When did San Francisco become an arts mecca?
If you ask Bill Issel, San Francisco State University's history professor emeritus, it always has been.
Issel said "the three P's" — pioneer spirit, patronage and Pacific orientation — were instrumental in forming The City's artistic and cultural identity.
"It was the place to be if you were young and adventurous," said Issel, pointing to San Francisco's instant population explosion during the Gold Rush and the fact that newcomers stayed because they weren't tied down by institutional constraints.
Larry Eilenberg, a professor of theatre arts for S.F. State, said The City was home to more than 1,100 productions — plays, operas (in five languages) and minstrel shows — from 1850-59.
"It was an extraordinary hub, all this money was rushing in," Eilenberg said.
Barons in business — Leland and Jane Stanford, Charles and Mary Crocker, Levi Strauss, Isaias Hellman (great-grandfather of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman) and Mayor James Phelan — were among those whose funds started and supported institutions that remain active today.
Pacific influences ranged from bustling Chinatown endeavors to Japanese art, and even immigrants from Russia fleeing persecution. In the 1920s and '30s, Russian-American painter Victor Arnautoff and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera were among those who created murals for Coit Tower.
And when it comes to the operatic arts, it's "been in the DNA of San Franciscans since 1851, when the first Italian touring troupe dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay and gave performances of Bellini's 'La Sonnambula,'" said David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera.
Choreographer Brenda Way, founder of ODC/Dance who came to San Francisco in 1976 specifically because it was a cultural mecca, said, "My impression is that ever since Isadora Duncan at the end of the 19th century, important things had found a home here, had grown up here, had flourished here — from Anna Halprin to the San Francisco Ballet to Wayne Thiebaud and [Richard] Diebenkorn to the Pickle Family Circus and American Conservatory Theater, to Snake Theater and the Magic [Theatre] to the San Francisco Symphony and the Grateful Dead. And the list goes on."
Dawn Holliday, owner and operator of Slim's and the Great American Music Hall, was dazzled by counterculture troupes the Cockettes and Angels of Light when she came to The City in 1971, often haunting four clubs a night.
"It was like there was no fear. It was a wild, different world, just an amazing scene, with all the lights and colors and talented — and talentless — at the same time," she said, adding, "Bill carried that through with the music," referring to concert promoter Bill Graham, who created The City's far-reaching 1960-70s music scene, booking the Fillmore and Winterland with groundbreaking local rock acts (Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead) and jazz, blues and soul artists.
On the literary front, S.F. State's Poetry Center was founded in 1954 from a donation by W.H. Auden and City Lights Bookstore, Eilenberg said, and it "was at the dead center of the Beat movement" that challenged authority in the 1950s.
The same goes for theater, from the political San Francisco Mime Troupe to evolving vaudeville and circus communities, to alternative companies that premiered Pulitzer Prize-winning works (Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" at Magic Theatre and Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" at Eureka Theatre).
As for film, Eilenberg said that although studios were in Hollywood, talents such as Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock "wanted to make their movies here."
While The City's connection and influence in visual arts goes back to the thriving San Francisco Art Institute, which was founded in 1871 by the San Francisco Art Association, its future also is looking dynamic, said Fine Arts Museums Board President Dede Wilsey, who looks forward to celebrating the 10th anniversary of the modern de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park in October.
After successfully bringing major exhibitions on King Tut and Impressionist masterpieces from Paris to the de Young, Wilsey said she experienced a turning point while watching visitors at last year's exhibit of works by British artist David Hockney.
"It was a defining moment," she said. "I personally felt that the museum had become a museum of the people."