Silicon Valley has many strengths, but a classic complaint is that the region has no artistic culture. People moan that it lacks the funky, artsy vibe for which San Francisco is famous. Given that innovation and entrepreneurship thrive in a culture of diversity, eclecticism, and creativity, then why has the Valley lacked a complementary edgy art, music, and literary scene? That question has been fair game to ask in the past. In recent years, however, things have changed noticeably. An emerging subculture movement in San Jose has burst into visibility. San Jose, some might say, is like the new San Francisco.
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At the vanguard of this movement is an art gallery named Anno Domini. They run a monthly street festival in downtown San Jose called South FIRST FRIDAYS. They also organize a massive annual event, the SubZERO Festival, which drew 15,000 people to the streets last June. If you talk with local artists, they praise Cherri Lakey and Brian Eder, the founders of Anno Domini, for nurturing the growth of the region’s creative ecosystem.
Recently, my firm worked with Anno Domini to produce San Jose’s official welcome celebration for Global Innovation Week. The event – “Art of Innovation“ – was sponsored by the City of San Jose and featured dozens of local artists, including aerial acrobats, homemade guitar players, performance artists, real-time poets, eclectic painters, a laptop orchestra, and digital media artists, among many others.
I asked Cherri and Brian about their gallery, and their entrepreneurial efforts at nurturing a creative arts scene in San Jose and the rest of Silicon Valley. Here are the stories and insights they shared.
Hwang: Silicon Valley was not the easiest place to launch a startup avant-garde art gallery. Why did you build Anno Domini the way you did?
Anno Domini: In the mid-nineties, we were driving back and forth to San Francisco daily from our home – a 1200-square foot warehouse space we rented above a welding shop – in Mountain View. The internet as we know it was creeping in. And out on the streets, a visual revolution was underway. Street art was emerging and attempting to claim some independence from the confines of graffiti.
This was the impetus. When the time came to choose where we would start Anno Domini, we looked to San Francisco, and then back at San Jose. San Francisco would have been an easier beginning for us; the culture was more like an incubator. San Jose, on the other hand, had a policy of zero tolerance out on the streets, and culturally it was stifled. To us at that time, it looked like the perfect place to effect Change.
Hwang: The South FIRST FRIDAYS event has become a staple of the region’s creative ecosystem. How does something like that begin?
Anno Domini: At the tail end of 2005, the opportunity arose for us to take over a space that was our city’s first art theater, formerly known as the Camero One. Our new address was on South 1st Street. We held our openings on the first Friday of every month since our early days. We just did it to help folks remember to come out without having to see a poster, or receive something in the mail or by email at the time.
So it’s January 2006, we’re all moved in to our new space, and our next opening is in February on the first Friday. We know our people are coming out to Anno Domini, and we’re well aware that culture doesn’t thrive in a vacuum. So we sent out an email to the art organizations on our street at that time, shared with them that we were launching South FIRST FRIDAYS, and if you would like to join us you needed to (1) stay open late, 7–11pm, (2) be free and open to the public, and (3) help get the word out. There were four participating venues when we launched that first event. It wasn’t much to brag about, but it was a start.
Hwang: What motivates you to keep doing the hard work you do?
Anno Domini: You have to understand that we didn’t have the luxury of most big cities with a thriving art scene. There were so many artists with little to no opportunities to exhibit here. That was responsible for a constant exodus of young creatives for years. This definitely was and continues to be a motivating factor for us. Something had to be done. We started reaching out to local businesses with empty wall space and asked them if we could help curate their walls in exchange for promoting them during the art walk. It gave us more to work with, and we’ve been able to create more opportunities for local artists, as well as show the impact of art and culture in the local economy.
Hwang: Where does the local artistic community gets its energy come from?
Anno Domini: San Jose artists, by necessity, are incredibly determined. When you meet a truly talented artist in San Jose that has lived here for any amount of time, what you come to recognize is their relentless nature. It’s not lost on any of us living here and working in the arts that there might be an easier path somewhere else. However, living somewhere where things are easier doesn’t guarantee that your work will be any more profound. In fact, it often leads to insipid content.
Our city is very spread out geographically so getting together with other creatives on a regular basis often takes extra effort. In addition to that challenge, the vast majority must work incredibly hard at day jobs to make ends meet, plus they’re going to school, raising a family, etc. and doing their art on top of all that because it’s their calling.
Hwang: How does being close to San Francisco and being in Silicon Valley affect the San Jose creative community?
Anno Domini: San Francisco is very supportive of artists and values them and their work, whereas San Jose seems very focused on the tech industry and all the infrastructure that must support luring, maintaining, and benefitting these companies. But the arts still seem to be viewed as “a nice thing to have.” Although this is not an ideal foundation for artists, it does sometimes serve a purpose in that San Jose artists create works that are true and authentic to themselves… not swayed by art market trends because there are very few commercial galleries to appeal to anyway. Another byproduct is that they are very kind and supportive of each other, but hold each other to a higher standard in their art practice. They aren’t afraid to work hard to make things happen for the entire arts community.
Hwang: You have identified and showcased some of the biggest names in street art – David Choe and Shepard Fairey, for example – many years before they were known to others. How do you identify great artwork for your gallery?
Anno Domini: An ever elusive answer but….”we know it when we see it” is the most accurate response. There are many factors, but first and foremost is the initial impact it has on us when we first come across it. Beyond the visceral, we think about the artist’s message and intention, their contribution to moving our culture forward and, potentially, to art history itself.
Hwang: Over the past decade, street art has become popular and mainstream. What do you think about that change, and how has it affected you?
Anno Domini: The biggest change is that we have fewer heated debates with art industry people as to whether or not “street art” is “real art” but other than that we are unchanged. We expected there to be a point when an artist goes from “street artist” to just “artist” in their career. But the activism, the intention to put an inspired image out there, at risk of being fined or jailed, has always been, and will always be, and that’s the part we still see and want to share with people in our gallery. There are more people thinking art on the street is a shortcut marketing tactic, but the artists we look for are the ones that are doing it because of the change they want to see in the world, not because they just want to advertise their new exhibit down the block.
Victor W. Hwang is CEO of T2 Venture Creation, a Silicon Valley venture firm that builds startups and designs ecosystems to accelerate entrepreneurial innovation. Follow him on Twitter @rainforestbook.