hero image
Deborah Cullinan - YBCA. San Francisco, CA, US

Deborah Cullinan

Chief Executive Officer | YBCA

San Francisco, CA, UNITED STATES

Deborah is a leading advocate on the pivotal role artists & cultural organizations play in shaping our social & political landscape.



Deborah Cullinan, CEO of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), is one of the nation’s leading thinkers on the pivotal role artists and arts organizations can play in shaping our social and political landscape, and has spent years mobilizing communities through arts and culture. Deborah is committed to revolutionizing the role art centers play in public life and during her tenure at YBCA, she has launched several bold new programs, engagement strategies, and civic coalitions. Prior to joining YBCA in 2013, she was the Executive Director of San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts. She is a co-founder of CultureBank, co-chair of the San Francisco Arts Alliance, Vice Chair of the Yerba Buena Gardens Conservancy, and on the boards of the Community Arts Stabilization Trust and HumanMade. She is a Field Leader in Residence at Arizona State University’s National Accelerator for Cultural Innovation and a former Innovator in Residence at the Kauffman Foundation. She currently serves on Mayor London Breed’s San Francisco Economic Recovery Task Force and Governor Gavin Newsom’s Jobs and Business Recovery Task Force. Her passion for using art and creativity to shift culture has made her a sought-after speaker at events and conferences around the world.

Industry Expertise (2)

Health and Wellness


Areas of Expertise (18)


Nonprofit Management

Civic Engagement

COVID Recovery



Indigenous communities








Racial Disparities

Health and Wellbeing


Arts & Culture

Education (1)

Lawrence University: B.A., History and Anthropology

Affiliations (8)

  • Leader in Residence, Arizona State University’s National Accelerator for Cultural Innovation: 2020 to present
  • Member, Governor's Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery: 2020 to present
  • Member, San Francisco Economic Recovery Task Force: 2020 to present
  • Board Member, Humanmade: 2020 to present
  • Vice Chair Board of Directors, Yerba Buena Gardens Conservancy: 2018 to present
  • Co-Chair, San Francisco Arts Alliance: 2018 to present
  • Secretary Board of Directors, Community Arts Stabilization Trust: 2013 to present
  • Advisor, Creating Healthy Communities: Art and Public Health in America: 2018 to present

Media Appearances (7)

Mayors Call For Federal Response To US Arts Crisis

Art Forum  online


Deborah Cullinan, CEO of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and cochair of the San Francisco Art Alliance, applauded the mayors for their efforts, and in a statement contended that “the real opportunity lies in the roles that artists and arts organization can play in supporting federal programs for infrastructure, education, job creation, and health. Amid calls for a modern WPA Federal Art Project and a ‘Dr. Fauci for the arts,’ I hope the new administration will create a new permanent position in the Executive Office for a national arts leader.”

view more

COVID-19 relief package offers $15 billion for struggling arts venues

KRON4  online


“The arts have been devastated,” Deborah Cullinan said. The shuttered gates of nightclubs like The Chapel on Valencia Street, where you can see the lineup for last February still posted outside — One example of that the devastation. Cullinan is co-chair of the San Francisco Arts Alliance which worked with Washington political leaders to help venues like these stay alive with the $15-billion grant program that’s part of the bipartisan COVID relief stimulus package.

view more

S.F. pays artists — some with cute clown noses — to improve community health in pandemic

SF Chronicle’s Datebook  online


Deborah Cullinan, YBCA’s chief executive officer, approached the city with the idea after being part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery. “What’s the WPA program for today?” she recalls thinking, referring to Depression-era initiatives such as the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Art Project that employed artists not just as work relief but as a broad public investment in art and culture and in valuable human capital.

view more

Two Dozen Mayors From Across the US Are Urging Congress to Send Urgently Needed Funding for the Arts in Its Next Relief Package

Artnet News  online


“The arts and culture sector exists to serve the creativity of the community and is an essential vehicle for healing and the equitable and sustainable redevelopment of cities across the nation,” says Deborah Cullinan, co-chair of the San Francisco Arts Alliance and CEO of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in a statement.

view more

YBCA Launches ‘Artist Power Center’ Resource for Financially Struggling Artists

KQED  online


The national resource, supported by San Francisco software company Zendesk, relies on YBCA staff to alert artists to grants and other economic relief opportunities and provide personalized guidance. As Deborah Cullinan, YBCA's chief executive, described the service in an interview: “As soon as we learn of something that can help you or move you forward you’re going to hear about it.” The site also includes a forum for artists to share resources amongst themselves.

view more

Coronavirus complicates US Census—and the arts funding tied to it

The Art Newspaper  online


“If social distancing becomes the norm because we have to quell the spread of this virus, we must find new ways to connect with one another,” says Deborah Cullinan, the director of YBCA. “We know that isolation contributes further to our lack of trust in institutions. We know that people are more and more scared to engage.”

view more

A big job at Yerba Buena Center

SF Gate  online


"This place is so bountiful," Deborah Cullinan says, a note of awe enhancing the familiar enthusiasm in the voice of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' new executive director. "I was just two blocks away, dear friends with (her predecessors) Ken Foster and John Killacky, and I really had no idea how much goes on here. I don't think the rest of the world gets that, either."

view more

Articles (6)

The Biden-Harris administration must integrate the arts into our national recovery

San Francisco Chronicle

Deborah Cullinan


The events of the past year, and the shocking insurrection that took place at the Capitol on Jan. 6, have reinforced the value of art in our society. We have always known that art can be a source of peace, solace and joy in times of struggle. But art also provides the intellectual, economic and emotional healing that will lead our nation forward. With President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in office, I encourage them to end Washington’s ambivalence toward the arts and partner with organizations and artists themselves to address the looming creative sector depression and revitalize the nation. Artistic production, which fuels almost $9 billion of our economy, will be nothing short of vital to the country’s overall recovery. As we strive to build back better, it is time for the federal government and our elected leaders to fully realize the previously underestimated and under-resourced power of America’s cultural ecosystem.”

view more

Opinion: To build racial and wealth equality in post-pandemic America, invest in a Cultural New Deal


Deborah Cullinan


In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, author Arundhati Roy published a now widely referenced article called “The Pandemic is the Portal.” In it she sounds a crisp alarm that “nothing could be worse than a return to normality” post-pandemic because normality is inequitable, unjust, dangerous, and often deadly for so many. She cautions that we have no choice but to travel through this pandemic door to the other side.

view more

Why the 2020 US Census Matters for the Arts


Deborah Cullinan


Many months ago, before the coronavirus pandemic changed our lives and took hold of our collective psyche, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) was approached by independent curator and activist Amy Kisch.

view more

CultureBank: A Vision for a New Investment System

Community Development Innovation Review

Deborah Cullinan


As we consider the role of artists in more equitable community development, we posit that arts organizations should focus on developing the conditions for new futures to emerge. In this vision, we as a society understand and value the essential role the artist plays as a key collaborator in more imaginative—and therefore, more productive—community investment.

view more

Ep. 57 CI to Eye with Deborah Cullinan: Redefining a Cultural Center for the 21st Century.

Capacity Interactive CI to Eye Podcast


Deborah and Erik discuss Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ position as a cultural incubator and the role of change management in nurturing organizational health. They also talk about the iterative evolution of an organization's mission and website.

view more

Civic Engagement: Why Cultural Institutions Must Lead the Way

Stanford Social Innovation Review

Deborah Cullinan


At its essence, democracy in the United States is a system of government rooted in a belief in liberty and justice for all. This system depends on the consent and participation of the people. It depends on citizen engagement.

view more