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Creating Spaces Conducive To Discussion

July 17, 2007

Increasingly, conversations I've been having around here about the arts end up being meta-conversations: arts people in San Francisco all think we should be inspiring discussion about the work. I couldn't agree more. One of the main reasons that art exists in the world at all is because of an artist's response to something going on around them or inside them. To respond to something is to enter into a dialogue with it. So it follows that to experience that artist's response is to enter, automatically, into that dialogue.

Yesterday afternoon, Angela Mattox, performing arts curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and I, sat around drinking tea and talking about ways in which we could get people talking. Interestingly enough, the usual solution of organizing a post-performance "talk back" with an artist, didn't once come up during our conversation. We both agree that the best way of engendering talk about art (and, implicitly, the world we live in) is to create seamless, organic environments in which people (both artists and audiences alike) can meet and talk.

It's not rocket science to suggest that the best way of doing this is to have an on-site social space like a cafe or bar which is open before and after a performance and serves good drinks, food and a conducive atmosphere. One of the model spaces for this kind of environment, to my mind, is London's South Bank Centre, where people gather after work to stroll and eat and drink and talk before and after going on to see films, plays, concerts, talk and exhibitions.

I don't know whether this country is still experiencing a hangover from the Prohibition years, but for some reason there seems to be very little crossover between art and social spaces. There's just too much bureaucracy involved in attempting to set up and run a cafe or bar space in San Francisco performance venues which probably explains why so many organizations shy away from doing it.

Bar facilities at YBCA, for instance, are only available at the most well-sold shows (the service is operated by a third party.) The Center also lacks a dedicated, comfortable space for hanging out. A few years ago, YBCA did have a dedicated cafe space, but the third party that ran it eventually pulled out. I used to like that cafe. I'm sure more could have been done to promote its presence. I used to go there quite a bit to work or read. But it was only a daytime operation, as far as I recall. I think it shut its doors every day in advance of the most crucial time -- the evening -- when traffic around arts events at the Center ought to have been highest.

The closest thing we have to a social space in a local performing arts space, I think, is The Exit Theatreplex Cafe. It's laid back, intimate, and serves decent and cheap snacks and drinks before and after shows. One of the best things about the Exit's approach is that you're allowed to take your food and drink into the theatre with you -- something that few theatres in this country allow. Of course, being such a small venue allows The Exit to fly under the radar to some degree.

Hopefully social environments and arts environments will unite in this country eventually. Until then, ad hoc solutions from temporary lounges for specific shows to "theatre salons" that bring together a large group of performing arts people (from directors and actors to critics and audience members) for food, drink and discussion every once in a while, will have to do.

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