In the early ‘90s, I wrote a grant for Barry McGee to travel to Brazil (from his home in San Francisco). It was for $25,000, a very large amount of money at the time. At the conclusion of the project, I organized his first museum exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where I was the visual arts director.
Soon after the publicity went out for the show, I received a furious phone message. “Barry McGee is not an artist; he is a vandal and a criminal and deserves to be put in jail, not given a museum exhibition!” It turned out she was on the mayor’s anti-graffiti task force. Two decades later, McGee is an internationally acclaimed artist, but he has also spent the night in jail on occasion. He told me—to my utter surprise—that “All my foundation was at New Langton Arts. You know that, right?”
He went on: “That Big Daddy Roth show….and Bruce Tomb and John Randolph did an indoor-outdoor installation working with cars going by on the street…all the cars went over it [and resulted in a response in the gallery*]…I remember all that, it was like my formative years. And Survival Research Laboratories. You would see their work on fire on a street corner in the middle of the night, that wasn’t going on at all [elsewhere]…that was really influential. It could be horrifying. They instilled real fear with their work. You could die potentially. Anything could go flying off it. I remember they did a show once at an abandoned pier
on the Embarcadero. And it was ticketed and it was sold out, and all these kids couldn’t get in, hanging out by this chain-link fence. And I remember seeing Mark Pauline [the founder and director of SRL] come out with wire cutters and cut the fence himself for his own show. They informed me in so many different ways.”
For the 2003 tenth anniversary exhibition at Yerba Buena—where I had curated the above-mentioned McGee show eight years earlier—he asked if he could install one of his then-new, upside-down truck pieces using his dad’s old van. Not only that, but he wanted to do it on the sidewalk outside the front entrance, and have a hidden theatrical fog machine spewing smoke from the engine as well. I agreed, but we ran into an unexpected dilemma: every time we tested it, unseen samaritans working in surrounding office buildings kept called the fire department. The firemen were Not Amused. In fact, they were unamused to the extent of threatening that the next time a false alarm was called in, they would charge us for their time. The amount of the fine was unstated, but the inference was that it would be enormous. We adjusted the gizmo so that the smoke was only occasional, with less of it, and put up signs saying, in essence, “Art, not life, please don’t call 911.” We tried one last test for five minutes; so far, so good. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, an Australian tourist rushed up to Barry, hugged him, and said, “No worry, mate, I just called 911. Everything’s going to be okay.” Cue to sirens in the distance. Barry added: “I love that that happened. I don’t think it could ever happen again on the street in front of a museum. Thank you.”
Once when Barry was in New York, he was writing “Abort Bush” on Canal Street. “I’d done three or four roll-up gates. On the fourth one—I think the Republican convention was in town. It just wasn’t the right time to be doing that. This taxicab rolled up and four cops jumped out and busted me. I went to jail for 24 hours, then I was ordered to perform community service.”
During McGee’s exhibition in 1995, I got a practical lesson in expanding the museum’s constituency. I got a call from the front desk with a story that they thought I’d be interested in hearing. It seems that every day since the opening, a steady stream of wide-eyed young teenage boys—with skateboards and holding their pants up with one hand—were coming in and asking with disbelief if there were really a show by Twist in the gallery. I told the receptionist that Twist was McGee’s street name, and to let the boys in.
Bay Area Now: Once and Again
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts opened in 1973 because of shifting power dynamics in San Francisco. Most arts organizations are created by wealthy people who love art and want to support it in their community, and to leave their mark. Others are grassroots organizations organized by artists. Yerba Buena was the result of a real estate deal in which the developer was granted the right to build the project in exchange for building educational, recreation and cultural facilities for citizens. With this difficult history, YBCA opened in October 1993; I was hired 18 months earlier to map out an exhibition program that would be both inclusive and excellent.
One major problem was that we had no constituency other than the artists who had worked very hard for the institution to be created. The President of the Board, Ned Topham, felt that I needed to come up with a signature recurring show that we could build an identity around. An artist board member, Nayland Blake, thought that we should do a regional survey. His thinking was that the Bay Area suffered from an excess of politeness, that nobody was willing to publicly take a stand by declaring their frank evaluation of the work being done locally. (He called it the Grateful Dead Syndrome, where artists were allowed to do the same thing over and over without being called on it.) I was unsure; I thought we were trying to reinvent art museums for the 21st century, and a survey seemed such an old model. In the end, I was convinced, and we curated the first installment of Bay Area Now in 1997. It was a huge success.
The curators were myself, Rene de Guzman, the assistant curator, and the Curatorial Assistant, Arnold Kemp. Rene is a Filipino American who is now the senior curator at the Oakland Museum of California, and Arnold, an African American, is dean of the grad School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Both were artists at the time as well. We solicited nominations from the curators of every museum in the Bay Area. We did over one hundred studio visits paying careful attention to the inclusion of women and people of color. It ended up as one of the two or three most important shows I have ever done. It helped launch the careers of Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, D-L Alvarez, Vincent Fecteau, Todd Hido, Ruby Neri, Rigo, Stephanie Syjuco and Gail Wight, among others. It became a triennial, continuing to the present day.
Some 15 years later, I was contacted by the graduating class in the museum studies master’s program at the San Francisco Art Institute. They wanted to recreate the first BAN as their thesis exhibition and asked if I would help. Having my earlier work taken as a model by a younger generation was a great assurance that perhaps I hadn’t wasted my time. They were able to locate and display about a third of the original artworks (there were three dozen artists in the original show) and asked me and some of the participating artists who were available to speak. It was the oddest sensation: having a memory long consigned to the past suddenly available in front of my eyes. As I age, I accept being a source of information about the past, but this was an instance where an exhibition tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Remember me?”
# # #
* The artists ran rubber-coated cables across Folsom Street, and every time a car ran over them, the plexiglass walls in their installation went from transparent to opaque, then back again.