Last Saturday the 600 block of Divisadero -- past a burgeoning Western Addition gourmet ghetto -- became a temporary theater of creative endeavor. In addition to the usual cafe throngs, artists were at work on whitewashed walls, a cherry picker lift beeped while mounting a giant blue photograph on the face of a building, and pedestrian spectators milled about, snapping pics of the action with cell phones. It was a 21st-century plein air art spectacle, with boozy marketing might -- the event sponsored by art-friendly, all-caps vodka brand ABSOLUT.
Open Canvas, as it's dubbed, entailed the company renting storefronts and exterior walls. Nineteen artists, most curated and from New York and LA, one the local winner of a submission contest, were provided with this temporary venue -- it'll be up for a week or so (marketing materials are unclear about dates). The Saturday afternoon launch was less about finished works than revealing the creative act publicly. Alicia McCarthy was deeply focused on a colorful abstract mural of woven painted lines being realized with a group of friends, while Los Angeles-based artist Henry Taylor got a temporary portrait studio in a side street garage, the fresh paintings collecting on the wall (he maintained ownership, FYI). Matthew McGrath and friends were installing a vertical garden on the façade of an auto shop.
Matthew McGrath installing; photo: Deborah Svoboda
David Benjamin Sherry installing; photo: Deborah Svoboda
Public art was once most associated with civic organizations, a publicly-funded official city imperative to beautify and honor. But as the art world faces the ominous possibility that the stellar public art collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts will potentially be auctioned off to support city coffers, the equation shifts -- the private sector's support of art has an increasingly powerful role in shaping urban life.
You could, cynically view Open Canvas as a marketing-driven petting zoo, turning the artists' practices into an entertainment. Yet the experience was convivial. It wasn't crassly branded with swag or blaring evidence of hard liquor (though there certainly was at the evening soirees, inside restaurants and clubs). Other than a tasteful billboard above the former BBQ restaurant (lost to eviction), and some signage in their signature typeface, this did seem to be a sunny, art-centric event. Most of the artists I spoke with felt well-treated, well-fed, and well-documented by the producers. As I chatted with Jenny Sharaf, who won the submission contest (a cash prize and prime wall space), cameras swarmed. "It's like a reality show," she said, like that short-lived Bravo production, Work of Art. The cameras weren't a deterrent; she was thrilled with the level of support.
Henry Taylor's temporary studio wall; photo: Glen Helfand
Viewers were pleased, too. In Taylor's makeshift studio a beaming Brazilian woman admitted she turned down a trip to Napa to be here. Neighborhood kids pitched in on projects, a Warby Parker-wearing bicyclist pulled over to inspect Polish-born New Yorker Olek's knitted dollar sign composition, perhaps the most critical piece on view.
Olek's crocheted work reads "$$$-Won't-heart-You-Back"; photo: Deborah Svoboda
The investment in art here is made by private sources, not a cash-strapped municipality. The project website rhetoric couches it in inspirational terms: "With the ABSOLUT Open Canvas initiative, ABSOLUT empowers an extraordinary group of contemporary artists to transform an unlikely setting -- the street & structure of a normal city block -- into an interactive outdoor art exhibition. A reminder that we can all transform our present and future if we adapt a daring spirit and use creativity to stretch everyday reality from the mundane to the extraordinary -- TRANSFORM TODAY."
There's more than a little irony there, as the transformation is less visionary than economic. The neighborhood itself is in transformation, the buildings highlighted as real estate; what will become of that old deco theater/church? Art is an agent, a pattern imprinted, ephemerally, on "a normal city block" where tony restaurants and Etsy-infuenced shops show up regularly.
And so do events like this. Earlier in the week, ShockTop Belgian Ale, part of the Anheuser-Busch family, threw a SOMA street party for a handmade billboard made of the beer's ingredients, while in late September, Levi's traveling "public art project" Station to Station will pull into an Oakland train station with "nomadic sculptures" by Urs Fischer, Kenneth Anger, Ernesto Neto, Carsten HÖller, and Liz Glynn. Exciting prospects all, though the implications of each are open to interpretation.