Exterior view: San Jose Museum of Art
The Creative Culture of SILICON VALLEY
The unique hi-tech culture in Silicon Valley has brought with it
a new way of looking at creativity.
By Gary Singh
Journalist Don C. Hoefler first coined the term Silicon Valley in 1972, to describe a vague geographical region somewhere between San Jose and San Francisco. At that time, the semiconductor industry was brand new, not yet primed for world domination. Nowadays, the region leads the world as a place where artistic creativity often merges with technological innovation, a diverse networked mind where high-tech engineers collaborate with installation artists, where environmental researchers and Photoshop geeks mingle with outlaw electronics enthusiasts at art receptions. In Silicon Valley, aspiring novelists might learn just as much about plot, character and scene by hanging out with video game developers as they would in an English class. The cross-pollination of ideas from previously separated disciplines is a primary driving influence, whether one is an engineer or a fine artist. The collaborative process, the dialogue, the conversation, is just as much of an art as is the final product. John Cage and the Zen monks would be proud.
The wealth generated in Silicon Valley also tends to be quite different than in other parts of the world. When it comes to fine art, there exist no Rockefellers, Carnegies or any multiple generations of traditional benefactor families who then donate millions to brick-and-mortar arts institutions. Much of the population in Silicon Valley is foreign-born and companies either distribute their wealth globally or simply just don’t prioritize local arts groups. Also, Silicon Valley evolved from cultures of engineering invention, garage-tinkerer mentalities or some flavor of build-break-and-start-over-again at all levels-whether through developing software or starting up actual companies-so people naturally gravitate more toward participatory creative experiences than static art consumption. But what everyone agrees on is that fostering creativity is of dire importance in a rapidly changing world.
All of which means that corporations interact with the arts in ways totally unique to Silicon Valley, whether it be sponsoring partnerships between their own engineers and established artists, or supporting educational ecosystems. Institutions tend to contextualize art differently and relationships on the ground also unfold in various forms, from grassroots networking initiatives to companies who contribute simply by matching their own employees’ donations to the arts.
“Blow Up,” 2005, Scott Snibbe
Installation view at “Patent Pending” exhibition at ZERO1
Photo: courtesy Eve Warock
At the very epicenter of where artistic provocation and business landscape disruption hook up and become partners, one finds ZERO1, an organization overseeing the ZERO1 Biennial, as well as numerous projects and ecosystems unique to Silicon Valley. Taking its moniker from the zeroes and ones of the binary numeral system from which digital circuitry is built, ZERO1, as an organization, is annihilating the boundaries between artistic creativity and hi-tech innovation. “We’re trying to introduce the artist as agent provocateur, but to business conversations,” explains ZERO1 Executive Director Joel Slayton. “The world is an increasingly complicated place, and business landscapes are changing faster and faster, so the creative risk-taking and radical experimentation and agent-provocateur attitudes that artists naturally employ become more and more useful to discussions in the technology world.”
In other words, the muse is meeting the business plan. The scenario necessitates a continuous open-ended process, rather than a final result, as in Silicon Valley there exists no “final” version of anything. Who would have thought the Buddhist concept of impermanence would emerge in the context of high technology?
The ZERO1 Fellowships, for instance, are one-year residencies where established artists team up with solicited sponsors to tackle assigned innovation challenges. In one case, artist Paula Levine, sponsored by Google Inc., developed “City-to-City,” a project-visualization of network traffic in the form of a topographic map, enabling internet users to view real-time trajectories of their inquiries in color and sound, from city to city, to address issues of empathy, distance and erosion of national boundaries. Google Policy Manager Derek Slater says the project fits right into the company’s philosophy. The work Google does, as engineers, cannot be separated from the type of work that artists do. “We like to work with and support the community that we’re in every day, as much as we can,” Slater explains. “And this seems like a great opportunity. We met the folks at ZERO1 and saw the mission of trying to help everyone understand how technology and art support each other, how the Internet and technology are really good for creativity, good for artists, and helping them succeed. We thought that’s a mission that we believe in too, and want to support.”
While ZERO1 prioritizes the process of dialogue and participatory experience, the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art concentrates mostly on emerging and mid-career artists, mostly from the western half of the United States. Dating back to 1980, the ICA regularly stages ambitious exhibits that last sometimes up to three months, plus it stages one of the better annual auctions in Silicon Valley. As a nonprofit institution, the ICA has a base of sophisticated worldly collectors, educated and curious patrons, plus a constituency of characters who save up just for the annual auction. “We run that whole gamut,” explains ICA Executive Director Cathy Kimball. “And they come here not just for the auction. They come to see things they aren’t going to see anywhere else, that challenge them and educate them about contemporary art.”
“The Continental Interior,” 2013, Val Britton
Site-specific installation at SJICA
Photo: David Pace; courtesy SJICA
On the hi-tech front, the ICA will participate in the Silicon Valley Contemporary art fair this April by featuring a solo exhibition by Clive McCarthy, whose story personifies the artist/engineer crossover running through this region like lifeblood. After a very successful career in software, McCarthy quit the whole rat-race at age 51, went to art school, and now, years later, uses his tech chops to algorithmically spawn elaborate computer “paintings” on various monitors. His proprietary software paints, in real-time, on screens, boxes or even concrete walls. Rather than technology serving to replace traditional tools, McCarthy represents a prime example of someone using technology as a route to arrive at fine art, as opposed to the other way around. “He’s an exceptional engineer,” says Kimball. “It’s scary how smart he is. But he’s taken that to create something totally unique, and dare I say, entertaining, but something that really captivates people when they look at it. And it’s different.”
Even the major brick-and-mortar institution down the street, the San Jose Museum of Art, grafts the Silicon Valley mystique onto the way the museum contextualizes contemporary art. Susan Leask, Acting Senior Curator at the museum, says the valley has brought so many different creative people, new ways of thinking and technological expertise from all over the world, the museum is obligated to place art and artists in that context. The best art is made using the languag
e of its time. “There’s a global innovative culture here and it’s influenced the art world greatly,” said Leask. “It’s influenced how we look at art and artists, and what our goals are. And how all this is reflected and channeled in the diverse and energetic programs we put on. We look at Silicon Valley; we look at the cultural diversity. We’ve gone from looking at regional artists, i.e., California artists, and now we’ve put them more into a global context.”
Brick-and-mortar institutions are not the only representatives of the right-brain / left-brain crossover characteristic of this region. Many hi-tech corporations are also realizing that all future workforces will need to prioritize creativity in order to deal with a rapidly changing business landscape, so creativity should be emphasized beginning in elementary school. And that should come in the form of art classes. Patty Nation, Director of Global Corporate and Community Engagement at Xilinx, a world-renowned semiconductor company, says funding arts education and hands-on creative experiences in K-12 is an integral component to producing innovations in the engineering fields. The two are inseparable. Xilinx supports the arts in seven local schools as well as nonprofits that bring enrichment to those schools, all as part of their “Educational Ecosystem.”
“Our philosophy is always to give back,” Nation says. “So when you look at some of our engineers and designers, many of them also have very strong art backgrounds, whether it be in music or architecture, or in design elements, painting, metal, whatever it is. Without the element of the arts and that ability to be creative and innovative and explore, I think you lose that opportunity for that entrepreneurial spirit and that innovation for new ideas and new products.”
Siobhan Kenney, Director of Global Community Affairs at Applied Materials, agrees. Headquartered in Santa Clara, Applied Materials invests in a diverse portfolio of local fine arts scenarios, but Kenney says the crossover between artistic creativity and engineering is what makes Silicon Valley a unique place. “We just believe that a creative economy is what fuels innovation,” Kenney said. “And we’re all about innovation here in the valley. It’s really interesting for us to explore how the arts can help make people think differently, be more inventive, how it might spark imagination in people of all ages, and drive the development of new ideas that can change the way we live. And we see that probably every day.”
On a more global front, Adobe Systems, makers of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, oversees Adobe Youth Voices, a philanthropic program to ignite creativity in children ages 13-18. As the Adobe Foundation’s signature project, orchestrated from Adobe’s headquarters in San Jose, the program aims to empower youth from underserved communities with technology to create photo essays, digital fine art, installations and many other types of creative projects, all with the intention of making the world a better place. Since 2006, tens of thousands of kids, inside and outside of classrooms across the globe, have now participated, acquiring communication and collaborative skills they wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Adobe Foundation program director Miguel Salinas places everything in the context of creativity.
“The dialogue around arts and education has been around for a really long time,” Salinas observes. “And I think that what we’re trying to do, given who we are as a company, and what we stand for, and the technology that we contribute to the world, is to really up-level the dialogue to really encompass the idea of creativity as an important skill. So how that manifests itself through a program like Adobe Youth Voices is through young people being empowered and being encouraged and being trained to be able to use the latest technology to create projects for social change.”
“La Reconquista,” 2009, Einar & Jamex de la Torre
Photo: courtesy MACLA
Although Adobe Youth Voices partners with institutions all over the world, one local collaboration found them partnering with the Black Eyed Peas’ Peapod Foundation to launch a free arts education program at Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA), a Latino arts institution. The Peapod Academy teaches kids how to create digital projects, write poetry, take photographs, record music and more. “We’ve since expanded that idea into a number of boys and girls programs throughout Silicon Valley,” says Salinas.
None of which means traditional fine art is dead in Silicon Valley. Rather, technology is viewed as that which actually helps people discover, or even rediscover, traditional methods. The Google Cultural Institute, for example, allows viewers to zoom in on collections from fine art galleries around the world in ways they wouldn’t normally experience. Legendary figurative painter Eric Fischl, to cite another instance, appeared at the San Jose Museum of Art in 2012, to explain his process of taking representational photographs of scenes and people, only to collage them in Photoshop for use as references to then paint scenes that never actually existed.
In the end, it still takes troops on the ground to catalyze corporate donations to the arts. Silicon Valley Creates, formerly the Arts Council Silicon Valley, acts as a matchmaker, connecting arts institutions to prospective individuals in the hi-tech world. Joshua Russell, Executive Vice President of Silicon Valley Creates, says the reality is that hi-tech corporations simply won’t donate at the foundation level, but they often match the donations of their employees, so that is where arts institutions are directing their focus.
“Almost every corporation has a matching program,” Russell explains. “The big opportunity in the arts, for institutions, is, ‘I’m going to find a VP or individual and get him on my board,’ and then let that person bring their friends, and then let that person donate personally, with the company matching it. And then the funding opportunity is a lot greater than anything you can get from the corporate philanthropy piece.”
SILICON VALLEY COLLECTS
The region’s top art patrons engage and collect art on their own, emphatic terms.
By Gary Singh
“Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy.
Selections from the Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang”
Installation view. Photo: ©Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Despite all the wealth flowing in and out of Silicon Valley, the region simply isn’t known as a primary destination on the art collecting circuit. So the debut of Silicon Valley Contemporary art fair this April marks a distinct upgrade in the relationship between the art world and hi-tech community, and the belief that a base for collecting art is worth nurturing. However, at least a handful of significant collectors do exist here between the cracks of everyday perception, from world-renowned billionaire CEOs to everyday folks on museum boards and even those from non-art backgrounds who just might have discovered fine art through the side door somehow.
Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison needs absolutely no introduction, but many are probably not aware of his extensive Japanese art collection, which debuted in public for the first time last year at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. A decade ago, Ellison famously built a 23-acre Japanese-style estate in Woodside, CA, an affluent mountain enclave on the San Francisco Peninsula. His personal curator, Emily Sano, former director of the Asian Art Museum, whose specialty is Japanese art, advises Ellison in the process. His collection currently includes about 500 pieces.
“There are only a few private collections of Japanese ar
t in the United States of comparable breadth and depth,” explains Dr. Laura Allen, current curator of Japanese Art at the Asian Art Museum. “The Ellison collection is especially strong in three areas-Buddhist sculpture, Edo period paintings, and metalwork. He has a great eye, and his penchant for animal subjects has led him to acquire works by several important 18th-century masters, including Maruyama Okyo and Ito Jakuchu. We are very fortunate to have such a great collection in the Bay Area.”
Ellison was not the only hi-tech executive whose collection publicly debuted at the Asian Art Museum last year. Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang, a graduate of Piedmont Hills High School in San Jose, maintains a collection of ancient Chinese calligraphy unequaled in the West. Yang is someone who grew up in east San Jose of Asian descent and helped initiate a major component of the early Internet landscape, making a fortune in the process, but finally wanted to reconnect with his own roots and simultaneously give back. Since Yang’s wife, Akiko Yamazaki, serves as the president of the Asian Art Museum Foundation and Yang is a long-time supporter of the museum, the venue seemed appropriate for the first public showing of his collection. The exhibit, “Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy,” encouraged viewer/participants to “find the drama beneath the surface,” a multilayered approach to understanding the visual and poetic natures of Chinese calligraphy.
Since a significant portion of the hi-tech world originates in Asia, the Asian Art Museum partners with companies like Samsung, who originally donated $5-million to the capital campaign when the museum moved from Golden Gate Park to its current location in 2003. (As a result, “Samsung Hall” is located on the second floor). The Korean-based company also recently donated a number of monitors and tablets for the “In Grand Style” Korean art exhibition last year, serving as an example of how hi-tech companies from across the Pacific express their support for art collections in Silicon Valley.
On a more individual front, Yvonne and Mike Nevens are a husband-and-wife duo of collectors, based in Los Altos Hills, with deep ties to the arts community in Silicon Valley. Both have been involved with the San Jose Museum of Art in numerous ways and both are always on the lookout for contemporary and new media works. Mike himself used to work in hi-tech and still sits on the boards of several hi-tech companies. At Silicon Valley Contemporary this April, the Nevenses will receive the 2014 Art Patrons of the Year Award.
Currently, Mike Nevens says their collection consists of mostly contemporary work and they don’t go too far back, in the sense of historical art. They buy much of their work directly from the artists and their collection includes: Alan Rath, a Bay Area artist who works with various media, and is known for his inventive digital video sculptures; Jerome Kirk, a local sculptor; Hung Liu, a Chinese-born American contemporary painter; plus sculptors Manuel Neri, Charles Ginnever and Deborah Butterfield. It’s a fairly eclectic selection, in his own words. “We started collecting over 30 years ago,” Nevens says. “We were living in Los Angeles and my wife worked at a gallery down there. And in that environment, we started looking at art and deciding what sort of things we liked, and bringing them home. And it just kept on going. As much as we enjoy the collecting part of it, we enjoy the ‘looking at it’ part of it. We enjoy going to galleries, artists’ studios, seeing new things, and just meeting other folks of the same interests.”
Rendering of the future Edward M. Dowd Art and Art History Building
at Santa Clara University. Courtesy: Santa Clara University
Veteran real-estate investor, financier, and CEO Ed Dowd, owner of EMD Properties, Inc., approaches collecting from an entirely different angle: art as therapy. A 1972 alumni of Santa Clara University who discovered the healing power of art when he was originally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago, Dowd recently donated $12-million to the university, to help it build a brand new three-story art and art history facility on campus by 2016. The facility will include an outdoor sculpture garden, flexible studios accommodating the teaching of multiple mediums, technology-rich classrooms optimized for 3-D projects, a 1,600-square-foot gallery and additional space to feature works by students, faculty, and visiting artists-all just a short drive from the Intel headquarters in Santa Clara.
Dowd originally became interested in art after the purchase of his home in San Francisco where he initially began collecting. This led to the funding of a public-art project, a glass sculpture by famed artist Dale Chihuly, at Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Mountain View campus, where he receives multiple sclerosis treatment. The sculpture wound up inspiring quite a few other patients, so now Dowd’s contribution to SCU will include another Chihuly sculpture as part of the arts complex. Kathleen Schneider, an assistant dean in the College of Arts & Sciences at Santa Clara University, says the new arts complex will focus, above all else, on the integration of artistic creativity and engineering innovation so characteristic of Silicon Valley.
“The idea was to build a facility that would allow us to teach the traditional basic arts, but also would allow us to infuse that teaching with technology,” Schneider says. “We envision this building being used to create art in ways that we don’t even know about right now. We figure that 30 years from now, they’ll be doing printmaking, photo, sculpture and ceramics, and things that haven’t been discovered yet.”