eventually moved by the "deeply political example" of his father's union activism and his mother's courage in starting her nursing home career in midlife, Foster decided to go back to school. "I didn't want to become the people I was surrounded with," he said of his immovable fellow high school faculty members.
Foster took out some hefty loans and applied to a master's degree program in educational theater offered by New York University. He spent two summers in England and a third in New York, discovering, to his surprise, that "I could hold my own with people I thought would eat me alive." When he heard that Littleton was planning to convert its old town hall into an arts center, he applied and got the job.
"That was the best and worst experience of my life," he recalled. Foster raised money to finish construction, directed shows, warred with the board over programming and finances - and decided after two years that he had to move on. He and his family went first to Decatur, Il., where Foster spent two years as managing director of the fine arts center at Millikin College, and then to State College, Pa., where he had a much larger job of the same kind at Pennsylvania State University. Foster's choices there transformed a staid performing arts program into something more adventurous. Companies such as Alvin Ailey, Urban Bush Women and the Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane troupe made their first appearances at Penn State.
James Moeser, who hired Foster for the Pennsylvania job and is currently chancellor at the University of North Carolina, said in an e-mail that Foster "used the arts to create conversation about difficult issues - AIDS, sexual orientation and identity. He refused to accept NEA grants during the period when conservatives in Washington were attempting to censor controversial projects. He literally put Penn State on the map as a cultural center."
Further challenges and more convulsive changes, both professional and personal, awaited at the next stop - the University of Arizona in Tucson. Once again Foster rebranded a conventional program by bringing in plays such as "Angels in America" and "The Life and Times of Malcolm X." Once again he was a flashpoint of controversy. "Ken raised the bar here in a way that hasn't been met since," said Kathleen Allen, arts editor of the Arizona Star. "He made some very gutsy choices." That was at work. At home, he made the "wrenching but inevitable" decision to come out and leave his wife.
The San Francisco story
The Yerba Buena center was 10 years old when Foster was hired in late 2003. An interim director was in place at the time, following John Killacky's resignation from YBCA's top post earlier that year. Most of the storms over identity politics, multiculturalism and access to local arts groups that dominated the center's early years had died down. What Foster faced, instead, was a financial crisis. Despite a healthy annual subsidy from the city's Redevelopment Agency (now fixed at $3.5 million), the loss of important grants and a post-dot-com economy had the center in a bind. "It was a mess," said Foster. He cut nine staff positions, increased usage fees and made other adjustments to balance the budget.
The new executive also faced the delicate task of reconceiving a popular predecessor's concept of the center as a process-oriented "idea house," brimming with residencies and workshops for many artists. Killacky and Foster are respectful of each other and remain friendly, but their differences are clear. "I chose to build and invest more broadly," said Killacky, a video artist himself who is now program officer for arts and culture at the San Francisco Foundation.
"If Yerba Buena was going to have the impact it should nationally and internationally," Foster argued, "it needed to have a curatorial direction, put a stake in the ground and stand for something."
Foster proceeded cautiously at first, but certain changes alarmed some local artists, who thought he was turning his back on them in favor of those from outside the region. When Foster canceled a modest subsidy program for local performing arts groups, as part of the financial reorganization, one artistic director sent a blistering letter to every member of the YBCA board. Foster is philosophical about the episode. "We'll never be friends," he said of the director. "But we can work together as colleagues." Meanwhile, Foster's record of supporting and commissioning local dance troupes - Joe Goode Performance Group, Robert Moses' Kin, the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company - speaks for itself.
The Big Ideas remain a centerpiece of Foster's leadership. Some find the concept of ideological linkages between programs instructive and expansive. Others think it burdens art with an agenda or dismiss it as mere rhetoric.
Adam Frey, executive director of the Contemporary Music Players, recalled a conversation with Foster about whether YBCA might want to "curate" (or present) one of the group's programs. (Some companies are presented and publicized by the center; others, such as Smuin Ballet, rent the facility.) "It was suggested that if we'd had a piece by a Chinese composer, and the piece was subtly a criticism of the Chinese government, it might have worked," said Frey. "I thought that was so unlikely. There is this divergence of values between being aesthetically motivated and socially motivated. I feel a little left out of the loop."
Anyone who controls access to some of the city's most coveted stage space is bound to come in for his share of knocks. By all appearances Foster handles himself with equanimity and poise in the face of it. Several staff members confirm his measured, unruffled management style. Better as a strategist than a showman himself, he is not the visible, dynamic presence that Killacky was. And yet the center continues to have an arty, place-to-be-seen allure.
At January's opening of a video and documentary exhibition devoted to the revered Bay Area choreographer Anna Halprin, a large crowd roamed through the galleries, watched the slow-motion gyrations of dancers in an interior courtyard aswarm with falling leaves and listened, beers in hand, to live music in the lobby. "This is fantastic," said Teresa O'Rourke, 54, of Los Angeles, who was there with her sons, ages 17 and 12. "It has such a human scale. There's nothing like this in LA."
On "What's the Big Idea Day" in February, the architecturally cool center had the feel of a super-hip urban county fair. In one room, visitors were feeding cell phone photos and text into a multimedia installation called "Making Peace." A long line of people waiting to get into the Bang on a Can marathon of sometimes daunting new music snaked across the lobby. Upstairs, a group of four participants slowly pinwheeled their arms in an interactive performance and movement workshop. "No experience necessary," a sign outside the door promised.
Witnessing Foster in action, whether in preshow remarks to an audience or in a meeting with his young curatorial staff that turns woolly with critical catchphases ("urban inventiveness," "nude activism," "club culture tribalism"), there's a sustained sincerity and lightness of touch. "I don't know," he repeatedly says to staff members 20 and 25 years his junior. "What do you think?" Even those who have crossed swords or parted company with him express admiration for his even-handedness.
Renny Pritikin, the former YBCA visual arts curator, who was laid off by Foster in 2004 and now heads the Richard Nelson Gallery and Fine Arts Collection at UC Davis, was stung by his former boss' moves to curtail an artist-in-residence program and cut the number of gallery shows from four to three a year.
"I know Ken is more invested in being a straight-ahead performing arts presenter," noted Pritikin. "That said, I give him a lot of credit for keeping it going on for four years in tough times."
Pritikin's successor, René de Guzman, left YBCA for the Oakland Museum last year and has not been replaced. Foster, who concedes that he had virtually no visual arts experience when he took the job here, said he's "very close" to naming a new visual arts curator.
Recently, after a Saturday Indian brunch on Valencia Street, Foster and his affable partner, Shah, invited a visitor back to Foster's sun-filled apartment on a quiet corner in the Mission District. Paintings, prints, photographs, fabric wall hangings and other mementos trace the couple's travels to India, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Taiwan and elsewhere. A presumably ironic place of honor goes to a photograph of Foster and Shah at a 49ers game. "For some reason we were invited to sit in the owner's box," said Foster with one of his warm, shrugging smiles. "When else were we going to do that?"
Near the front door, a wall of family photographs features shots of Foster's ex-wife as well as his two sons at their respective weddings. Aaron, 32, works as a waiter; Brandon, 28, is a sous chef. Both live in Denver. Foster's first grandchild, Amelia, was born in July of last year.
Apparently content in both his job and his private life, Foster is growing more publicly assertive as an arts leader. Earlier this year, in the YBCA program book and an impassioned opinion piece in The Chronicle, Foster announced that the center would no longer post warning signs about the potentially disturbing content (nudity, obscenity, violence) of its productions and exhibits. "We think art's purpose is to challenge us," he wrote. "Controversy, like beauty, will be left to the eye of the beholder."
With his attention focused on the search for new visual arts curator, Foster has been asking himself other questions about the YBCA gallery experience of late. Is there a better way to make use of the cavernous main space? What are some new ways of thinking about wall text? How should audio tours support or supplement the art?
"Why do we have security guards standing around who can't actually do anything if someone pulls out a gun or starts ripping stuff off the wall?" he mused. "All they can do is call the police." Foster put his hands together for a moment and glanced at the ceiling. "Wouldn't it be better to have people here who know something about the art and are engaged in it?"
Foster wasn't posing the questions in the hope of clear answers. He was posing them because, in an arts presenter's job, there aren't any clear answers, only better ways of asking questions.
Yerba Buena in their words
First introduced by Executive Director Ken Foster in 2004, Big Ideas at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts connect the performances, exhibitions and film-video programs thematically. "We believe we have a chance, right now, to look carefully and rigorously at the world," writes Foster in YBCA's "Big Idea Book" for 2007-08, "to embrace it in all its contradictions and build, over time, a beautifully rendered, profoundly moving, thoughtfully articulated route to a more enlightened place."
This season's Big Ideas are Reality Check, Making Peace and Identity Shifts. Foster asked staff members to express them in the "Big Idea Book." Here are quotes from the book:
-- Reality Check - "So while quantum physics continues to scientifically prove the multidimensionality of time and space, and biogenetic engineers conjure Frankenstein chasing Gattaca-like visions of the future, art has the potential to serve as the medium of choice through which we can collectively perceive and experience the global impact of these issues." Cicely J. Sweed, Center for Community Life manager.
-- Making Peace - "In some ways, these projects provide a respite or refuge from the pain, suffering and conflict that has seemed to dominate the work of artists in the past few years." Angela Mattox, assistant performing arts curator.
-- Identity Shifts - "For women, a segment of the population that has traditionally been categorized into the narrow dichotomy of either being the Madonna or the whore (of either being the caregiver or the sex object), it is important to try on a plurality of expressions to arrive at a greater multiplicity of choices." Berlin Golonu, associate visual arts curator.
E-mail Steven Winn at email@example.com.