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  • Nastia Voynovskaya

Amid Upheaval, a New CEO Steps in at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts



A new CEO has stepped in to lead Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), the embattled San Francisco arts organization whose previous interim CEO abruptly resigned in March during the fallout of a pro-Palestinian protest.


Jim Rettew, the new interim CEO, has previously held five interim leadership roles at various nonprofits. His background as a crisis management expert will be put to the test at YBCA, which has been embroiled in controversy since a Feb. 15 protest during which eight artists spray painted and draped pro-Palestinian messages onto their own works in the Bay Area Now 9 exhibit.


Jim Rettew is YBCA’s new interim CEO. (Jim Rettew)


In response to the protest, former interim CEO Sara Fenske Bahat and the board closed the galleries, which remained shuttered for a month. In open letters, artists and staff accused YBCA leaders of censorship. Bahat resigned on March 3, citing “antisemitic backlash” and “the actions of some of our own employees” in her letter to the board. (Staff and leadership denied each other’s allegations.) San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen, meanwhile, voiced support for the artists, and proposed an examination of the city’s support of YBCA at an upcoming Board of Supervisors meeting.


YBCA reopened in mid-March, but the turmoil continued. At least nine staff members have resigned in protest, according to employee comments during a public meeting. And YBCA now faces scrutiny from San Francisco’s Director of Cultural Affairs, who has proposed changes that would drastically alter how YBCA operates.


In an email interview, Rettew told KQED that he sees rebuilding public trust as one of YBCA’s biggest challenges, and that he’s spent his first few weeks on the job listening to employees.


“I’m now using those essential conversations to work with our staff to help deliver on the promises and aspirations of our organization,” he wrote. “I think that in many ways, the protest on Feb. 15 was a reflection of people asking the question: what do people expect from a cultural institution in 2024? We are working tirelessly to try to answer that question, and to create a space that is authentic and valuable to the public.”


An art center on taxpayer-funded property

YBCA is under particular scrutiny because the private nonprofit enjoys significant, taxpayer-funded subsidies from the City and County of San Francisco. It occupies a city-owned building, rent free, on public land under a contract that’s subject to renewal through 2094. YBCA has also received tens of millions in taxpayer dollars since its founding in 1993; according to its most recent financial report, for fiscal year 2023, about 6% of its revenue and support came from the City and County of San Francisco.


Yerba Buena Gardens Conservancy, another nonprofit, manages the YBCA property, acting as an intermediary between YBCA and the city. In exchange for financial support and subsidies, YBCA is contractually obligated to offer “high-quality artistic programming to San Francisco residents and visitors.”


At the Conservancy’s most recent public board meeting on April 10, San Francisco’s Director of Cultural Affairs, Ralph Remington, sharply criticized YBCA for what he considers its failure to do so.


“With the level of subsidy YBCA receives … they should have been operating and maintaining the cultural facilities in a way that presents themselves as a world-class performing arts presenting, producing, exhibiting organization,” Remington said. “You’d have to go back into the distant past to see when that actually happened.”


Indeed, YBCA significantly reduced its film programming in 2018 after laying off the two-person department. In 2020, it launched the Artist Power Center, an online platform meant to connect artists to grants and job opportunities; it has since sunsetted that project.


“It turned into some kind of weird think tank that should’ve been out in the woods somewhere, maybe,” said Remington at the Conservancy board meeting. “But for the level of public subsidy in the middle of the city … YBCA, in my opinion, needs to be reined in.”


At the board meeting, Remington contrasted YBCA with SOMArts, a significantly less resourced nonprofit that’s also located in a city-owned building. While YBCA enjoys a spacious, modern, centrally located facility, SOMArts needs significant seismic improvements, and is in a much less desirable location, below a freeway underpass and away from BART and downtown offices.


“I would put on the table that we could move SOMArts into YBCA to share with SOMA Pilipinas,” said Remington, referring to another vibrant, less resourced arts organization, “and they could activate the building.”


In a follow-up interview, Remington told KQED that these proposals are in their “embryonic” stages. He credited the Feb. 15 protesters, who now call themselves Bay Area Artists Against Genocide, with spurring important conversations about reforms at YBCA.


“I think the activists ultimately were successful because they drew attention to the issues at YBCA; they drew attention to the issue that they were actually protesting about,” he said in a video call. “And they brought about ultimate change that will happen with that organization as a result of these bold actions. …


This is why civil disobedience and protest and having your voice heard is so important.”


Staff members reveal a schism with leadership

During the April 10 Conservancy board meeting, a handful of YBCA staff members spoke out during public comment, painting an image of broken trust between the art center’s leadership and YBCA workers. The employees said that, even amid leadership changes, they’ve spent years building relationships with artists and the public, and they now feel those relationships are in jeopardy due to the actions of the board and former CEO.


Rettew told KQED that he sees rebuilding trust with staff as one of his first priorities. (He declined to comment on recent staff resignations.) He also said that he’s working to make sure the art center fulfills its commitment to the city and its visitors.


“I cannot undo decisions that were made, or change what happened,” he said. “What I can do is help this organization move forward with integrity.”


When asked about issues raised in the Feb. 15 protest, Rettew said YBCA would not join the Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), as artists demanded. (The boycott encourages international institutions to divest from Israeli institutions until Israel ends its siege and occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, among other conditions.)


When asked if YBCA would take a different approach to political messages in artists’ work, Rettew didn’t specify any changes. But he said that the censorship allegations “remain one of the most challenging and contentious issues of the past few months,” and underscored the institutions’ need to balance artistic expression with curatorial context.


Rettew is now focused on YBCA’s upcoming programming. “I recognize that it is now our job to prove ourselves as a trustworthy partner to the community, and to artists, and the way that we will do that is by doubling down on our commitment to put on engaging and thought-provoking exhibitions, by filling our theater as many nights as possible, by putting together compelling public programs, and by working with our neighbors to continue the important work of bringing people downtown to the Yerba Buena District,” he wrote.


YBCA’s next exhibition, a solo show by Oakland artist Nick Dong, opens on June 6 and will be on view through Aug. 25. A spring dance festival presented by San Francisco Ballet School is slated for May 22-24; there’s also a free, all-ages art workshop scheduled for May 22.


Meanwhile, Remington hopes the Yerba Buena Gardens Conservancy will arrive at a plan of action for YBCA by the fall. The proposed San Francisco Board of Supervisors public hearing on censorship allegations at YBCA has not been scheduled.

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