Chutzpah ends up biting departed San Francisco Arts Commission chief 

We’ll say this about Luis Cancel: He’s made the world safe for the ever-growing number of telecommuters.

That is to say, you shouldn’t feel guilty if you tell your boss that you won’t be in the office when you’re actually at the Russian River or Lake Tahoe, which — if you are actually working — is at least in the same hemisphere and time zone.

Cancel resigned under pressure this week as The City’s Arts Commission executive director after a nearly four-year stint that his staffers apparently likened to an extended reign of terror.

You wouldn’t know that from all the niceties being issued from City Hall, where Cancel’s sudden departure was characterized as part of his larger desire to return to New York. But in a way, it is fitting since his personal dealings with other department heads and those he considered underlings (mostly everyone) could best be described as coming from someone who learned his table manners in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium.

I have had scant dealings with Cancel since he arrived here in 2007, but it’s fair to say that with little help from the press he made quite a reputation for himself. The first hint came when he took, under the larger umbrella of downsizing, the opportunity to fire Nancy Gonchar, the commission’s popular deputy director who had served as the agency’s interim chief after Rich Newirth departed to take a similar post in Vancouver, British Columbia.

That was just the first of many personnel scrums that marked Cancel’s tenure, the latest being his attempt to push out Jill Manton, the commission’s longtime director of programs, which proved to be his undoing.

“I think the simplest way to describe it is that he didn’t play well with others,” said one longtime arts community member. “It may be something of a cliche, but in San Francisco, not much gets done without collaboration. I think Luis thought that he could get things done on his own.”

Such things as announcing — via Facebook and elsewhere — that he was discussing the creation of a sister city with Rio de Janeiro, his adopted second home. As unimportant and ornamental as sister-city relationships might be, they are still created at the behest of the mayor, something Cancel apparently forgot during his frequent continental crossings.

And his trips to Rio might have gone largely unnoticed if his time at the home office here hadn’t been so turbulent.

Over the years, Cancel drew more complaints than an impromptu rock concert.

His associates said he treated other department heads as if they worked for his department. He apparently thought his position came with great power.

Now he knows it came with great miles, but not with much punch.

This lesson in humility is part of the landscape of San Francisco. It’s a small town that considers itself large, but only because it would be unsophisticated to think otherwise.

It’s a place where excesses are tolerated, but only to a point. The neighborhoods are different, yet common rules apply. It pays to be nice to the people on your block and the workers in your office, if for no other reason than members of those two groups probably know each other. San Francisco is that small.

Even though Willie Brown had a decidedly mixed record as mayor, he was beloved by many in town because he was — what’s the word — nice. He remembered people’s names. He asked about their kids. He might not have dressed the part, but like Joe Alioto before him, he was one of the people.

It was a lesson lost on ex-Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was pretty good at his job, but not so much with the people who helped him do it.

And then there is Cancel, who learned his politics on the mean streets of New York, and promptly forgot to leave them there. He pushed the envelope so far that despite the numerous complaints and questions about his office hours 6,621 miles away, he believed he was still going to keep his job.

Right up until he lost it.

Not every painting is a great work, not every arts czar a great fit. This one just had too many miles on it.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at
kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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