SFAC Galleries Invite You to Dig Through Their 50-Year History in ‘Capricorn Chronicles’

Cece Carpio sifts through the SFAC Galleries' 50-year history in 'The Capricorn Chronicles.' (Graham Holoch)

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.”

The poster for the first Capricorn Asunder show, 'Saturnalia,' in 1970. (Graham Holoch)

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.

Documentation of past shows and catalogs in 'The Capricorn Chronicles.' (Graham Holoch)

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.)

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That structural instability is inherently part of The Capricorn Chronicles, which spans shows located in the original 155 Grove space, the gallery’s “temporary” space in the Veterans Building after 155 Grove was deemed a seismic hazard in 1994, and its more recently expanded, permanent Veterans Building home—not to mention various City Hall installations, off-site projects and far-flung neighborhood events.

Ephemera from past exhibitions on display in 'The Capricorn Chronicles.' (Graham Holoch)

What’s captured in the mix of posters, art objects, exhibition catalogs and handwritten messages on display is a story of various art trends and movements, and of Bay Area artists responding to social and political events. That includes a 1990 action protesting the possible defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts, which resulted in a funeral-like procession to the empty lot of 165 Grove Street and the burial of a copper time capsule containing 54 works of art. This “symbolic protection against the uncertainty of the future of our First Amendment rights” was well documented by various local television stations; you can watch that footage on a media player in the gallery’s corner.

Each of the curators has a favorite aspect of the show, which they will happily point out to visitors. For Wazwaz, it’s the aforementioned time capsule, which was exhumed in 1995 and displayed as a reminder of the fight for freedom of expression. For Im, it’s a ridiculous stream-of-consciousness email from an exhibiting artist (“watch out because here it comes im feeling the flow”), despite then-director Rupert Jenkins’ previous plea for more concise messages. And for Carpio, it’s anything handwritten, including detailed exhibition proposals.

SFAC Galleries staff have moved their offices into the gallery for the duration of the show. (Graham Holoch)

All three curators remark on the emotional difference between a tangible archive and a digital one, something their work on this show drove home. Moving forward, as they make their own archival decisions about what the future needs to know about the SFAC Galleries, they have a renewed interest in capturing the present moment through printed materials.

Maybe in another 50 years, that exuberant bit of wall vinyl testifying to the galleries’ 100-year history will depict a visionary art experience from the 2020s.

'The Capricorn Chronicles' is on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery through March 28. Details here.