Jennifer Lovvorn is Berkeley’s new chief cultural affairs officer, overseeing public art commissions and grants for the visual arts, theater, music, dance and poetry. She started her new job on June 25, after spending nearly a decade at the San Francisco Arts Commission and two years before that at the Fort Worth, Texas Arts Council. She has already started work on several projects in the city, including a sound installation for the soon-to-open new Downtown Berkeley BART Plaza.
Berkeleyside: What does a cultural affairs officer do?
We give grants to local art organizations and artists. We also do public art and we have some initiatives in arts education, like after-school [programs] for children.
Did Berkeley have a chief cultural affairs officer before you?
Mary Ann Merker was in the position… and she retired. She had a different title, but when they hired me the functional title changed to Chief Cultural Affairs Officer.
Do you work with any specific form of art? What qualifies as art?
I can give you a couple of examples that we’re working on right now. The BART Plaza is being redone and we have art projects that are being built in conjunction with that construction. There’s eight poles on the plaza, with very high-tech speakers, and we have commissioned a series of artists to create sound compositions. The first artist’s composition will be playing on those poles when the plaza opens, and that sound piece will be up and running for two months. The artist’s name is Chris Brown. We’re still working out with various stakeholders — like the businesses around there and our city — when it can be played, but the intention is for it to be playing when there are the most people present in the plaza. After his is done, the next artist’s composition will played, and so on.
We’re also going to display a sculpture on the plaza. That’s a temporary installation; it will be there for a year. That’s by Berkeley-based artist Michael Christian. And we will be showing the work of artist Yetunde Olagbaju in what we call the Cube Space.
The city is also rebuilding the new Center Street [parking] garage and that has an art component. On the Addison Street side, there’s a glassed-in space that we’re calling the cube space. It’s an exhibition space, so an artist is going to display a video installation for the first one.
How do you get a job as a city cultural affairs officer?
I went through the standard city hiring process. It’s not a political appointment, it’s a staff level hire.
How do you find artists and decide who gets grants?
Because we’re government, the staff can’t just say, “Oh well I really like that person and I’m going to pick them”— we have to be transparent. We have an annual call for grant opportunities that we’ll post on our website. We try to spread the word far and wide through email lists and announcing it at meetings of art organizations and networking. Once we receive the applications, we have a panel of outside professionals who actually do the scoring, and so they’ll have separate criteria for the scoring. The highest scoring applicants are the ones recommended to receive grant money; that gets approved by our commission, then sent to council.
Does Berkeley make it a priority to reach a diverse group of artists?
Absolutely. We just completed our commission, drafting a cultural plan in the city of Berkeley that just got approved by City Council on July 24. Cultural equity was identified as a goal and it’s always been in our guidelines that we strive for diversity. We’re also asking the panel to use those guidelines in their evaluation.
Define diversity. Is it race? Gender? Socioeconomic positions? Do any of those get priority?
The city’s Cultural Plan mentioned all three and it didn’t state that it was prioritizing any over another. There are places where we speak to the cultural diversity of our city and wanting to support that, so that probably gives equity more to race and ethnicity than to gender.
As an example… about three years ago we partnered with a UC Berkeley researcher, Thomas Greene, to study the art enrichment offerings at Berkeley elementary schools to see if there was a need to support more equity within the school district. His study did discover some disparities. This summer was actually the first time that we implemented the pilot program to address those inequities, the BEARS program (Berkeley’s Excellent Academic Road to Success).
BEARS is an after-school and year-round program for low-income students. We created a test field trip program to the Berkeley Rep and to Luna Dance [Institute]. While the program parameters for Bears is that the students are selected on being low income, it correlates along racial lines as well.
Martin Mercy, a reporting intern at Berkeleyside, is a rising high school senior, and writes for both the Lick-Wilmerding newspaper and its literary magazine. He lives in Berkeley and, during his free time, reads and writes short stories.