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It was spectacular for many reasons, not least of which is what it says about the current state of arts patronage. Long before the project began, its URL was passed around on social media; the artist himself has ties to the tech world, having worked at a Microsoft think tank in the Nineties. The project is a monument to the power of technology on both an artistic and a literal level (also perhaps tellingly, it's viewable only from San Francisco, not the East Bay): As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, the $8 million project was made possible in part by donations from Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, and Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga. But for all the chatter about these so-called "Microsoft Medicis" and their ability to save the art world, they're dramatically changing what kinds of projects get funded, and how.
Mayer and Pincus aside, the tech world in general is notoriously uncharitable: According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, only four of 2011's fifty most generous US donors worked in tech, despite the fact that thirteen of Forbes' Fifty Richest Americans in 2012 had made some or all of their fortunes in tech. Even so, Silicon Valley has spawned a few high-profile art patrons, in addition to Pincus and Mayer: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen collects Van Gogh and Rothko; the venture capitalist Jim Breyer serves on the board of SFMOMA.
But those people represent the older and richer end of the spectrum, and they appear to be an exception, rather than a rule. "There's kind of an old guard here in San Francisco that has been very generous over the years," said Amory Sharpe, senior director of development and capital campaigns at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. He was probably talking about San Francisco's old-school moneyed class, but he might as well have been talking about age: Historically, most arts funding has, of course, come from older people, for the simple reason that they tend to be wealthier. But San Francisco's moneyed generation is now significantly younger than ever before. And the swath of twenties- and thirties-aged guys — they are almost entirely guys — that represents the fattest part of San Francisco's financial bell curve is, by and large, simply not interested.
"If you're talking the symphony or other classical old-man shit, I would say [interest] is very low," an employee at a smallish San Francisco startup recently told me. "The amount of people I know that give a shit about the symphony as opposed to the amount of people I know who would look at a cool stencil on the street ... is really small."
Which isn't to say that legacy art and culture institutions aren't trying to attract the stencil crowd — in fact, many of them are going out of their way to draw in young, tech-savvy patrons. ACT recently acquired a new building near Twitter's headquarters, the explicitly stated goal of which was, at least in part, was to attract San Francisco's new elite by essentially coming to their doorstep. And earlier this month, NPR launched a new initiative, dubbed "Generation Listen," which is aimed at reaching a swath of listeners who historically haven't been a huge part of public radio's donor base; perhaps unsurprisingly, it was launched not at some black-tie gala in DC or Manhattan, but at a bar during South by Southwest Interactive, the tech- and gadget-focused arm of the popular arts festival that is attended by thousands of tech entrepreneurs.
"Everybody's looking to that young multimillionaire, billionaire who is looking to make their first gift," said Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre. But, according to her, "it's not happening in the arts a lot," or at least as much as it needs to be to sustain these institutions into the future. Young money, after all, typically has young tastes. Maybe it's not insignificant that the very same week the symphony-versus-stencils conversation happened, the San Francisco Symphony announced in a press release that it had been running at a deficit for the past four years; at press time, its musicians were striking over what they allege to be unjustly low wages.
And according to Medak and other members of the art world, it's not just the donors themselves who are changing; it's the entire ethos — and that may mark a change in a system that's been more or less the same since the Renaissance. "A lot of those philanthropic dollars are now going to programs with measurable outcomes," Medak said. "This shift toward a more transactional relationship in philanthropy, where you give something and expect to get something concrete back, has continued to escalate. The entrepreneurial infatuation we have now — and I don't mean that in a loaded way — comes with a notion that the things we're investing in should have a potential to [make] returns. It's antithetical to the kind of philanthropy that has built institutions in this country." Medak didn't mention the logical, eventual corollary to this — that an end to institution-building philanthropy can also mean an end to the institutions themselves — but it doesn't feel entirely far off.
According to Sharpe, the arts community is now looking at courting a generation of "very generous people in their thirties and forties who are giving in a different way than their parents might have. Their giving is more results-oriented. They want a deeper understanding of how their philanthropic dollars are going to be used."