New View: with Tomás Riley

By In Dance


COUNTERPULSE RECENTLY WELCOMED its new Executive Director, Tomás Riley, who brings to the organization both his experience as a leader in community-based arts programming and social-justice driven artistic practice. In Dance asked Riley about his background and vision for CounterPulse.

What drew you to CounterPulse?

Two overriding factors made my decision to join the CounterPulse team one of the easiest ones I’ve ever had to make. First, the organization has a long track record of making bold curatorial decisions and then backing that up with a house that is less an audience as much as it is a supportive community that embraces the work in an authentic way. I also appreciated how uniquely positioned CounterPulse is in as part of San Francisco’s mid-Market transformation. With so much emphasis on the tech sector’s return to the City it’s easy to forget just how much is at stake here. CounterPulse’s relocation to the Tenderloin is the direct result of the synchronized efforts of an array of public and private partners too numerous to name here that allowed to purchase our new facility and preserve cultural space in a neighborhood where that might otherwise get overlooked. This is a radically new approach to the redevelopment process wherein CounterPulse has been given the opportunity to stabilize itself in an economic environment pricing similar sized organizations out of the City as a whole. In taking this leap into a new neighborhood in our own space there is tremendous autonomy there. CounterPulse has the opportunity to shape the way arts institutions develop and implement authentic community engagement strategies that are responsive to the existing cultural values already at play. We will continue with our performance seasons, but with the building as our resource we are able to enter the community in a genuine way co-creating programs with community based organizations, SRO collaboratives and any number of stakeholders open to imagining how CounterPulse’s work could be effective as part of a positive change. We get to then ask the wonderfully provocative question, “What happens when you put the arts at the center of community revitalization?” We don’t know the answer, but we get to ask the question, and there is a nation of creative place-makers out there who will be anxious to see our results.

What’s your neighborhood? Where do you live/spend a lot of time?

I live and breathe in the Mission District. While it continues to reinvent itself around me I am proud to be a part of the Latino diaspora that keeps the neighborhood’s vibrancy alive.

I come from a family with deep Bay Area roots with my great grandparents arriving in San Francisco sometime around 1917. I myself was born in Oakland.

What were you doing before joining the staff at CounterPulse (what’s your background)?

I have spent most of my career working in arts education. I helped to develop writing residency programs and performance opportunities for young people for several years at YouthSpeaks. I was the executive director of ArtsChange where we launched a thriving visual arts program for youth in Richmond. Most recently I was the Director of Experience and Community Engagement at the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco where we developed a “mobile museum” program to deliver design thinking-centered programs in underserved communities. In all of these capacities the one constant was to dispel the notion that the role of the cultural institution is to deliver art to the people. It’s far more empowering to hold spaces that allow creativity to happen.

The Bay Area is…?

…standing awkwardly equidistant between its rich tradition of cultural innovation and complete creative uniformity. As the demographic continues to shift at currently seismic levels there is a developing audience base that has the potential to redirect the demand toward a place defined by the characteristics of a single generation. I don’t think anyone wants to see that happen, and those of us working in the arts will have to go farther in our efforts to preserve the spaces that value experimentation and risk taking. Even as tastes change like the weather it’s important for CounterPulse to hold on to the micro-climate status it represents to a community of artists that absolutely need stages like ours to develop new work. Buying our own building at 80 Turk St. in the Tenderloin is a great first step in making sure we continue to be a resource for them and for audiences that want to be truly challenged.

What’s your most memorable Bay Area moment?

It’s difficult for me to isolate what constitutes a Bay Area moment. Celebrating at 24th and Mission when the Giants won the World Series was a Bay Area moment, but so was the time a young person in a poetry workshop I was teaching told me, “For an adult you’re hella cool.” I suppose it’s all those things and more, but I will say, as an artist, one of my favorite moments was to share the stage with San Francisco’s Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguia and read a poem in North Beach’s historic Kerouac Alley.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

Introducing work to new audiences and engaging with underserved communities.

What events will we find you at this spring?

CounterPulse’s May Day, YouthSpeaks’ Grand Slam Finals, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival’s poetry stage, anything at Galeria de la Raza.

First dance/performance memory?

Michael Jackson’s moonwalk at the Grammys

Favorite dance move/term/style?

Currently amazed by Turf Dancing

Dance idol?

The Rocksteady Crew’s Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon

Shortlist of inspiring people, books, moments, classes, etc.?

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

Children of the Days – Eduardo Galeano

Current artistic obsession?

Accion Poetica – a street-art phenomenon I’ve been seeing all over California where lines of poetry written in Spanish are painted billboard size on the sides of buildings.

If money is no object, where is the next place you might travel?

I have to go back to Oaxaca, Mexico.

What’s heaven to you?

On-stage with a packed house

What’s hell to you?

I consciously give attention to making any space I’m in a positive one. That way I’m never anywhere I don’t want to be.

What’s a future goal or dream that you have for CounterPulse?

I imagine CounterPulse as a national model for arts-based community revitalization.

Tomás Riley has nearly twenty years of leadership work in community engagement and education throughout California and across the country. Since moving to San Francisco in 2002, he has worked as a bilingual classroom teacher and developed literary programs throughout the Bay Area for leading spoken word organization YouthSpeaks. As Executive Director of ArtsChange, Tomás worked with young people in the East Bay city of Richmond to create youth-centered arts engagement opportunities for teens. Most recently he served as the Director of Experience and Community Engagement at the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco. Additionally, Tomás is a founding member of the seminal Chicano spoken word collective The Taco Shop Poets and the author of two collections of poetry.

This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of In Dance.

In Dance is a publication of Dancers' Group.