The first time I set foot in 111 Minna was the first time I realized there were galleries that catered to delinquents. That night in downtown San Francisco 21 years ago, the venue was packed wall-to-wall with skaters, bike messengers, punks, hip-hoppers and graffiti crews. Huddled outside in the alley were small groups of twenty-somethings, smoking weed and brown-bagging tall cans. It was the very first time I’d ever been in a gallery where I felt at home, where I actually had fun, and where I responded with visceral enthusiasm to the art. Like so many other people I met that night, I have been going back to 111 Minna ever since.
SF’s Hardest-Partying Gallery Turns 30, Shows No Signs of Slowing Down
Against a lot of odds, 111 Minna is turning 30 this month and, in honor of the anniversary, a new group exhibit is on display at the spacious, two-bar gallery. The new show reflects exactly the kind of work that Minna has always embraced: Art that appreciates and elevates street culture, and art that reflects San Francisco’s diverse array of underground communities. Appropriately, the collection features works by many of the artists who have faithfully shown — and grown their audiences — at Minna over the years: Jeremy Fish, Sam Flores, Lady Mags, Mike Giant, Alec Huxley, Amandalynn, Winston Smith, Henry Lewis, Dave Schubert and many more.
Michelle Delaney, Minna’s events manager, has been working at the gallery since starting as a bartender in 2000. She thinks the trust that Minna’s roster of regular artists places in the gallery is rooted in the principles laid out by its founder, Eiming Jung. Delaney says that Jung — an artist and UC Berkeley graduate who opened Minna in 1993 — succeeded early because he “never tried to hold on to artists and represent them. All he tried to do was support them and lift them up [and] give them the freedom to fly. He wanted them to be able to be successful.”
Delaney says the “original culture” set by Jung — who departed 111 Minna five years ago to live in Cambodia — “is what still makes this place strong.” She points to the fact that a great many of Minna’s patrons, many of whom first heard about the place by word of mouth, have been hanging around the venue for years now.
“This was always a place for people to find their community and their friends and their home,” Delaney explains. “It was always a place for all of us weirdos to find each other. We still live by the inclusivity that Eiming encouraged. We want to celebrate all of the artists too — musicians, poets, dancers, comedians. Having a gathering place for all of these alternative communities is amazing.”
Delaney is not exaggerating. The first night I went to 111 Minna, I was only there because the art opening doubled as a hip-hop show. In the years since, the venue has held a plethora of live music during exhibits, warrior dance classes during happy hour and even yoga classes during lunch — some of which were taught by Delaney herself.
“With all of the dance parties we’ve had here and all of the fun we’ve had,” Delaney notes, “it’s amazing to me that people always protect the art. Regardless of what’s going on in here, the art never gets hurt. People are totally respectful. The art has been really cared for by everyone who comes here because people feel like [111 Minna is] their home — because it is.”
Staying open for three decades is an especially extraordinary feat for a gallery that, in its earliest days, was looked down upon by other art spaces for being too hedonistic, too much of a wildcard and, frankly, too lowbrow. Pre-pandemic, Minna served as a popular coffee spot for surrounding office workers, but the cafe has not reopened post-shutdown because of the dwindling foot traffic downtown. These days, the reason 111 Minna is still able to put on events with a more underground flavor is because it’s also willing to host one-off corporate gatherings and parties.
Delaney is thrilled that 111 Minna hasn’t just managed to survive all of this time, but to thrive too.
“I would like 111 Minna to go on forever,” she says. “San Francisco needs these staples, these jewels, these beacons of community. They’re the reason people come to San Francisco in the first place. I want to be buried here.” Delaney pauses then smiles. “We drank a lot, we partied hard, but we loved life and we made it through.”