Frank Hodsell was a Republican technocrat who was appointed to head the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1980s. On a trip to San Francisco in February 1983, he told the staff that what he wanted more than anything was to see 80 Langton Street. This was because we were a perennial recipient of NEA grants and always the highest ranked alternative space by annual grant panelists. It was also clear that we had a progressive agenda at a time when the NEA was at the center of the culture wars. Hodsell, in fact, had cut several thousand dollars from a grant awarded to us by a peer group and given it to an organization
he thought was more deserving, a direct repudiation of the NEA ethos of not allowing bureaucrats to interfere with grant-making decision.
By chance, it turned out that we had a performance scheduled for the evening he wanted to visit. It was a cabaret-style show by Philip Dimitri Galas titled Talent Beyond the Law; it was not the usual visual art-based performance that we typically presented. Performance art had begun to trickle out and be embraced by dancers, comedians and actors, and Galas was a little bit of all three. We knew of him through his sister, Diamanda Galas, who was a star of extreme operatic vocal stylings at the time and whom we had presented earlier.
We knew from experience that the expected audience would be no more than a couple of dozen folks at best, but having been given a little bit of warning, we were able to fill the house with about 50 friends. Galas, a campy, talented charmer, was aware that the NEA director was there, and he and his collaborator, Helen Shumaker, put on a great show. The audience played its part, giving the performers a standing ovation while surreptitiously eying Hodsell. On his way out, he shook my hand and said, “It’s not my cup of tea, but it was very well done.”
We never again had a grant challenged while he was at the NEA. Philip Dimitri Galas died of AIDS a few years later.
Albert Einstein. I was meeting with the archivist for Levi Strauss in their headquarters in San Francisco. We were to discuss an upcoming exhibition that I was curating from their collection, which I initiated for the CJM in 2017 and which opened just before the pandemic. Tracey Panek was businesslike but friendly, and very proud of the company’s work in amassing the archive. All their records
were lost in the 1906 earthquake, so their holdings from the 19th century had had to be obtained from donations and purchases. A lot of the early pants were found abandoned in mineshafts, for example. We shook hands and I started to go, but she stopped me and said, “Oh, I forgot, I saved the best for last; I wanted to blow your mind.”
There was a large white cardboard box on a nearby worktable. Tracey opened the box which contained something wrapped in tissue paper, and there was a magazine laid on top. She handed me an issue of Time magazine, dated April 4, 1938. There on the cover was Albert Einstein, with a long white shriek of hair and a sad smile, wearing his trademark leather jacket. She then parted the tissue to reveal the very jacket in the painting. I have been around special objects my whole professional life, but this one gave me an exceptional jolt. I have had the sensation a few times in my life when I couldn’t look hard enough, couldn’t take in every aspect of what I was seeing, because the emotional impact was so significant. This was one such instance. The Einstein jacket had deep stains around the collar from his body. It was otherwise immaculate and beautifully designed. Panek said, “You can’t touch it, but bend over and smell it.”
It was permeated with the odor of Einstein’s pipe tobacco.