When I say “municipal art gallery,” what comes to mind? Is it something buttoned down and formal, gray and dour? An arts space that plays it safe?
This was never the case in San Francisco. When the city’s arts commission opened its first gallery at 155 Grove Street in 1970, under the supervision of then-visual arts director Elio Benvenuto, it took its cue not from stuffy city affairs, but the local art scene’s unfettered spirit. No one in 2020 can quite determine how the gallery's name, “Capricorn Asunder,” was chosen, but Benvenuto's astrological sign is a potential clue.
The poster for the gallery’s first exhibition (called Saturnalia, of course), on display behind glass and blown up as a bit of exuberant wall vinyl in the SFAC Main Gallery’s current show, The Capricorn Chronicles, is suitably trippy. Illustrated bursts of popcorn float above the show title. A stream-of-consciousness text that has something to do with bread fills up half the poster, and a subtitle in red bubble letters promises “a visionary experience.”
Current gallery staff (the show is co-curated by Cece Carpio, Jackie Im and Maysoun Wazwaz) unearthed this poster from the gallery’s 50-year history, along with countless pieces of correspondence, newspaper clippings, slide sheets, and the Grove Street gallery’s original signage, for this welcoming, experimentally formatted show.
The Capricorn Chronicles is one-part exhibition of historical stuff, one-part archive-in-progress and completely open to the public for browsing. Embodying the idea that the SFAC Galleries are the people’s galleries, staff have moved their desks into the exhibition space for the duration of the show, where they can help visitors sift through the boxes of history and continue the active work of archiving during open hours. In that vein, they are also calling for those with knowledge of past shows and performances to bring their memories and historical material into the mix.
As could be expected, there are unknowns in the gallery’s history. Notably, the years 1970 through 1983 fit into just one storage box, the result of a 1980 fire at 165 Grove, where the Arts Commission once kept its offices. The empty lot left behind by that fire would go on to become the Please Touch Community Garden, a project initially begun in 2010 by artist GK Callahan and Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. (Due to 155 Grove’s structural instability, the garden closed in the summer of 2019.)