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A New Memoir From a Longtime Bay Area Curator Reflects on ‘A Life Among Artists’

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Light brown book cover with the title and author's name overlaid on blue-toned image of Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco.
Renny Pritikin's memoir is out Oct. 15, with several Bay Area events celebrating its release at various art institutions. (Book cover courtesy the author; photo from iStock)

You won’t find many salacious stories in Renny Pritikin’s memoir At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists. Yes, there are a few tales of dangerous Survival Research Laboratories performances, or divas blowing their tops (Pritikin worked in art spaces around the Bay Area for almost 40 years). But even these moments are relayed, in Pritikin’s easy, reflective prose, with great understanding: “Artists often act out, out of anxiety, before a major opening.”

The closest we get to any true scandal is a moment when Pritikin, dog sitting for a friend, accidentally spotted Kathy Acker meditating topless in an adjacent building. (He quickly averted his eyes.) In its good-natured steadiness, At Third and Mission, out Oct. 15, demonstrates what a life spent in service of art and artists can do — and how it can be done well.

Pritikin’s career in the arts began in 1979, when he became co-director, with his wife Judy Moran, of 80 Langton Street (later, New Langton Arts), one of San Francisco’s first alternative art spaces. He later held curatorial and director positions at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Nelson Gallery and Fine Art Collection at UC Davis, and ultimately the Contemporary Jewish Museum, retiring in 2018. He organizes his 52 chapters mainly by the names of artists he worked with, jumping from decade to decade and post to post while painting a picture of a broad network of people, places and shifting curatorial approaches.

An older white man in glasses and a dark suit
Renny Pritikin pictured in 2018, upon the announcement of his retirement as chief curator of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. (Photo: Gary Sexton; Courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum )

In this respect, At Third and Mission may feel like inside baseball to those unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty of running a tiny nonprofit art space, or serving on an NEA granting panel, or showing experimental art to conservative politicians. But in each of his short, easily digestible chapters, Pritikin combines a delightful anecdote, a dose of sober reality and plenty of his own awe.

He does not, for instance, name-drop for the sake of name-dropping. The chapter about Barry McGee’s first museum show (at YBCA in 1995) is not a pat on the back for Pritikin’s own visionary curation, but about opening art experiences to new audiences. We hear about McGee’s early, formative encounters at New Langton events and, years later, the young skaters who flocked to YBCA to see a show by Twist.

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There are plenty of struggles and disasters in At Third and Mission, but Pritikin’s willingness to admit his own mistakes (a missed opportunity to show a new David Hammons piece at YBCA, a CJM opening that put an exhausted Roz Chast in an overwhelming throng of fans) makes it clear these are unavoidable aspects of a long career. What emerges throughout is Pritikin’s ability to adapt and change — especially when it comes to generous, expansive definitions of museum-quality art, as his 12 years of YBCA shows attest.

Reading Pritikin’s memoir will unavoidably prompt some self-reflection. What will you remember when you look back on your own career? Will it be the grudges and petty grievances, or the unexpected compliments and moments of connection? How can we better appreciate, as Pritikin seems to have done, everyday moments of purposeful work?

Photograph of four  police and firefighters and a man in a tan jacket against a black background
An image from ‘At Third and Mission,’ with Renny Pritikin “discussing contemporary art with police and firefighters” during a Survival Research Laboratories performance. (Courtesy of the author)

Early in the memoir, Pritikin charts a busy “day in the life” as the director and chief curator at the Nelson Gallery. While driving from Oakland to Sacramento to visit the studios of two older painters, poor directions, rain and swapped phone numbers all conspire to wreck his carefully scheduled plans. Yet, through happenstance and the kindness of artists, Pritikin emerges victorious.

“I thought during the ride, again, what a privilege and pleasure it was to meet such committed and talented people as my job,” he writes, “and how despite the weather and getting lost twice, it had been a great morning.”

It’s one thing to look back across the distance of many years and find a silver lining in a stressful situation, but quite another to have that perspective in the moment. At Third and Mission is a pleasantly meandering, wholly absorbing lesson in finding meaning in the workaday world.

“The people we meet, the things we create, the projects we pull off, all leave traces and map out the slalom course of our life’s work,” Pritikin writes. “A career passes before you know it, full of exhilaration and frustration, full of detail, and over as quick as a frenetic, rainy day.”

At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists’ is out Oct. 15, 2023, available at Catharine Clark Gallery, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and at rennypritikin.com. The author will be present at several events to celebrate: Oct. 26, 6 p.m. at Sacramento’s Verge Gallery; Oct. 28, 4 p.m. at San Francisco’s Catharine Clark Gallery; and Nov. 18, 2:30 p.m. at BAMPFA.

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