Carpet ride through the arts: free performing arts has everything

By Catherine Lee
The Guardsman

Bring a picnic, bring a sweater, bring your mother or bring your nephews or go solo to the best free cultural festival in San Francisco to see emerging and established artists in an intimate, relaxed setting.

The Yerba Buena Gardens Festival  is a six-month arts and culture festival with free weekly performances hosted in the cultural heart of downtown San Francisco. Performances range from jazz to opera, from circus acts to literary readings, from comical to historical.

With its bowl of open lawn, gorgeous waterfalls, benches and festival seating, the setting and the stage are superb in the Yerba Buena Gardens. It’s a good plan to wander the community spaces to find the best spot, given the variable weather in SOMA.

While there are many free arts and culture festivals, the YBGF is uniquely intimate: the stage is low to the ground and the audience is separated from the performers by a mere ten feet.  Children often add a free-form expressive dancing show directly below the performers.

Performances are usually about two hours with an intermission, and many acts do mini-concerts of two performances of 1-hour sets which is great for residents craving some culture but squeezed for free time.

For a recent Saturday concert, Valda Saunders brought her son, Christian Harris, and her mother, Hattie Minter, who was visiting from Alabama,  to see the Marcus Shelby Orchestra perform a jazz set inspired by Martin Luther King.

Saunders said she had enjoyed the festival’s Thursday lunchtime concerts and coming out to see a Saturday show with a big picnic and the family was even easier.  Seven-year-old Harris said he “liked the whole thing.” Minter was especially pleased because by strange coincidence, she had met Marcus Shelby in Alabama when she was working with Reverend King’s congregation.

“My daughter didn’t mention whose performance we were attending, so I was surprised to find it was Marcus,” said Minter.

Creating new traditions
The 11-year-old festival has one of the longer festival seasons with events presented from May through October. About 90 to 110 performances scheduled each season.

To avoid getting stale, some artists and organizations have appeared multiple years in a row. Favorites include AfroSolo’s Jazz in the Gardens, Circus Bella,  and Gamelan Sekar Jaya, Balinese performing artists who always sell out their tickets in paid venues.

Some festival days focus on a specific cultural or ethnic interest. This year the festival has Japanese, Brazilian, Mexican and Swedish performing arts. For locals, this might be the global stay-cation solution to travel the world with friends and family on the cheap.

More voices are added to the mix every year, giving a platform for the next generation of writers and

“Really wonderful is the Wednesday series of Youth Speaks, youth poetry slam team and young poets, which is new this year,” said Marshall Lamm, the festival’s publicity spokesman.

A commitment to local arts
The festival’s director, Linda Lucero, is a native San Franciscan with deep roots in the Bay Area art community.  As a graduate of City College and San Francisco State, she speaks affectionately about the connection between community and the arts in the Bay Area.

“Eighty percent of the artists (performing at the festival) are local to the Bay Area,” she said.
As part of the Redevelopment Agency’s commitment to the Yerba Buena area, the provision for public arts was essential. Many artists were involved in the original discussions to have an affordable arts and performance space for the community, Lucero said.

“Even though it’s admission-free, it is important to have high-quality cultural presentations,” Lucero said.
The ultimate proof of the artist connection and accessibility is the welcome policy for emerging artists on on the festival website: “The festival accepts unsolicited materials from artists. We are always interested in hearing from artists …especially those creating new work or site-specific theater or dance.”

If you go, the calendar is subject to change:
May through October

Dress in layers – the festival area has been sunny and hot, but summer in San Francisco can be cold.
It’s okay to bring a low chair and your own food and drinks; if it’s been foggy, the lawn may be soggy.
Free admission, and no reservations are required.

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