Arts Funder Under Fire for Evicting Family Next to David Ireland House

Carlie Wilmans frames the evictions as part of an altruistic project to provide free temporary lodging to artists. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

In 1975, David Ireland bought an 1886 Italianate-style home in the Mission District of San Francisco and proceeded to incorporate its existing contents and surroundings into works of art.

He coated the walls in tinted polyurethane, enjoying how it reflected the colors of passing cars, and installed the previous owner’s belongings as sculptures. He even enlisted a tenant at the time of his purchase in a 1979 “action” by throwing the 95-year-old a birthday party.

Now, however, the owner of the late conceptual artist’s home, prominent local arts funder and collector Carlie Wilmans, appears to be a different kind of landlord. She’s evicting the neighbors—a multigenerational family of six, including an 80-year-old Chinese immigrant with disabilities who’s lived at the property since 1995.

Wilmans bought 500 Capp Street to preserve Ireland's work, forming a nonprofit foundation and opening it to the public in 2016. She also acquired the duplex next door, quickly moving to evict its tenants. As the San Francisco Examiner first reported, Wilmans plans to “donate" use of the duplex to her 500 Capp Street Foundation.

Wilmans and her attorney, Scott Freedman, frame the evictions as part of an altruistic project to provide artists free temporary lodging. But critics call it a brazen case of “artwashing,” whereby galleries tout cultural benefits to mask the pernicious effects of gentrification.

Carlie Wilmans acquired the duplex next to the David Ireland House in 2016, quickly moving to evict its tenants.
Carlie Wilmans acquired the duplex next to the David Ireland House in 2016, quickly moving to evict its tenants. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Wilmans is a board member at 500 Capp Street Foundation, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and California College of the Arts, as well as the Wattis Foundation, an arts grant-making organization named for her grandmother, the late philanthropist Phyllis Wattis.

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Jennifer Fieber of the San Francisco Tenants Union, which has offices on the same block of Capp St., shared a letter Saturday urging Wilmans to rescind the eviction. “It is not a good look for an art organization to be destroying the lives of hardworking and vulnerable families and seniors,” Fieber wrote. “Please do not excuse this action by saying it is to help artists.”

In an interview, Fieber said the situation shows art patrons’ disconnection from working people. Noting Wilmans’ role at SFMOMA, she said the same insensitivity underlined the museum’s resistance to giving its staff cost-of-living raises during contract talks last year. In Fieber's view, the arts’ leadership and benefactor class too often harms the community it claims to support.

“If they know the story, I don’t think traveling artists are going to want to stay there,” she added.

“This foundation, run by one of the richer people in the Bay Area art scene, is showing a total disregard for the neighborhood that supported and inspired David Ireland,” said Spike Kahn, a photographer who helped develop the Pacific Felt Factory arts complex in the Mission District. “For this to be done in the name of the arts means artists have a responsibility to speak out.”

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In an emailed statement, Wilmans stressed that the 500 Capp Street Foundation is not a party to the pending eviction lawsuit.

“I personally took efforts to recover possession of my property, and my plan has been to donate use of the space to enhance opportunities for art in the Mission,” she wrote. “My intent has always been to create community around art and to provide some financial stability for a non-profit arts organization in a time when funding of such organizations is diminishing.”

Wilmans added that she’s “shocked and disappointed” to see tenant groups “eager to dictate what type of art [is] allowed in the Mission.” Still, she said she's considering a change of course following the backlash, noting she’s “in talks” with the City of San Francisco’s Small Sites Program, which helps nonprofit housing developers acquire property while retaining tenants at risk of displacement.

(Reached by phone, an agency spokesperson said there’s no proposal for Wilmans’ property, and that the program is generally for buildings with 5-25 units.)

“Dictating art—I’m not sure what she’s talking about,” said Steven Collier, a Tenderloin Housing Clinic staff attorney representing the tenants. “I don’t have an issue with the art."

Collier continued, "I have an issue with evicting long term, low-income tenants who will essentially have to move out of the city so some artists can live here temporarily instead of a hotel."

Wilmans' duplex seen from 20th Street on the far right, next to the David Ireland House.
Wilmans' duplex seen from 20th Street on the far right, next to the David Ireland House. (Henrik Kam/Courtesy 500 Capp Street Foundation)

Property records show Wilmans bought the duplex on 20th Street in 2016 through a limited-liability company for $1.6 million. That year, court filings show she filed a successful eviction lawsuit against the lower unit’s tenants, arguing people were illegally sleeping in the garage. (In 2018, she acquired permits to renovate the bathroom and kitchen.)

In 2017, Wilmans invoked the Ellis Act, which allows eviction if a landlord intends to remove a property from the rental market, to oust the family from the upper unit. Because the tenants include a disabled senior, they received a one-year reprieve. Wilmans then initiated the eviction lawsuit last October, seeking to recover the unit and $150 in damages a day until the case resolves.

Collier accused Wilmans of retaliating against his clients for complaining about substandard conditions and exercising their right to reject earlier buyout attempts. He’s requested a jury trial.

His main argument is that Wilmans’ plan to temporarily house artists is an improper use of the Ellis Act. “She’s indicated they could be there for one or two months, similar to a corporate apartment,” he said. “The Ellis Act isn’t meant to exchange one group of tenants for another... It’s still a tenancy, even without rent charged.”

In her statement, Wilmans called the eviction a “lawful use of an unpopular state law.”

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