San Francisco is rapidly heading toward becoming a significant global destination for contemporary art. This year alone sees a sizable list of important events and openings: the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive has reopened at its new location; SFMOMA will be reopening in May; the Asian Art Museum is expanding with a new addition; Pace gallery will be opening a second location in Palo Alto (aside from the one in nearby Menlo Park) and Gagosian just announced that they will open a new location directly across from SFMOMA this fall. One hopes that the presence of larger art establishments will create a structure that will support mid-sized and younger galleries through geographic affiliation.
Et al. Meets Minnesota Street Project
Also taking its cue from the rising tides of geographic affiliation is Minnesota Street Project, which opens on March 18. The 35,000-square-foot space houses ten contemporary galleries and the San Francisco Arts Education Project. Founded by entrepreneurs and collectors Andy and Deborah Rappaport, Minnesota Street Project is under the direction of Julie Casemore, formerly of Wirtz Gallery, who has also relocated her own gallery Casemore Kirkeby to the location. In addition to the gallery spaces, they are building a full-service shipping and storage facility nearby for galleries and collectors, as well as an artists’ studio space across the street for thirty artists directed by Brion Nuda Rosch (the juried selection process for the studios is now closed). The entire multi-faceted project could turn the San Francisco art world on its head, as it is something unprecedented here, but follows a combination of similar gallery nexus models such as Mana Contemporary in New York, or Bergamot Station in Los Angeles.
The Rappaports are challenging the intentions behind being art supporters: they want to provide means and opportunities not only for artists, but for galleries too. The project is important because it fills a need for artists and galleries that have been displaced by the volatile real estate market. It has also inspired galleries to support a community that they have already been cultivating for many years through safety in numbers and neighborly camaraderie; Jack Fischer will be opening a second space there, as will Anglim Gilbert.
“A lot of the galleries are like us, they are doing this by the skin of their teeth.”
Similarly, Et al., a gallery based in Chinatown originally founded by Facundo Argañaraz, Jackie Im, and Aaron Harbour, will be inaugurating the space with a second gallery they’re calling Et al. etc. Argañaraz has moved on to pursue a studio practice, meanwhile Im and Harbour will continue. They not only see the new gallery as an opportunity to broaden their audience—they plan to use it as a vehicle for expanding curatorial discussion motivated by concepts of hospitality and building strong contemporary art alliances.
Jackie Im and Aaron Harbour in Mexico City at Material Art Fair 2015, Chris Hood solo exhibition. Courtesy of Material Art Fair and the gallery
Originally Casemore approached them with the proposition to relocate their gallery. In keeping with the inclusive mission of the project, Casemore suggested that they invite other galleries to show in their space, a form of subleasing or time-share model, perhaps. This got Im and Harbour thinking more—in actuality it was something they had been dreaming about in terms of expanding curatorial dialogue, but not quite in that way.
On Trust and Hospitality
These original ideas have only been germinating for a few months, but enthusiasm and diving in quickly comes easily for Im and Harbour: “The joy of not having a large staff or a large budget is that we can make decisions really fast. On a whim we can have an idea and pull it off, which keeps it exciting.” In a way, this is exactly the same perspective and verve that is propelling Minnesota Street. The Rappaports are doing this all on their own, without a board or extensive meetings with stakeholders. The project broke ground less than a year ago, and in that time grew exponentially to the multi-faceted model launching this week. This kind of industrious independence is really at the heart of what makes San Francisco different than other art cities, and Minnesota Street different than large not-for-profit institutions. The entrepreneurial energy and commitment supports Et al.’s vision. “We reached out to galleries that we knew could swing it. This is a really new thing and no one really knows how it will work out, so we are all in it together, trying this thing,” Im says. “There is a lot of trust.”
Et al. gallery, Alex Ito and Greg Ito, Installation view of The Order of Shadowboxing, 2015. Courtesy Et al.
I asked them to discuss their unique and ambitious approach to curating. “Right now we are really into hospitality, and trust and relationship-building,” Harbour says. “Not only with our relationship as a space that represents objects, but how we relate as curators to other spaces. We are really invested in the long haul, this isn’t about temporary relationships.” Their choices of who to work with are mainly founded in building their own peer group through invitations rather than traditional business partnerships agreements.
Making a Gallery a Guest
First up at Et al. etc. is a pairing with Cooper Cole gallery from Toronto, who will be showing Georgia Dickie and Bjorn Copeland. At the same time, Et al. etc. will be showing Margo Wolowiec, who Im and Harbour know from her time as a graduate student at California College of the Arts and from her history of showing with them at one of their earlier curatorial projects called MacArthur B Arthur in Oakland. Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon will also be presenting sound installations. Future guest galleries include Baltimore-based gallery Springsteen and Yautepec from Mexico City.
Et al. gallery, Shiyuan Liu, Installation view of As Simple as Clay, 2013, Video viewing room with drape divider, postcards, postcard rack. Courtesy Et al.
Shared ideas, aesthetics, and outlook really drive the relationships that Et al. are establishing. “The projects we are working on could have been called collaborations, with some sort of shared authorial voice, but the way we are approaching it is instead to show the guest galleries what we are working on,” Harbour explains. “And how they want to respond to those shows or not is left up to them,” Im adds.
Im and Harbour think critically about the principles of hosting and what it means for others to be a guest. One way Et al. puts these principles into practice is by not asking the visiting galleries to share in the cost of rent—something a guest would never have to do. “A lot of the galleries are like us,” Im says, “they are doing this by the skin of their teeth.” It doesn’t make sense to add to the risk that the galleries are already taking by participating in the joint exhibitions, and Et al. does not want to make any false claims about the monetary success of coming to San Francisco to mount a show.
The guest galleries are covering their own shipping costs, and many are already planning on sending representatives with the work to install it. As preparations are underway, there has been a lot of fun communication about where their guest galleries should stay, making the whole arrangement more like waiting for friends or family to arrive from out of town.
When more than one gallery works together, curating can be a difficult task, which in addition to requiring trust, also calls for a certain amount of relinquishing ego. There is the added layer of who the artists are comfortable or excited about showing with. So far, Et al. has been very lucky and artists are enthusiastically coming on board with whose work their shows are being paired with.
Et al. gallery, Leslie Kulesh, Installation view of It's What's Inside That Counts, 2015. Courtesy Et al.
A Place for Artists to Experiment
The spirit of openness and generosity not only extends to their guest galleries, but also in how Et al. works with artists they curate themselves. When Im and Harbour started the gallery, they presented a lot of artists’ first solo shows, a format that really gives an opportunity for the work to be seen for all of its conceptual merits as a whole. “It reiterates the level of investment and dedication that the gallery is willing to give,” Harbour says. “We really love giving people opportunities,” Im continues. And they love gathering the work and hanging shows: “We get to see the art, see the shows that we really want to see, and hang out with art we really like,” she adds.
Trust has been a large part of their process for selecting artists also. They often meet with artists in the studio and very infrequently choose work that is already made. They focus on allowing artists to use their gallery to try new things and to experiment. “I don’t want to know what art is, I don’t want it to solve problems, I don’t want art to have answers,” Harbour says. “I want it to do the exact opposite of all of those things.” They encourage artists to make new work, and sometimes they don’t even see the work until it is delivered for the show. Im and Harbour are open to the concept that sometimes artists might want to develop an idea or see it more fully realized with the opportunity that a planned show offers.
But they are more excited about those moments when artists find themselves in a curious space and are ready to do something that they have not had the opportunity to do before. “Given the opportunity to do something new really results in the best work,” Im says. “There is a huge amount of trust to tell an artist that we know they can do it and we are ready to support them in whatever it is that they have planned.” Harbour adds, “It’s a generosity tempered with experience, that we know we will get a better exhibition out of trusting them.”
Et al. gallery, Carson Fisk-Vittori & Anna Sagström, Installation view detail of Hard Weather, 2013; Carson Fisk-Vittori Temperature ranking: designed to flood (drowning tulip room spray),Real tulips, DIY room spray solution (1 pt vodka, 2 pts water), municipal water, glass, clay, polycarbonate, ABS, aluminum, steel hardware, silicone seal
Broadening Connections and Community
The opportunity to have a space at Minnesota Street Project was the perfect fit for expanding their curatorial focus. The scale is also enticing. Currently, their space is in a basement of a dry cleaners in Chinatown, where they attract a certain kind of audience—usually a young and edgier crowd. At Minnesota Street they will be neighbors with a group of galleries that are not necessarily like theirs, and this is exciting for them. “It is the holistic view of what it means to have a gallery right now in San Francisco,” says Harbour.
The space includes a communal kitchen. “I can’t wait to cook there!” exclaims Harbour, who is an accomplished self-taught chef, and has put together several dinners to raise funds for his gallery and for colleagues, including City Limits for their trip to Material Art Fair in Mexico, and Suzanne L'Heureux of Interface Gallery to raise money for programming. These kinds of gestures and ability to think beyond the confines of the gallery walls are an added facet to their views about hospitality. They are also looking forward to the screening room and performance space at the facility.
In addition to their industrious programming, they also participate in the fair circuit. “We choose fairs based upon our fellow galleries participating, as we hope to claim a certain group of spaces as peers or aspirational peers. This is doubled with our new project in which outside galleries are constantly in collaboration with us—fairs offer a chance to meet face-to-face with gallerists,” they shared. They had a great experience at the Material Fair in Mexico City, because it gave them a chance to solidify friendships and ideas in casual social settings after the bustle of a hard day’s work.
Et al., Dallas Art Fair installation view, 2014. Cybele Lyle, Anthony Discenza, Eamon Ore-Giron
They recalled a night on a rooftop with artists and gallerists standing around and sitting on broken milk crates, “We talked about our cities, and our scenes, making us all the more excited for Simon [Cole] with Cooper Cole Gallery to show with us in our first show at Et al. etc.” An added benefit to the fairs is somewhat ironic: every time they do a fair they have someone from the Bay Area visit them who has never even heard of their gallery. By going outside of the community, they end up growing and strengthening local connections. Besides, “We loved the work we bring to fairs so we are happy to talk about it at length with anyone who comes by”—be they local or otherwise.
Making connections with international galleries is an important gesture for San Francisco because many people still cling to the mystique that New York is the foremost art city. Building the kind of community one wants is a key factor. “Intention is not enough,” says Harbour, “it requires action.” As more and more galleries achieve recognition as competitors of greater or equal merit to their New York counterparts, opportunities continue to grow for artists, collectors, and people curious about contemporary art in the Bay Area. In general, geographical limitations feel like they are shrinking with the influx of art platforms on the internet. But another thing is for certain: it is not enough that people view shows online—people still need to physically see art for the most enriching sensory experiences, and in some cases have the chance to meet artists or chat with gallerists about the work. The notion of hospitality that Et al. is cultivating brings engagement in real time, in real space, with actual objects. Taking the action to develop tangible connections is a powerful beginning to reconfigure San Francisco's important contemporary art scene, and make it an enduring fixture on the global art map.
(Image at top: Minnesota Street Project, view from upstairs of main gallery building, 2016. Photo: Leora Lutz)