SFMOMA union members pose in front of San Francisco's Ferry Building after securing a tentative agreement with the museum in August 2018. (Courtesy of @sfmomaunion)
Thinking back on the ups and downs of 2018, I have personal tendency to look for the worst—the signs of collapse, of slow downfalls and impending doom. But was this year in local visual arts any different from nearly every year in recent memory that came before it?
Museums and commercial galleries courted big tech money; institutions restructured; spaces opened and (more often) closed; and artists and art workers did the hard, on-the-ground work of holding it all together, making incredible objects and experiences with increasingly limited time, resources and space. (Stay tuned for next week’s “Best of 2018” list.)
I can’t say the past year in the Bay Area visual art scene has been a net positive—we lost too manybeloved members of the community—but the combined efforts of those who remain steadfastly committed to supporting arts and culture at every level give me hope.
A dwindling curatorial staff
Across our largest institutions, the theme in curatorial departments was “reshuffling.” As KQED reported in September, YBCA put its film program on hiatus (after laying off its film curator); SFAI eliminated its in-house curatorial staff for exhibitions and public programs; and the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art dismissed its assistant curator without plans to rehire.
While these are the most egregious eliminations, other structural changes within Bay Area curatorial departments reflect a growing trend: organizations filling roles left by top-level curators with internal promotions just shy of the previous title (and likely, pay).
We see this happening at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where Chief Curator Renny Pritikin will retire at the end of this year. In his stead, current CJM curator Heidi Rabben assumes the role of senior curator (not chief), while three other members of the exhibitions and curatorial team received corresponding promotions.
Meanwhile, across the street, Chief of Program and Pedagogy (and lead curator of performing arts) Marc Bamuthi Joseph will leave YBCA for a new position at the Kennedy Center at the end of 2018, following the departure of Visual Arts Director Lucía Sanromán (who remains in an at-large curatorial role), and the aforementioned dismissal of film curator Joel Shepard. While Assistant Director Dorothy Davila assumed Sanromán’s title, until Bamuthi Joseph’s position is reimagined or redefined by YBCA’s announced “planning process to advance the organization’s curatorial and programmatic strategies,” the multidisciplinary arts center will remain without curatorial leads in performing arts or film.
Not to be left out, SFMOMA has had its share of curatorial staffing changes, mainly within the education and public practice department. (This is the department responsible for, among other fantastic things, Public Knowledge, the museum’s ongoing collaboration with the San Francisco Public Library.) Three curators (Frank Smigiel, Dominic Willsdon and Deena Chalabi) all left the museum (or in Chalabi’s case, are about to leave) for other positions/cities/lines of work. And while searches will begin to fill Willsdon and Chalabi’s jobs, Smigiel’s position as associate curator of performance and film no longer exists, raising questions about how performance art will fit within the museum’s future programming.
And we can’t forget director Max Hollein left the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for the Met. Halfway across the country, he high-fived in mid-air with the previous Met director, Thomas Campbell, who assumed Hollein’s just-vacated role here in November. Everybody shrugged.
“But all of this is so inside baseball,” you say. “How do internal shenanigans affect the average museumgoer?”
I’m so glad you asked.
As a general rule of thumb, institutions occupied with laying off staff and assigning more work but not enough money to those who remain are not engaged with bringing you the best programming possible. In the worst cases, we see the elimination of an entire department (SFAI, YBCA) and the outsourcing of curating to short-term hires, teaching staff and external partnerships. (Or conversely, we see non-curatorial leadership assuming curatorial roles.) And in the best cases, institutions continue to operate at full capacity, but do so by demanding more from already overstretched staff.
Change for good
The good news is these institutions are not the only ones in charge of what gets seen and supported in terms of Bay Area arts and culture. Some truly great things happened this year in the public sphere. In June, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved legislation changing the name of Phelan Avenue (outside City College) to Frida Kahlo Way, removing the family name of a former San Francisco mayor and state senator who once ran under the slogan “Keep California White.”
The city also removed the Early Days monument, a long-protested statue situated between the Asian Art Museum and main branch of the library, depicting a vaquero and a missionary looming over a Native American figure.
And in early October, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (again) voted unanimously to approve a measure that requires at least 30 percent of historical figures depicted or commemorated in statues and other artworks on city-owned property be women. The ordinance rightfully identifies the current lack of representation (of 585 permanent works in the city’s civic art collection, only two are nonfictional women) as “a harmful void in our public spaces.”
Organizing for visibility
But what really inspires me, and what always inspires me, are the ground-level efforts of artists and art workers calling for equity, accountability and accessibility in a place that increasingly feels hostile to the arts.
The Oakland-based Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29, which represents 245 SFMOMA employees, negotiated for 14 weeks (with over 100 hours of deliberation) to secure a new four-year contract with the museum that includes a three-percent across-the-board wage increase every year.
Acknowledgement of those workers, and their value, didn’t come from just the museum and behind closed doors. In early August, after three months of negotiations, union members began taking their breaks in the museum’s second-floor atrium, asserting their presence in a space usually filled with museum visitors who might not think twice about the ticket scanner, the art installer, or the editor of that informative wall text.
Around the same time, the union set up an Instagram account, posting pictures of associate registrars, library workers, front-of-line staff, store employees and mail clerks—all union members demanding a fair wage in one of the most expensive metropolitan regions in the world.
This year also saw the launch of Womxn* Art Handlers, a group dedicated to supporting women, people of color, queer and gender non-conforming individuals in the professional arts industry. Following on the heels of efforts like the Bay Area Art Workers’ Alliance, which advocated for greater visibility and solidarity within the preparator field, W*AH organizes meetups, special outings and most recently, a free public education course at SFAI.
To help forge a path forward in 2019, experimental nonprofit venue The Lab recently released two incredible documents. One is a map, created by artist Carrie Hott, of Bay Area art institutions’ annual budgets. This, combined with W.A.G.E. standards for pay, can help artists and art workers negotiate for fair compensation from those institutions.
The other document was a PDF titled “Bay Area Common Wealth,” a guide to cooperatively owned resources and existing networks of support. “As infrastructure fails to support us,” Lab director Dena Beard wrote of the list, “we must demonstrate that we already have the tools to support each other.”
Such efforts at organizing for the betterment of the Bay Area art scene may seem small, but they're reminders that recognition for the arts (and fair compensation) can and must be forcefully carved out of the region's booming economy. These grassroots steps towards radical transparency can serve as templates for similar actions and demands at all levels—and ideally, hold those at the very top accountable for their decisions.
What if those holding the power (and the multi-million-dollar budgets) were able to admit they don't necessarily know the way forward? What if we all joined in a collective effort to prevent the Bay Area art scene from becoming one giant video screen in the cloud—er, sky?
The dream isn't just a baseline level of acknowledgement, a hand-to-mouth situation in which art simply continues to exist. The dream is an arts scene that thrives.