Every time you buy a there there San Francisco tee, you're helping the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts put artists to work. The program, called YAAW, encourages young people to draw connections between art and community, and to make projects that address issues that are important to them. More importantly, it treats art like a real, important job — not just another after-school activity. Students are paid for their work, and collaborate with nationally-recognized artists and performers. We talked to their director, Laurel Butler, about what they do, and why it matters.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do, and how you got here?
I’m the Youth Arts Manager at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I get to spend my days hanging out with the next generation of emerging artists in the Bay Area — the teens of the YBCA Young Artists at Work (YAAW) program — learning how to critically and creatively (re)interpret the world around us, using practices of arts and activism to move towards constructing new realities and more promising futures. The program is youth-driven, so each YAAW is developing their own individual community-based art project, as well as collaborating with their peers to plan events like the 50 Cent Tabernacle, the YBCA Election Night Party, and the SF 2012 Youth Arts Summit. We tend to throw pretty rad parties.
Of course, as the Program Manager, sometimes I get to make the kids do what I want. I’m a performer, and the project advisor for YAAWs who are working on projects situated in performance, so sometimes I make them wear tights and roll around on the ground and spaz out. I make them sit in circles for awkwardly long periods of time and talk critical aesthetic theory. I make them stay out late on school nights to watch weird, contemporary works like Keith Hennessey’s Turbulence. And I ask them for advice on how to add swag to my wardrobe.
Lots of arts organizations expect high-schoolers to intern or work for free, but you pay your students for particpating as residents. Why did you make that choice, and how do you think it changes the dynamic of the program?
We want to legitimate artmaking as a viable profession by offering the YAAWs a model of sustainable artmaking practice — the residency model. So, we don’t just offer them a stipend, but all of the accoutrements that come with a professional arts residency — studio space, artistic mentorship, resources and materials, aesthetic inspiration, and — most importantly — a community of collaborators to help support the development and realization of creative dreams. By paying our young artists we are investing, in both tangible and symbolic ways, in their work — not just as artists, but as pioneers of creative thought and social changemaking in the Bay Area. And it’s not just a stipend. YAAWs also get tickets to shows, reciprocal admission to galleries all over the country, and a fresh hoodie! It’s kind of a sweet deal…
What do you love about SF that you can't find anywhere else?
SF is a wonderful size. There are so many diverse out-of-school offerings for teens, and they all work together to create a sort-of ecosystem of youth programming, with each organization offering something distinct. I feel like the YAAW program has a wonderful network of collaborative partners — we plan events with the Contemporary Jewish Museum Teen Art Connects and Children Creativity Museum C.I.T.Y. (Creative Inspiration Through Youth) Teens, we screenprint and dance with Out of Site students, we hang out in the Bay Area Video Coalition Digital Pathways editing labs. It’s a wonderful community, very accessible and mutually supportive.
But the thing I love most about SF that I can’t find anywhere else: that it’s right next to Oakland.
YAAW works with young artists who want to combine arts and activism. What sorts of issues are most important to the youth in your program?
They’re so diverse! I’ll pick a few…
Aaron is interested in class inequity in the Bay, so he’s composing a photo essay juxtaposing portraits of folks experiencing homelessness with dot-com billionaires.
Silvana’s work focuses on heterosexism — she’s writing a play based on interviews she’s conducted with QPOC youth about their coming-out experiences.
Annie is concerned with the giant island of plastic floating around in the ocean, so she’s creating a series of paintings that address that particular environmental phenomenon.
Alejandra’s work is centered around immigration issues, and her photography reflects the changing demographics in the Mission District, with her own family as a particular point-of-focus.
The YAAWs are all highly politicized individuals. For our Election Night Party on November 6th, they created a series of comics that explain different Propositions on the California Ballot! Props 34, 36, and the 30/38 conflict were all of significant interest.
Can you give an example of a success story from the program — say, a particular project that made a big impact?
Sure! When Niyjale began with the YAAW program in 2011, I didn’t know quite what to make of his work — really abstract sculptural stuff, obviously highly conceptual, but kind of beyond me, you know? Over the course of the year, I really got to know Niyjale as a critical thinker — we worked really closely together on his role in Urbanian, the performance we did as part of Bay Area National Dance Week 2012, in which he played a recently released felon — and I began to see themes and undercurrents emerge in his work. Niyjale’s definitely experienced some tough stuff, and invested his work with a lot of meaning from his own lived experience. Over time, his ability to articulate the concept or vision behind a piece becae really strong. In the spring, Niyjale was awarded the Vernon Davis Visual Art Scholarship Fund by the SF Arts Commission! He’s now at the Academy of Art University of San Francisco, studying animation and fine arts.
That’s an example of a big impact on one individual… but the YAAW program also likes to go big and broad. We recently teamed up with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, YBCA Director of Performing Arts, to produce the 50 Cent Tabernacle, an all-day series of dance classes featuring the Bay’s hottest dance instructors, all of whom are curated and hired by the YAAWs. We had hundreds of people of all ages dancing in back-to-back classes — Afro-Hatian, Samba, Cuban Folkloric — for just 50 cents!