Can public art have a deeper meaning than simply beautifying public spaces?
San Jose-based arts organization Local Color is showing that art can challenge racism and pressing social issues. During the demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the group teamed up with artists and downtown property owners to create the installation, Rise SJ: Murals of Solidarity on the boarded-up windows of downtown businesses.
The murals conveyed messages about challenging racism — potentially polarizing points of view that business owners might have shied away from to avoid alienating customers. But these murals were temporary — only a few remain today — which made it easier for the business owners to say yes.
“We built an understanding with the property owners about public art in general – that it goes beyond beautification,” said Carman Gaines, membership relationship manager for Local Color.
It’s this type of work that Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Community Catalyst Fund is supporting with a recent Arts & Culture Community Action Grant to Local Color, for general operating support.
The grant is part of SVCF’s long-term strategy to achieve systemic change in Silicon Valley. This round of grants aims to address longtime disparities in both funding and influence that have left BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities and undocumented communities with inequitable roles in shaping the region’s future. Grants were made available to nonprofits serving Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, with priority given to BIPOC-led and allied organizations and those with annual budgets under $1 million.
Local Color’s responsiveness to community concerns is one of the attributes SVCF wanted to encourage with the grants, said Mauricio Palma, SVCF’s director of community-building.
Local Color has “created structures for working artists and community residents, and they have used those structures to engage folks in developing and sharing their story and their aspirations, tied directly to social change,” Palma said. “They’re not tied to performance and entertainment and art for the sake of art. They are tied to the interests and concerns of their communities.”
Local Color was founded in 2015 to use public art as a way to create economic opportunities for local artists. Its mission has expanded to “building multifaceted opportunities,” said Erin Salazar, Local Color’s executive director. “Economic opportunity is just one piece of how to create a thriving and vibrant arts community in San Jose.”
In its six years of existence, Local Color has facilitated 185 murals. For one of them, the 100 Block SJ project, Local Color hired 100 artists to each design a three-foot-square mural, then put all 100 murals together into a tiled mosaic in downtown San Jose.
The group also manages more than 50,000 square feet of creative studio space used by artists ranging from podcasters to textile makers. Local Color leases space from developers in the community that help make the spaces more affordable, so they can be subleased to artists at below-market rates, Gainessaid. During the pandemic, Local Color heavily discounted the rates when needed.
“We didn’t want members to have to decide between affording a home or a workspace,” Gainessaid.
Local Color also offers fiscal sponsorships to independent creative professionals through its Local Commons project. Many grants can go only to nonprofit organizations, and it’s not always practical for an independent artist to form one. By acting as a fiscal sponsor, Local Color can help artists with the business side of grants and facilitate their financial support.
The artists Local Color works with reflect the diversity of San Jose: About half are women, the numbers of Latinx and Asian artists reflect the city’s population and they are continuing their work on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.
“We will be going through a formal DEIA training as a staff and as a board to better understand how we can level out some of the systemic inequities that happen and figure out how those biases show up in our work,” Salazar said.
Supporting organizations such as Local Color aligns with SVCF’s mission to address systemic disparities and work toward creating a Silicon Valley where all community members can thrive.
Learn how another SVCF Arts and Culture grantee Chopsticks Alley Art bridges communities through their work here.