Author Archives: Frances Phillips

  1. Curtain: A West Wall Project

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    Picture of the finished installation at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund offices in San Francisco
    Finished installation at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund offices in San Francisco

    Every 18 to 24 months, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund recognizes and supports one or more of the talented artists who has received a Creative Work Fund grant through the commissioning of a West Wall project. These artworks — installed in the Fund’s offices, along the west wall of our entryway — reflect on the work of the Fund and its grantees. They also serve as a tangible, literal reminder of why we come to work every day.

    Even during a pandemic, when our commute and our connection is largely constrained to the virtual.

    In the case of our newest West Wall piece, Curtain, a collaboration between calligrapher Arash Shirinbab and ceramic artist Forrest Lesch-Middelton, the physical and the virtual intertwine to draw us together and lift us up.

    Arash and Forrest’s artwork layers ancient and contemporary words and media. First, Arash calligraphed verses by the 13th Century Iranian poet Saadi Shirazzi onto a supported canvas that they stretched across the west wall’s expanse. In consultation with W&EHF staff, Arash and Forrest followed Fund grantees on Twitter so they could curate a selection of their tweets. They then printed these ephemeral messages onto bricks, which were handmade by Forrest. To complete the work, they affixed hundreds of these bricks to the upper portion of the wall, partially obscuring the calligraphy.

    Close up of two hands cutting a canvas with calligraphy on it.

    Close up of a brick that says "Black Lives Matter" on it.


    Forrest writes in the artists’ statement:

    The hopeful and charitable work of every organization represented by the tweets on these bricks accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of lifting the weight of the wall upward with the same ease that one draws a curtain. Underneath is revealed a different paradigm that challenges old perceptions, one of beauty and hope, one represented by beautiful calligraphy and verse that reads:

    Human beings are limbs of one body indeed;
    For they are created of the same soul and seed.
    When one limb is infected with pain,
    Other limbs will feel the bane.
    He who has no sympathy for human suffering
    Is not worth being called a human being.
    –Saadi Shirazzi, translation by Ali Salami

    The COVID-19 pandemic has added another dimension to this commissioned work. Because health precautions make it impossible for us to open our office to visitors at this time, we turned to filmmaker Raeshma Razvi — the artist who had previously collaborated with both artists when she was cultural coordinator at the Islamic Cultural Center — to create a short film: “Curtain (2 artists, a Zoom Call, 281 Bricks and a Wall).” Raeshma’s piece reveals the process and themes behind the work and brings its beauty within our reach.

    The two artist pose in front of a calligraphed curtain.
    Forrest Lesch-Middelton and Arash Shirinbab pose in front of the calligraphed curtain.

    It is particularly gratifying when a collaborative relationship previously supported by a Creative Work Fund grant sparks an ongoing partnership, as is the case with Arash and Forrest. In 2015, the Creative Work Fund awarded a grant to Arash, who partnered with Forrest in collaboration with the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC). The resulting piece, To Contain and To Serve, consisted of dishes, vessels, and tiles conveying messages from both ancient Sufi poetry and contemporary sources.

    To Contain and To Serve highlighted the Islamic value of hospitality — and it culminated with an installation and a celebratory meal served on the dishes the artists created.

    Arash and Forrest continued to work together, lecturing about, creating, and exhibiting other multimedia, cross-cultural work. Now, Curtain honors the voices of the Fund’s grantees, the resonance of cross-cultural dialogue, and the strength of sustained collaboration.

    We look forward to being able to re-open our offices so that you may view it in person.

    Photography courtesy of  Forrest Lesch-Middelton. 

  2. Championing Art & Artists in October

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    October is more than the month when we stir cinnamon, ginger, and cloves into pies — it’s National Arts and Humanities Month. And that makes now the time for us to trumpet the importance of artists and the arts.

    Art helps us to reflect, find meaning, and to heal from trauma — whether that stems from the pandemic, unemployment, or racial injustice, all of which 2020 has delivered in bulk. This year, and this October, Bay Area artists need our support more than ever. They need emergency financial assistance and opportunities to work. Without that, they will be unable to continue to play their essential role in our community.

    The Walter & Elise Haas Fund has long championed supporting the arts. Elise Haas, our co-founder, was passionately interested in the arts. She contributed to the development of San Francisco’s cultural institutions, serving on the boards of the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). When she was elected president of the SFMOMA board in 1964, she became the first woman to lead a major museum board in the United States.

    This legacy of Elise Haas’ underpins our long-standing commitment to arts education; our investment in building civic engagement through the arts; and our support for artists. But 2020 has dealt artists a mighty blow. If Elise were alive today, we expect she would be as appalled as we are to learn that:

    • 94.5% of U.S. artists have lost income from their creative practice since March; and
    • 67% of California’s artists are fully unemployed because of COVID-19.

    How We’re Helping

    This past spring, the Fund invested in local, COVID-19-related, emergency, artists relief funds managed by Independent Art & Media, Intersection for the Arts, and Theater Bay Area. In August, recognizing that artists’ needs were still growing, we contributed to Artist Relief. That national effort will, among other things, distribute grants of $5,000 to Bay Area artists who face dire financial emergencies.

    The deadline for the current cycle of Artist Relief awards is October 21, 2020. Apply here.

    Susana Pedroso
    Susana Arenas Pedroso, 2020 Creative Work Fund recipient for a collaboration with Duniya Dance and Drum. Photo by Brooke Anderson

    This month, the Fund is opening a new application round for Creative Work Fund grants. While these grants support projects — not fellowships — they emphasize the gestation stage of creating a new artwork. Two-thirds of any Creative Work Fund grant must be invested in artists’ fees and artists’ direct expenses for creating the work. This translates into much needed income for artists.

    The Creative Work Fund celebrates the excellence and diversity of the Bay Area’s arts community, and this is reflected in its list of 2020 grantees. Artists across a broad spectrum of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences receive Creative Work Fund support.

    To better understand the Creative Work Fund program and hear master tips for applying, attend a free webinar presented through Candid on October 15th, at noon PDT. Follow-up webinars will focus on responding to applicants’ questions on November 18 and December 8. Information will be posted here when available.

    The deadline for letters of inquiry to the Creative Work Fund is January 22, 2021.

    This month, there will also be a virtual panel featuring four funders’ programs that support works by Bay Area artists on October 22 at 11 am PDT. Those funders are:

    All of the aforementioned online sessions are free, but we encourage you to reserve spots in advance.

    The Walter & Elise Haas Fund will continue to champion artists this October and throughout the year. On behalf of Elise — born this month in 1893 — we foster a vibrant Bay Area where artists live and thrive.

  3. Joining Forces: Advice from Grantees Following Successful Mergers

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    My father was an aerospace engineer. He invented a piece of hardware for Apollo 11 — an “Umbilical and In Flight Disconnect” — and bought a company to manufacture it. When this venture proved successful, a larger company acquired his company.

    That acquisition was validating of his invention, his work, and his success.

    In the nonprofit sector, “ownership” may be less well defined, but I’m unsure why that equates to a widespread resistance to mergers and acquisitions. Instead of being seen as validating, they’re seen as signs we haven’t done our jobs well.

    For years, organizations in the Walter & Elise Haas Fund’s arts portfolio have floated the possibility of restructuring. Some share back-office services or space, but very few merge or get acquired. Could it be because the arts field rewards individual vision? Do organizational leaders feel they have to give up their distinctive voices if or when they join forces?

    At a time of constrained resources and high costs, we need to overcome our illogical resistance to joining forces. Last year, six of the Fund’s arts grantees merged or were acquired (five of them based in the Bay Area). Those grantees (in bold) were:

    • DataArts acquired by the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University (SMU), becoming SMU DataArts
    • Each One Reach One acquired by Success Centers
    • The Imagine Bus Project acquired by Success Centers
    • Loco Bloco acquired by Jamestown Community Center
    • Streetside Stories acquired by Performing Arts Workshop

    I interviewed staff and board members at each of these organizations to learn what shaped their decisions and to ask what advice they have to offer others. Following is a digest of their answers:

    What Drove the Mergers?

    Acquisition sometimes is recommended for organizations dealing with financial crisis, but, among these examples, only one was struggling financially. Others worried about future financial challenges, however. For example, DataArts had laid out ambitious financial goals in a strategic plan and was uncertain they could achieve them. Streetside Stories had reached the end of a major federal grant and found raising funds from new sources to be slow work.

    Other organizational leaders cited changes in communities and the economy. Loco Bloco’s former executive director, Annie Jupiter-Jones, cited transitions in the Mission District:

    “Gentrification and displacement, and the cost of living affected us programmatically. There weren’t as many families and kids here. As the cost of living was rising, there was greater competition for space and resources.”

    Loco Bloco’s 2014 Carnaval contingent “Legacia De Loco.” Photo credit: Rio Yañez

    Leadership change was common to all of these mergers. Neither Annie Jupiter-Jones of Loco Bloco nor Robin Sohnen of Each One Reach One wished to continue as executive directors. Jupiter-Jones observed that Loco Bloco had never been able to recruit a board with strong fundraising capacity and was stuck at a certain size and status as a result. Sohnen counts herself among a generational cohort of leaders facing retirement who wanted to see the programs they’d created thrive after their departures. Three organizations — DataArts, The Imagine Bus Project, and Streetside Stories — had lost their executive directors, and a benefit to merging was not having to invest in an executive search. During those three merger negotiations, the organizations were led by interim executive directors who may have felt less threatened about being acquired than might a founder or long-time executive. Those leaders were ready to cede control to the acquiring executive directors.

    Several grantees noted that as larger, merged entities they would be better positioned to maintain human resources staff, legal advisors, tech support, and other administrative services. Many staff members who got re-hired by the acquiring agencies ended up with better employee benefits.

    The wish to improve program effectiveness also played a part. DataArts leaders believed that being based within a research entity at SMU would enable them to enrich their services to both scholars and nonprofit leaders.  Each One Reach One and The Imagine Bus Project recognized that youth in the juvenile justice system — part of their constituency — also needed counseling, health services, academic assistance, job preparation, and post-release opportunities. Merging with The Success Centers integrated their programs into a broader network of services.

    Choosing a Partner

    LaPiana Consulting, a respected Bay Area firm with expertise in nonprofit mergers, emphasizes that organizations that join forces need to have complementary missions. To that point, several organizations in this group considered a number of possible partners before making their ultimate choice.

    While each leader I interviewed valued having a shared purpose, they also said that complementary organizational structures, cultures, and leadership styles were also important.

    What Was Hardest?

    Performing Arts Workshop’s executive director Emily Garvie noted that some feel that “a merger is like waving a white flag.” Universally, all the leaders I interviewed said the hardest aspect was letting go and as being left with a lingering feeling that to be acquired was to admit defeat.

    As a point of pride, the acquired organizations wanted to retain their names. Loco Bloco, Each One Reach One, and The Imagine Bus Project all were acquired as branded projects within their new nonprofit homes.

    Take Time to Test the Experience

    Myrna Melgar, executive director of Jamestown Community Center, advised, “People think about mergers as a business transaction, but in the nonprofit world, people do this work out of love and they are attached to the institutions and people in the community. That needs to be honored.” Her merger partner, Annie Jupiter-Jones, pointed out that they “started combining programmatic activities first, so that by the time they got to the administrative level, our decisions were guided by what made the program work best.”

    Similarly, Liz Jackson Simpson, executive director of the Success Centers, noted, “We put aside the time to live it without actually merging. We co-existed. That enabled us to know the culture of the organizations and the programs and how they were run. It was a huge thing to spend that time together.”

    Emily Garvie admitted that Performing Arts Workshop had approached the idea of a merger in 2016 and it didn’t happen. “I remember our former board president, when we were making the hard decision not to move forward, said, ‘Give it time and it will come back.’” In retrospect, Garvie is happy that they waited.

    The ultimate success of these partnerships will be clearer in two years, but final reports received one year in suggest that grantees’ thoughtful groundwork paid off and programs are going well.

    What Can Funders Do to Help?

    1. Mergers cost money. Many of the Fund’s grantees worked with consultants on their mergers and all hired attorneys. Further, Neela Gentile of Streetside Stories pointed out, “People don’t think about the cost of closing down an organization, that it’s significant to close the books and file a set of taxes, and to buy your way out of a lease, to prepare insurance and website hosting costs, etc.” Streetside Stories credits an organizational effectiveness grant from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as being essential to their successful merger.
    2. Don’t wait for a crisis. If you think a grantee is amenable to a merger or acquisition, encourage them to explore it when they are stable. These processes should not be rushed and there are costs involved that could overwhelm an organization in crisis.
    3. Allow your grantees to walk away from a deal. If you are supporting an organization that is considering a merger, realize that compatible organizational cultures are essential. If they need to walk away from a negotiation, or if the timing is not right, allow for that.
    4. Be realistic about cost savings. Merged organizations will be able to achieve some savings on their administrative costs, but program delivery costs will not change.
    5. Continue support for programs you believe in. Three of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund’s arts education grantees now are based within youth development or human services organizations, and one independent nonprofit is now part of a major university. The Fund continues to support all of those projects in their new homes, even though they are no longer technically arts organizations.
  4. W&EHF Arts Grantees Honored


    Each year, Bay Area dance critics and dance community leaders honor local artists through the Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, which recognize outstanding contributions to the field of dance. While W&EHF grantees frequently earn distinction at the ceremony, this year’s celebration was special, with four different Arts grantees receiving awards.

    We offer our congratulations to all the winners and encourage you to take a look at the work of these exceptional artists:

    Sean Dorsey Dance

    Sean Dorsey Dance, one of two Creative Work Fund projects honored in 2019, received this year’s award for Outstanding Achievement in Music/Sound/Text for Boys in Trouble.

    Amara Tabor Smith, Ellen Sebastian Chang, and collaborators

    Amara Tabor SmithEllen Sebastian Chang, and their collaborators’ Creative Work Fund project House/Full of Blackwomen received the Outstanding Achievement in Visual Design award.

    World Arts West

    Two works produced by World Arts West and created for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival won top awards:

    • OngDance for Outstanding Achievement in Performance by a Company, and
    • Jyothi Lakkaraju for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography.

    (Jyothi Lakkaraju is 10 years old an adult! Her piece was performed by 10-year old Ananya Tirumala. Jyothi shared her award with Trey McIntyre who was recognized for a new work choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet.)

    Axis Dance Company

    Oakland’s AXIS Dance Company  received the Isadora Duncan Sustained Achievement Award, honoring “30 years of innovative artistry, sustained community engagement, and steadfast local and international advocacy for dancers of all ages and abilities.”

    AXIS is comprised of performers with and without disabilities. The Fund supports its dance classes in Oakland public schools, which unite special needs students with traditionally abled students.

  5. Announcing the 2018 Creative Work Fund Grants

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    On September 1, 1994, I walked into the Walter & Elise Haas Fund’s offices for my very first day of work. As I entered, so did 121 letters of inquiry addressed to the Creative Work Fund.

    Typed and word-processed, these letters arrived in assorted-sized envelopes, inscribed in a melange of different fonts, and conveyed by bike messengers, postal workers, and artists. Then, mid-afternoon, in a fitting accompaniment, soft and fragrant roses — picked from someone’s garden — appeared at our front desk.

    Healing Garden created with lead artist
    Ann Chamberlain and the Carol Fanc Buck
    Breast Health Center, 1994.

    Starting with that very first batch of Creative Work Fund applications, our panel conversations were rich, our decisions hard to make, and the proposed projects inspiring in their variety. When we announced our decisions that December, the funded artworks included a stunning healing garden in a cancer treatment center, a groundbreaking mural (later stolen, but that’s another story!), a portfolio of prints, a transformed neighborhood park, and photographs documenting the lives of recent immigrants.

    The Creative Work Fund believes that artists and their nonprofit partners can — through the tension of collaboration — be encouraged to draw upon their ingenuity and to rely upon their values. We have, in every year, stuck by this dual focus of supporting artists and advancing the practice of collaboration.

    This year, the new letters of inquiry all arrived online. All the fonts and formatting was the same. There were no anonymous roses. However, the content of the propositions remained just as rich and our decision-making remained equally as challenging. As demonstrated by the projects selected, the Creative Work Fund’s focus on collaboration continues to invite artists to be adventurous and to challenge their ideas and their craft. Nonprofits of all kinds continue to embrace full partnerships with artists.

    On July 31, the Creative Work Fund announced its latest batch of 14 grantees. These 2018 media arts and performing arts grantees are tackling climate change with humor; neighborhood transformation with filmmaking; feminism with storytelling; cultural exchange with the sitar, sarode, and a string quartet; and the impressive list goes on.

    Please join the Fund in honoring and celebrating our 2018 media arts and performing arts grantees.


  6. Creative Work Fund Grants Reflect Diversity and Community Change

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    The Creative Work Fund (CWF) is awarding 15 new grants, totaling $600,000, to collaborative projects featuring literary or traditional artists. Each year, the applications and grants speak to specific traits of the greater Bay Area — such as its history and its diverse population — as well as to cultural and community change.

    2017 marks the 23rd year of the Creative Work Fund. From its beginning, its guiding principles have celebrated cultural richness and diversity, ways that the arts “can be a powerful vehicle for problem-solving and community renewal”, and the ways that collaborative efforts among artists, organizations, and those organizations’ constituents generate a productive exchange of ideas and bring the arts to new audiences. The 2017 grantees illustrate these principles in far-reaching ways.

    Displacement of long time residents and the rupture of communities was on the mind of many applicants in 2017. Two projects speak to the trauma of local ruptures: the displacements of African American communities in South Berkeley and in East Palo Alto. Two others address how world events from decades ago — the war in Vietnam and the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition — reverberate today.

    Other CWF artists are addressing the importance of uncovering and sharing historical artifacts. This quest shines through in plans for a new book about the West Berkeley Shell Mound, and a project on the recovery and performance of shuguls, a form of Sufi music from the Arab world that dates to when Istanbul was the center of the Ottoman Empire.

    As immigrant communities mature, elders feel a disconnect from younger generations who may not have been exposed to traditional art, music, or even language. Three projects — one on Lucumi spiritual traditions, another on Tibetan opera, and a third on Chinese Opera — seek to bridge this generational divide by co-creating work with youth, casting youth performers, modernizing formats, and incorporating English.

    Many of the other writers and performers selected for 2017 CWF grants are gathering community stories or leading workshops to instigate community members’ contributions to inform their pieces. This work will lead to two plays about death (one focused on young victims of gang violence and suicide and the other an exploration of how members of Bay Area Latino communities today confront death and dying); a novel about vice raids in LGBTQ bars in the 1950s; fiction and nonfiction essays developed with escaped victims of human trafficking in Vietnam; a collaboration among Cuban artists making their way in the United States; and a graphic novel anthology featuring newly-minted Mexican and LGBTQ superheroes.

    A list of awardees and collaborators along with brief project descriptions is available on the Creative Work Fund site.

    And More Ahead

    The Creative Work Fund grantseeker portal is now open to letters of inquiry for projects featuring media artists or performing artists in genuine collaborations with nonprofit organizations. Letters of inquiry are due December 1, 2017.

    Visit for more information.

  7. Updating SFUSDs Arts Master Plan: A RFP

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    A visual and performing arts master plan is imperative if we want state school districts to benefit from successful arts education programs. Twelve years ago, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) adopted just such a plan — I served on that plan’s community advisory committee and subsequently co-chaired the advisory group that continues to oversee its implementation.

    Now, the advisory committee and SFUSD seek to refresh the plan in response to changes in the district and to lessons learned over its first 10 years. They seek an independent consultant, working with a smaller task force and district staff, to spearhead this important task.

    We encourage you to share this request for proposal for that work with those who might be interested and qualified.

    We’ve learned that the RFP has been revised and the deadline for proposals has been extended to Monday, March 13, 2017.

  8. CWF Now Accepting Letters of Inquiry for Projects Featuring Literary and Traditional Artists

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    The Creative Work Fund (CWF) is now inviting letters of inquiry from literary or traditional artists and nonprofit organizations looking to produce collaborative projects. If you’re interested in applying for one of these highly competitive $10,000 to $40,000 grants, we encourage you to attend one of our informational seminars or webinars (details below).

    Letters of inquiry are due by December 2, 2016. Of those that apply, approximately 50 will be invited to submit detailed proposals. Awarded grants will be announced August 1, 2017.

    We see these grants as paying artists to practice their disciplines and hone their skills as collaborators. Through creative working partnerships, local artists and nonprofits can achieve excellence, connect with members of the public who are new to their work, and draw attention to communities’ needs.

    The Creative Work Fund is a program of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund that is supported by a generous grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Since its inception in 1994, CWF has contributed more than $11 million to advance art-making by Northern California artists in a variety of disciplines. Grants are awarded to genuine, creative partnerships between artists and nonprofit organizations. Each year, CWF focuses on projects from different disciplines.

    Letters of inquiry for the December 2016 deadline must feature a lead artist with a strong track record as a literary artist or traditional artist and involve a collaboration between that artist and a nonprofit organization. The Creative Work Fund uses the following definitions in determining eligibility:

    • Literary artists write, publish, or perform poetry, spoken word poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction. (Playwrights apply with performing artists, who will be invited in a future year.)
    • Traditional artists create in art forms learned as part of the cultural life of a group of people whose members have a common ethnic heritage, language, religion, occupation, or region. These expressions are deeply rooted in and reflect a community’s shared standards of beauty, values, or life experiences. Often they are learned orally or by emulation. Traditional artists may excel as individual artists, work as a group, or work collectively. They may produce works in a variety of forms — oral traditions, performances, crafts, multidisciplinary works, and others.

    The CWF grant program emphasizes the creation of new work — not distribution or productions of work already developed. To be eligible to apply, the principal collaborating artists and organizations must live or be and have been located in, for at least two years, the Northern California counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano or Sonoma.

    Seminars and Webinars

    The CWF offers several optional seminars and webinars for potential applicants. While these are not required, they are highly recommended, especially if the applicant is not familiar with the Fund. To attend a seminar, you should reserve a space online.

    Webinars are produced in conjunction with The Foundation Center. Please sign up online.

    • Monday, September 12, 2016, noon – 1 p.m.
    • Tuesday, September 27, 2016, 6 – 7 p.m.
    • Tuesday, October 25, 2016, 6 – 7 p.m.
    • Monday, October 31, 2016, noon – 1 p.m.
  9. Celebrating Arts Education Successes: Elena Pinderhughes

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    Arts education is essential — and it was certainly essential to the success of Elena Ayodele Pinderhughes.

    IMG_4439+copy+cropElena, now in her early 20s, spent ten years studying and performing with Young Musicians Choral Orchestra (previously Young Musicians Program) — a Fund grantee that provides free music training to low-income youth. Young Musicians and other rigorous arts education programs (including the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra) helped Elena progress from her Berkeley beginnings to receive the US Presidential Scholar Award in 2013, and three Grammys for Teens the same year. She is now a junior at Manhattan School of Music on a full scholarship.

    Elena Pinderhughes and Don Cheadle
    Elena Pinderhughes and Don Cheadle

    Elena’s name is on my mind as I recently had the great pleasure of seeing her perform at SF Jazz, with piano giant Kenny Barron on April 24. As director of the Fund’s Arts Program, I was thrilled to see (and hear) her success. No doubt, once she found music, Elena brought to it considerable talent and drive, but she gained opportunities to hone that talent through Bay Area arts education organizations. Her success helps to inspire the next wave of aspiring artists.

    If you missed her performances on April 22 and 24 at SF Jazz, you can hear some of Elena Pinderhughes’ talent on the soundtrack of the new film, Miles Ahead, starring Don Cheadle.

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