Invest in Silicon Valley Arts and Culture — Its Recovery Is Our Own

Magnify Community
5 min readMay 20, 2021


By Catherine Crystal Foster, CEO and Co-Founder

Photo: San Jose Taiko

In good times and bad, food keeps us alive, shelter keeps us safe, but arts and culture keep us human.

When COVID first struck, arts and culture organizations were among the first to close their doors. For more than a year, curtains remained down, eagerly anticipated exhibitions never saw the light of day, and paying audience members stayed home. Ticket sales — a mainstay of arts and culture revenue — came to a screeching halt. The ever-adaptive creative sector pivoted to virtual offerings that may have delighted new audiences, but rarely generated meaningful sales. To make things worse, most of the arts and cultural institutions we all enjoy are nonprofits, and their donations plummeted while donors focused support on basic human needs, which required emergency assistance.

Now, as restaurants fill up again and shoppers flock back to the malls, our theaters, museums, and performance spaces have been among the last to reopen. Legal mandates have kept many doors closed; distancing and other safety requirements make the operations challenging; performers have their own health concerns, and patrons have been understandably nervous.

What that means is that what is so essential to healing has been largely missing from our recovery: the joy and beauty of seeing and hearing something that opens your eyes or touches your soul…the exhilaration and connection that comes from experiencing or sharing art with others…the pride of celebrating a cultural heritage through artistic expression…the reclamation of power by telling your own story through words, sounds, or images…the catharsis that comes from releasing your pain by creating art or witnessing an artist give voice to feelings you share. The arts connect us as humans to an identity, which is crucial in our recovery.

And this is about more than any one of us as individuals. Nonprofit arts and culture is a $166 billion driver of our national economy. Arts and culture represent more than 7% of California’s GDP, and tens of thousands of people work in the creative economy in Silicon Valley. As SVCreates leader Connie Martinez noted in a recent briefing for the Silicon Valley Business Journal, a vibrant and welcoming arts and culture community is one of the critical elements in attaching people to a place — something very top of mind as Silicon Valley grapples with an exodus of businesses and talent. Greater attachment to place can also fuel more philanthropic investment in our region overall, which benefits us all. Students who participate in the arts — frequently led by nonprofit partners — improve their academic performance and attendance, which accelerates our productivity and helps ensure a more promising future for this region.

Looking beyond economic drivers, art helps provide bridges between communities when rising hate divides us. A new study points to the role of place-based arts and culture as “we-building” that unites people toward community well-being. And artistic expression uplifts our nation as a whole, when we need it most. Consider that it was Amanda Gorman reciting her stirring poem that was one of the most enduring images of our latest presidential inauguration.

While we have rightly tended to our first responders in this crisis, the artists and their institutions who are our second responders still need our support, so they can help us heal and regain the vitality that the converging crises sapped from so many of us. While many people gave generously as a result of the pandemic and other crises last year, only 6% of wealthy donors increased giving to arts and culture organizations.

It’s ironic that a place like Silicon Valley that prides itself on its creativity gives so little space and support to the vibrant arts and culture community that has organically emerged in this fertile soil. We’re a bit untraditional here, though not entirely in a good way: ours is the only comparable region whose large arts organizations (with budgets over $5 million) actually contracted between 2010 and 2020. But the more positive side of that story is that smaller grassroots arts organizations that reflect the cultural diversity of Silicon Valley’s population, and embrace a more disruptive and of-the-moment relevance, grew by 60%. These organizations need our support today, and we need them.

In the spirit of Silicon Valley innovation, local arts organizations are not only continuing to surprise, delight, and inspire their audiences, they are meeting the challenges of this moment with creativity. Beyond pivots to new ways to perform, present, and share, they are developing a software platform to connect artists with business services, a shared spaces network, a scalable tech platform for teachers and schools to find arts education opportunities, and regional and county advocacy communities to advance the public policy and funding that will secure the future growth and stability of the sector.

To find a sample of some of these exciting and emergent organizations, donors can explore the arts and culture grantees of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Community Catalyst Fund. The Castellano Family Foundation funds an array of Latino-led and Latino-serving arts organizations in Santa Clara County, and is eager to share information about the organizations it supports with others. A look at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s local grantmaking portfolio reveals a wealth of outstanding performing and visual arts organizations and cultural institutions throughout a five-county region. The Knight Foundation is a national leader in funding effective “placemaking,” and invests in a variety of outstanding arts and culture organizations that contribute to the vitality of the San Jose area. Donors can find a searchable list of their grantees on the Knight website.

To the north, the Arts Commission of San Mateo County awarded COVID relief grants to a number of local arts organizations, listed on the county’s website. And for those interested in directly supporting artists, many of whom struggled to make ends meet in this high-cost region even before the lockdown, SVCreates offers a locally-focused Arts and Culture Relief and Recovery Fund.

This spring and summer we may breathe a little easier as life opens up again and the curtain rises on a new season of artistic expression that we can finally enjoy in person. While we take a moment to appreciate the fact that we have persevered in the face of crisis, or to gain strength for a more difficult recovery, the arts can provide us with a precious outlet. As we build back better here in Silicon Valley, the “we-building” that happens through a robust arts and culture sector can counter the alienation and division that racism and inequity have wrought, and connect us in a more positive and productive way with one another and to this place where we live and work. Give generously to our home-grown arts and culture nonprofits, and let’s heal together.

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