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David Ireland’s Cabinet of Curiosities Opens its Mission District Doors

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David Ireland House, interior view of downstairs dining room. (Photo: Henrik Kam / Courtesy: 500 Capp Street Foundation)

The unassuming light gray Victorian at the corner of 20th and Capp Streets is soon to be San Francisco’s first historic artist’s home. Unlike the Pollock-Krasner House on Long Island or architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, this building isn’t just the preserved home of a deceased artist. 500 Capp Street, the former residence of David Ireland, is an artwork unto itself: a house-sized meditation on light, vernacular building materials, home furnishings and the detritus of everyday life. On Friday, Jan. 15, it opens its doors to the public for the first time.

If you’ve never heard of David Ireland or his home, you might be wondering why a Mission district house tour would garner excitement. You would also be just like me six years ago. We’re not alone: Ireland’s friend and colleague Jock Reynolds, current director of Yale University Art Gallery, is often quoted claiming Ireland is “the most influential West Coast artist you’ve never heard of.”

David Ireland House (exterior view), 2015.
David Ireland House (exterior view), 2015. (Henrik Kam/Courtesy: 500 Capp Street Foundation)

Ireland died in May of 2009, two months before I moved to San Francisco to attend California College of the Arts (an institution he also attended, long before the school dropped “and Crafts” from the end of its name).

I learned about Ireland and his work in small, incomplete doses: a cursory grad school introduction to Bay Area art history and a visit to the Headlands Center for the Arts, where in 1987 Ireland and sculptor Mark Thompson “rehabilitated” the foyer and meeting rooms of the former military barracks with the help of a small army of interns.

After grad school and the inevitable “what now” summer of panic, I got a job working as a registrar at an art storage company in 2012. Most of my day involved measuring art, entering those measurements into a database and finding a safe home for the art within a gargantuan, climate-controlled warehouse. Picture the end credits from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you’ve got the right idea.

Interior views of David Ireland House.
Interior views of David Ireland House. (Photos: Henrik Kam / Courtesy: 500 Capp Street Foundation)

Over the course of several weeks in late 2012, hundreds of carefully-wrapped objects arrived at the warehouse from 500 Capp Street; David Ireland’s former home was slowly emptying of its contents to undergo structural upgrades.


They were the most interesting objects I measured in my time as a registrar: mason jars filled with dirt; gangly wire sculptures; box after box of what Ireland called “Dumbballs,” spheres of cement created by methodically tossing the material back and forth between his gloved hands.

Ireland filled his home with art and treated all activity within his home as art. Separated from their context within 500 Capp Street, the objects that came under my purview were disembodied and strange. My attempt to understand how the house and its contents interacted was like examining jigsaw pieces one at a time, and trying to form a mental image of the puzzle box top.

Portraits of David Ireland with Dumbball, 1998.
Portraits of David Ireland with Dumbball, 1998. (Photo: Elisa Cicinelli)

Finally, that puzzle is complete and newly accessible. During Ireland’s lifetime, he hosted dinner parties, employed young artists as his assistants and showed many people around his home, but it was ultimately a private space.

When Bob Linder, artist and co-director of CAPITAL gallery, met Ireland as an SFAI undergrad in 1998, 500 Capp Street was still a secret, special destination. “People who got to come here would talk about it for weeks,” he says.

Ireland’s development as an artist is inextricably tied to the manual labor, or “maintenance work” as he called it, that he undertook at 500 Capp Street. In a 1983 California Magazine interview, Ireland said, “So much of what I do is living my life, and art simply occurs in the process.”

David Ireland working on the house, circa 1976.
David Ireland working on the house, circa 1976. (Photo: Steven Kayfetz / Courtesy: 500 Capp Street Foundation)

For him, there was no separation between functional object and art object, chair and sculpture. Periodically, items left the house on loan to an exhibition. Inevitably they returned and Ireland reincorporated them into his everyday surroundings.

Every material was “an art perfect material” to Ireland, regardless of whether it came from Flax, Discount Builder or the corner store. In a 2001 video interview with the Regional Oral History Office, excerpted here on SFMOMA’s website, he says, “You see, you have a supply of objects that are available. Which means anything, everything brought into proper focus and context can be an art object.”

He bought the Mission district home in 1975 for $50,000 from Paul John Greub, an accordion maker. With the purchase came the window signage “P. Greub, Accordions,” an elderly boarder named Daniel Gordon, and 89 years of accumulated objects, paint, patterned wallpaper and carpet.

He stripped the wallpaper, removed window casings, sanded the walls down to bare plaster and coated them in glossy polyurethane, sealing marks and cracks under a warm, reflective glow. Ireland considered his work on the house a “stabilization,” which is ironic considering the house’s precarious structural situation when Carlie Wilmans, executive director of the 500 Capp Street Foundation, purchased it in 2009.

Upstairs guestroom in the David Ireland House.
Upstairs guestroom in the David Ireland House. (Photo: Henrik Kam / Courtesy: 500 Capp Street Foundation)

“It was important not to put a bell jar over the house,” Wilmans says, a reflection of Ireland’s own practice of moving objects throughout his home. The installations at 500 Capp Street will shift and change three to four times a year, curated by artists and non-artist professionals alike. The foundation will host artists-in-residence, special events and an archive and study center in its climate-controlled basement.

Beginning this Friday, artist docents, most of them recent grads from the San Francisco Art Institute’s New Genres department (another of Ireland’s alma maters), will lead two to three tours a day for eight people each. Demand is already high: as of publication, tours are sold out until Feb. 3.

Inside Jensen Architect’s addition, a converted Garage Gallery installed with Ireland works on paper.
Inside Jensen Architect’s addition, a converted Garage Gallery installed with Ireland works on paper. (Photo: Henrik Kam / Courtesy 500 Capp Street Foundation)

For those us who rent, scrape by and dream of exerting artistic control over our own homes, 500 Capp Street is an inspiring place, once you wrap your head around the inconceivable reality of a San Francisco artist owning their own home, let alone turning it into an artwork. 500 Capp Street is a reminder that even the most mundane of activities — sweeping a stoop or sharing stories with friends — can be part of an artistic practice, a way to glean value and satisfaction from the everyday.


500 Capp Street opens Jan. 15 in San Francisco with a weekend of celebratory events, coinciding with multiple David Ireland-focused exhibitions and events across the city. See this month’s Artful Dodger for more information. For tickets and more information, visit 500cappstreet.org.

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