Nancy Livingston, Fred Levin

This is a landmark year for Mill Valley art patrons Fred Levin and Nancy Livingston. Fifty years ago this month Fred’s late father, film exhibitor Irving “Bud” Levin, a third-generation Californian, launched the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film festival—the “first ever seriously attempted in the United States,” says Levin—is still going strong. Actors like Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando and Bette Davis have made appearances, as have writer Truman Capote, legendary directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Akira Kurosawa and rising young filmmakers like Sofia Coppola.

This year, the festival opens April 26 with Golden Door, a film by Italian director Emanuele Crialese. The San Francisco Film Society, producers of the festival, will honor Marin resident George Lucas with the first (and only) Irving ”Bud” Levin Award for Visionary Achievement in Motion Pictures at the organization’s gala, May 3, at the Westin St. Francis Hotel. Livingston and Levin are chairing the event.

Livingston, 59, and Levin, 63, have been married nearly three decades and are the type of couple who regularly complete each other’s sentences. They take a similar approach to art. “Everything we do, we do together,” says Levin. “We support each other’s endeavors entirely,” echoes Livingston.

Their artistic and civic involvement is wide. Livingston is vice chair of the board of American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and Cal Performances in Berkeley. Levin sits on the boards of the San Francisco Film Society, the San Francisco Symphony, the Asian Art Museum and San Francisco Performances. He is also a past president of Congregation Rodef Sholom synagogue in San Rafael. As the only donor advisers of the Shenson Foundation, a San Francisco trust started by Levin’s family, Livingston and Levin support 60 arts and other organizations annually with grants running as high as $75,000.

Let’s start with your personal backgrounds.
I was born in Cleveland, graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism and came to San Francisco in 1971 to work at an advertising agency; that’s where I met Fred. We’ve been married for 29 years and have two grown children and three grandchildren.

F.L. I was born in San Francisco, a fourth-generation Californian, and raised in part in Marin County. My vocation is being an importer, which used to involve a great deal of travel; now, thankfully, that involvement has been greatly reduced. As a family, we’ve lived in Tiburon, Novato and now in Mill Valley, overlooking Shelter Bay.

As arts advocates, how do you focus both your personal and your fiscal involvements?
F.L. We focus on three areas: the visual arts, the performing arts and Jewish social services. We try very hard to personally support all the organizations we, through the foundation, support fiscally. We try to be as involved as we can.

N.L. Our support comes at different levels, in different degrees. In some cases it involves attending a concert or a performance. With other organizations, we become involved on a deeper basis, so we can see how the money is being spent.

Why are you passionate about the visual and performing arts? What makes them so vital to the community?
N.L. Art is transformative; it is where we can dialogue, where we can all sit in the dark and come together in a way that is magical. And it never happens in exactly the same way twice. What is happening in the world today is that people can pick and choose how and when material comes to them, and in some ways that’s good. But it is a one-on-nothing dialogue, just you and a screen—which takes us out of those extraordinary moments when art starts a conversation among those experiencing it together. And I think we need more, not less, of those kinds of moments, those kinds of experiences.

F.L. For me, it’s slightly different. As a youngster growing up in San Francisco, I experienced class trips to the museum, or the symphony, even the opera. These were important events in my growing up; they helped me learn of a larger world. Today, that’s not always true. Thanks to Prop. 13, kids today don’t have those kinds of experiences. Many of the organizations we’re involved with provide a tremendous amount of outreach for young people.

Much of your time and resources is San Francisco directed. Does this imply you have differences with the Marin cultural community?
In a way, yes. The Marin approach toward culture, as we’ve experienced it, seems to be that of a “bedroom community.” Everyone’s serious focus is south, across the bridge. To us, the Marin cultural community has not yet made its case strongly enough.

F.L. Marin County has many of the same cultural experiences as San Francisco, but they are smaller; they don’t have the same depth. For example, the Marin Symphony has a small season. We’ve known Alasdair Neale for years—and he is fantastic—but the symphony has only a few performances a year. And like the Marin Ballet, the Ross Valley Players and other Marin organizations, they’ve not made a case for their mission, or their needs, or their ideas as to where they’re going and how they plan to get there. Besides, ours is a San Francisco–based foundation.

Will you give current examples of a highlight or two of the San Francisco cultural scene?
The American Conservatory Theater has an actual conservatory component where young people are doing incredibly exciting work. I invite everyone to come to Zeum, an intimate South of Market theater involving main stage as well as conservatory actors. It is an integral part of our mission, and of our A.C.T. main stage theater on Geary Street. Our Master of Fine Arts program has produced such actors as Anika Noni Rose, Wynona Ryder, Benjamin Bratt and Annette Bening.

Also, as a totality, A.C.T. is doing some extremely exciting and provocative work. An example is a play we commissioned titled After the War by Philip Kan Gotanda. It is the story of Japanese interned during World War II returning to a boardinghouse in the Fillmore District that was now occupied by blacks, people from the South, and other ethnic groups. It’s a powerful story made more meaningful by this year being the 100th anniversary of the founding of Japantown. After the War opens March 22.

F.L. San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is the largest freestanding Asian art museum in the country. It’s been open three years now and has attracted several exciting touring exhibitions as well as having a fine permanent collection. I’m especially fascinated by the Jade Room, which presents Chinese jade carvings from antiquity almost to the present. Another favorite is Seated Chinese Buddha on the third floor. It bears the date “338,” making it the earliest dated Chinese Buddha in the world.

I’m also excited by the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Our new executive director, Graham Leggett, was previously with the New York Film Festival in Lincoln Center and he’s reenergized the organization and initiated many new programs. We hope everyone will participate in this year’s exceptional two-week festival.