By Joel Hoekstra
photo by Robert Houser

In the fall of 2011, Tom DeCaigny ’98 paid a visit to Coit Tower, the slender white-concrete cylinder that sits atop San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill. Built in 1933, the landmark structure is known for its panoramic views of the city, the bay, and beyond, as well as for its Depression era murals, painstakingly crafted by dozens of artists. As DeCaigny and his partner, Seth Goldstein ’98, took a closer look at the colorful frescos depicting California life during the New Deal, one detail caught their attention. In the corner of one tableau was a man reading a newspaper that bore the headline: “The Arts Commission Awakens from a Deep Sleep.”

DeCaigny had recently applied to work as director of cultural affairs for the City of San Francisco, essentially serving as the chief administrator for the municipality’s once-slumbering arts commission. Established in 1932, the 15-member panel oversees a yearly budget of more than $19 million that supports the symphony, four cultural centers (dedicated to Latino arts, African American arts, film, and opera), and the development and preservation of numerous public art projects and landmarks, including the Coit Tower murals. The cultural affairs director manages that budget, connecting with artists and communities across the city, and promoting the arts as a cultural magnet and economic engine within San Francisco.

After much vetting, DeCaigny got the job—a role he views as vital to the Bay Area’s future. “Arts and artists offer great value to our city,” he says. “They’re often at the forefront of creativity and innovation. They’re an undervalued asset.”

But many artists and city residents had grown disenchanted with the commission prior to DeCaigny’s appointment. The former director had resigned after allegations surfaced that he was spending a significant amount of time in Brazil. And members of the arts panel were harshly criticized when it was revealed that a finalist for one major commission had killed a dog for a film project.

His first order of business, DeCaigny knew, was to reassure his staff and the community that he could tame the chaos and get things working again. “It was important to build trust,” he says. He solicited the ideas and opinions of artists and community leaders. He attended public meetings. “I knew it was going to be critical for me to listen to people,” he says. “In many ways I see my role as a steward and facilitator.”

Challenges aside, DeCaigny was confident that his background would help him succeed. He already knew the city and its culture—a native of Cloquet, Minn., he’d moved west with Goldstein after graduation. DeCaigny also understood how artists and arts administrators worked, having worked on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, served as executive director of a nonprofit that introduced at-risk kids to the performing arts, and worked as a consultant with such arts entities as the Kennedy Center.

DeCaigny traces his passion for the arts back to high school, where he developed an interest in theater that led him to Macalester—and thus transformed his life. “In northern Minnesota, theater was really the first chance I had to see a different future for myself,” he says, recalling trips to Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater with the Cloquet High drama club. “The theater director at my school encouraged me to go to college, which made a huge difference. I was the first in my family to attend college.”

At Mac, DeCaigny focused on directing, staging plays in the blackbox theater and mounting a production of Richard Foreman’s avantgarde play My Head Was a Sledgehammer. “The directing program developed my critical thinking skills in a way that was applicable to doing arts administration,” he says. “It taught me the administrative and organizational skills as well as the overall rigor it takes to move the ball forward.”

DeCaigny says he’s pleased with what he’s accomplished during his first year on the job. He recently attended the unveiling of a Ned Kahn sculpture installed on the façade of the new public utilities facility, funded by a city ordinance that requires 2 percent of all building project funds be earmarked for public art. He also recalls with pride his encounter with a 60-year-old artist who sells leather handbags on a public plaza. The woman told him she’d begun crafting and selling the bags with her mother more than 40 years ago, when the city decided to encourage, rather than harass, street artists. “It reminded me how vital our mission is,” DeCaigny says. “We’re giving artists space to do their work, whether that’s space on the street to sell their wares or space for them to perform.”

Even the most challenging parts of the job seem to engage DeCaigny. Last spring, a group of citizens proposed a ballot measure that would help finance the restoration of the Coit Tower murals, which have been damaged by decades of exposure to sea air and insects. DeCaigny supported the restoration, but worried that the measure—though nonbinding— could hamstring the commission’s ability to direct resources to other projects. He found himself at odds with neighborhood groups, with one San Francisco resident calling the commission’s decision to oppose the measure “bizarre” in the local newspaper.

Last June, over DeCaigny’s objections, city residents voted to pass the measure. But their arts czar has no hard feelings about the matter. He views such dialogue as healthy—a sign that citizens care about their community and the art that graces their city. “That the neighbors organized and took the initiative to preserve a cultural asset known the world around is something we should welcome. It’s something we should celebrate.”

Joel Hoekstra is a Twin Cities writer.

April 22 2013

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