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Art History: Santa Clara County’s Oldest Cultural Institutions

Learn about these 20 arts groups with roots in the previous century.

PUBLISHED OCT 20, 2022 11:29 A.M.
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Founding artistic director Robert Kelley (front of train) in TheatreWorks’ 1981 production of “Merry Wives of Windsor.”

Founding artistic director Robert Kelley (front of train) in TheatreWorks’ 1981 production of “Merry Wives of Windsor.”   Courtesy of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

For too long Santa Clara County and its county seat San Jose were considered a stepchild of the arts, even though it was the place where a lot of the last century’s alternative culture fermented before going north to San Francisco. The Kerouac-Neal Cassady axis formed in downtown San Jose in the 1950s, and the first meetings of the Merry Pranksters took place at Stanford University. Today Santa Clara County has more than twice the population of San Francisco, with an enviably diverse population. And thanks in part to these arts groups, whose roots date back before this millennium, the Santa Clara Valley is becoming known for more than just technological artistry.

1. Pacific Art League (1921)

Founded as the Palo Alto Art Club, this venerable arts organization offers online and in-person classes. The Pacific Art League holds regular exhibitions, as well as a youth summer camp for aspiring artists.

2. Stanford Theatre (1925/1987)

theater marquee
A double bill of classic film at the Stanford.
Photo by Cheesy Mike/Creative Commons

The nonprofit Stanford Theatre Foundation operates this historic space as a people’s cinematheque, where the best available 35mm prints from film’s golden age are screened for middle-of-the-last-century admission prices. Originally a neighborhood theater, it was reopened in the late 1980s; since then, countless thousands have seen everything from the old favorite Casablanca to hard-to-find titles by India’s Satyajit Ray.

3. San Jose Dance Theatre (1965)

Three dancers performing The Nutcracker ballet
The Nutcracker, Sugar Plum Fairy and Clara in a 1974 production.

Serving a two-fold mission of education and performance, the long-lived San Jose Dance Theatre offers drop-in ballet classes, as well as an annual San Jose treat: its Yuletide performance of The Nutcracker, accompanied by the Cambrian Symphony.

4. Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps (1967)

Young adults from 18 to 22 can apply for this drum and bugle corps, a tough competitor in national championships. What’s interesting is that the performances aren’t all about John Philip Sousa: With titles like “Ouroboros” and “Bartok,” the shows performed by the uniformed players in the Santa Clara Vanguard can be positively eclectic.

5. Los Lupeños (1969)

Dancers in colorful dresses
Los Lupenos dancing at History San Jose
Photo by San Jose Public Library

First wave Mexican-American activism started this long-lived folkloric dance ensemble. Today, a Los Lupeños performances might not just include traditional Mexican dance from the various regions of the country, but performances of lively arts from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego.

6. San Jose Museum of Art (1969)

When the San Jose Museum of Art was founded in 1969, it not only created space for a municipal art gallery. It also gave new purpose to an imposing stone building that once housed San Jose’s library and post office. Today, the expanded SJMA mounts touring exhibits and also maintains a permanent collection with an emphasis on West Coast artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The exterior of the San Jose Museum of Art
The original home of the San Jose Museum of Art and its newer addition.
Photo by JaGa/Creative Commons

7. TheatreWorks (1970)

Female and male actors kissing
A teenage Jessica Chastain in 
TheatreWorks’ Romeo and Juliet.
Photo by David Allen

Founded as a youth theater, this Palo Alto-based, Tony Award-winning troupe started out in the counterculture days playing original works in site-specific locations. Up until 2020, TheatreWorks was led by founding artistic director Robert Kelley, who marked one of the longest tenures in American theatre when he stepped down at the end of the 50th anniversary season. As TheatreWorks grew into the $11 million budgeted enterprise it is today, it premiered both Memphis and Prince of Egypt; the latter of the two went to straight to the West End.

8. San Jose Taiko (1973)

San Jose Taiko founders Roy and PJ Hirabayashi founded this American outpost for the thrilling art of traditional Japanese drumming. Requiring choreography as well as musicianship, taiko is a tradition that goes back about 1,500 years.

Man and woman with multiple percussion instruments
Roy and PJ Hirabayashi, founders of San Jose Taiko
Photo by Tom Pich/National Endowment for the Arts

9. San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles (1977)

Reputedly the first museum in the United States to focus exclusively on quilts and textiles, the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles presents 10 to 15 exhibitions of historical and contemporary textiles and fiber art every year, speed across multiple galleries, at its current location in downtown San Jose, where it moved in 2005. The museum offers workshops, lectures, tours and other events; admission is free on South First Fridays.

10. Poetry Center San Jose (1978)

Nationally known poets have visited this center. The Poetry Center San Jose publishes the annual magazine Caesura and has hosted Zoom slams while the COVID-19 epidemic persisted. Poets @ play, currently on hold, is a frequent event staged at the house of the late Edwin Markham, which has been relocated to History Park; Markham, author of a once famous piece of verse called “The Man With the Hoe,” read at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

11. Institute of Contemporary Art San Jose (1980)

The Institute of Contemporary Art San Jose occupies a 7,500-square-foot building that it purchased in April 2006, but its roots go back to 1980. The ICA mounts 8 to 12 exhibitions a year in all media, including its Sandbox Projects, which are large-scale site-specific installations. Like many downtown cultural venues, ICA puts on events in conjunction with South First Fridays.

12. City Lights Theater Company (1982)

Emerging playwrights and the likes of Ionesco, Aristophanes and Pinter: such has been the offerings at City Lights, where the eclecticism is only matched by commitment to social justice. If any play is going to pass the Bechdel Test, it’s the musical based on Bechdel’s memoir, Fun Home, which played here in the summer of 2022. City Lights starts up its upcoming 40th season with Kinky Boots and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

13. San Jose Stage Company (1983)

Season 40 of this specialist in Off-Broadway begins with the Olivier Award-winning The Play That Goes Wrong, about a disaster-prone murder mystery that dies by inches on stage (think of The Real Inspector Hound). The Stage (as it’s known now) has put on 160 plays so far and is planning to end the upcoming season with a TBA Broadway smash.

14. Opera San Jose (1984)

Irene Dalis founded Opera San Jose at a time before San Jose could really style itself as the capital of the Silicon Valley. Based in San Jose’s glorious Mission Revival theater, the California (opened in 1927), this leading opera company is starting its 38th season with a favorite opera, The Marriage of Figaro. Up afterward: a family-friendly new opera of Cinderella, Verdi’s Falstaff and Tosca.

15. San Jose Jazz (1986)

San Jose Jazz began its live music offerings with a series of Sunday shows and now produces the annual San Jose Jazz Summer Fest and Winter Fest. SJZ preserves jazz traditions with master classes and live shows from its mobile Boombox Truck stage.

16. MACLA (1989)

The Moviemiento de Arte y Cultura Latino America is a major cultural center in downtown San Jose, focusing on the art and heritage of the Latino community, through youth education, live performances, and exhibits of film and graphic arts.

17. San Jose Multicultural Artists Guild (1990)

This pan-cultural group of artists operates out of the Mexican Heritage Plaza. One of San Jose Multicultural Artists Guild’s most popular productions is the Dia de los Muertos celebration, which is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary this fall with a procession, face painting, bushels of marigolds and ofrendas (altars to the honored dead). This is also the home of the Tabia African-American Theatre Ensemble (founded in 1985). Among Tabia’s most recent presentations is Broadway vet Chester Gregory’s one-man show about the last performance by Jackie Wilson, an incandescent entertainer dead at 49.

18. Naatak (1995)

Stanford and UC Berkeley have a longtime rivalry, but South Asian students from both schools united to form this theater company. It’s the largest company of  Indian players in the USA. At this point, Naatak has entertained more than 100,000 theater aficinados with everything from adaptations of traditional works such as the Ramayana—Ramayan, the troupe’s 100th production—to a Hindi version of Taming of the Shrew.

19. Los Altos Stage Company (1999)

Operating out of the 99-seat Bus Barn Theater in a historic park in its hometown, Los Altos Stage Company is offering such works as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and an upcoming dramatic adaptation of the Peninsula-based cross-generational romantic film Harold and Maude in its 2022-23 season.

20. Mexican Heritage Plaza (1999)

The nationally known Mexican Heritage Plaza is a center for education and performance, and includes a hall of fame for celebrated local Latinxes such as playwright Luis Valdez and the Grammy-winning Los Tigres del Norte. A 500-seat theater is on site. In 2011, the School of Arts and Culture opened its doors and began serving as the Plaza’s operator.

Colorful mural along a sidewalk
The mural Corazón y Espíritu de Mayfair at the Mexican Heritage Plaza
Photo by Cristiano Tomás


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