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.
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.