Berkeley and the new SFMOMA — partners in art and public engagement

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When the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) opens its doors to the public next week, it will be the largest modern and contemporary art museum in the United States and the largest museum in Northern California. As impressive as these statistics are, they don’t include the numerous ways that the museum is much more than a physical building. Or the ways that UC Berkeley’s faculty, students, and alumni play pivotal roles in SFMOMA’s projects and plans.

The bonds between these two institutions are deep and ongoing, from SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra, who is a Berkeley alum, to Professor Emerita Squeak Carnwath, whose work is in the museum’s permanent collection. Collaborations between Berkeley and SFMOMA take the form of exhibitions, catalogues, conferences, publications and internships.

Rebecca Solnit

‘Berkeley is a premier educational institution creating a cultural dialogue that intersects with SFMOMA’s.’
— Author and alumna Rebecca Solnit (Photo by Jude Mooney Photography)

The award-winning author Rebecca Solnit worked at the museum when she was a graduate student at UC Berkeley between 1982 and 1984. She says, “Working with SFMOMA shaped the direction of my life in a lot of ways.” Assigned to a position with the research department, Solnit contributed to the 50th anniversary catalogue of the permanent collection’s highlights. “It was an incredible job and art education,” she says. “The best job I ever had.”

In conversations with alumni, faculty, and students, the word most often used to describe relationships between SFMOMA and Berkeley is “partnership.” Shannon Jackson, Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor for the arts and design, says, “Arts organizations are changing to become publicly engaged in very deep and systemic ways, and a public university like ours has a role to play in that evolution. My sense is that we rely on each other as partners as we redefine our roles in the 21st century.”

Institutions in transition

SFMOMA’s expansion, designed by the architectural firm Snøhetta, nearly triples the museum’s gallery space, and the cost of construction was $305 million. Between June 2013 and April 2016, when SFMOMA was “building-less,” the museum’s curators created a program called SFMOMA On the Go. They worked collaboratively with Bay Area organizations to offer events in different arts spaces.

Shannon Jackson

‘Berkeley’s impact, relationships and influence on a wider ecology of arts organizations is so much larger than the footprint of our campus.’
— Shannon Jackson

The seeds of these partnerships were planted a decade ago when Solnit designed Infinite City. In 2007, Solnit was approached by SFMOMA curator Frank Smigiel and asked to make a project to mark the 75th anniversary of the museum in 2010. Solnit proposed “a series of broadsides with events tied to them… To my amazement SFMOMA said yes. I am not an artist and this is not a standard art project.”

This proposal resulted in six months of programming, with projects at sites around the city, and a book that was published by UC Press in 2010 called Infinite City. Solnit adds that the many kinds of partnerships between the university and SFMOMA are a kind of “cross-pollination.”

“Berkeley is a premier educational institution creating a cultural dialogue that intersects with SFMOMA’s,” Solnit says. “For Infinite City, SFMOMA was a great venue for bringing in audiences, and the museum was interested in celebrating their locatedness in San Francisco. All the events took place off-site and it was about going into the community and connecting to different places, different historical lineages. We even did a map about the violent transformation of South of Market, turning it from a working-class residential neighborhood into the transient neighborhood for tourists, and convention goers, and visitors, and shoppers, and SFMOMA was totally behind that.”

In October, UC Press will publish Solnit’s Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlasthe third atlas and the culmination of the series that began with Infinite City.

Julia Bryan-Wilson

‘The vectors of influence between a museum and a university go both ways.’
— Julia Bryan-Wilson (Photo by Mel Y. Chen)

Dominic Willsdon, SFMOMA’s Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Practice, says that Infinite City was “a prototype” of SFMOMA On the Go. In 2014 Willsdon organized an On the Go event: a town hall at SFJAZZ Center to discuss the future of the arts in San Francisco’s urban plan. Willsdon invited three speakers: Craig Dykers, Snøhetta’s partner-in-charge of SFMOMA’s expansion, Cheryl Haines of FOR-SITE Foundation, which plans and oversees site-specific and public art projects, and Shannon Jackson, whose research focuses on the arts and social engagement.

At the town hall, Jackson addressed the roles of arts centers. “We were thinking about partnerships between organizations, and I remember speaking about how urban planners often describe ‘anchoring’ institutions,” she says. “Unfortunately, some large institutions do not ‘anchor’ anyone but rather take all the oxygen out of the atmosphere for smaller or mid-size organizations. SFMOMA On the Go did the opposite. By partnering with a range of organizations, it brought oxygen back to the Bay Area arts ecology and shared it with everyone. SFMOMA functioned as both anchor and sail.”

Willsdon says he continually draws on Berkeley’s “network of minds” and the knowledge of faculty who think expansively and who are “greatly interested in how ideas can engage with people in other areas of academic life as well as outside of academic life too.”

He invited Julia Bryan-Wilson of Berkeley’s Department of Art History and Jennifer González of UC Santa Cruz to co-organize a conference in 2014. The event was called Visual Activism and examined topics spanning from displacement to transformations of neighborhoods to the roles of the “creative” industries in gentrification.

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Bryan-Wilson says that it was an “incredible” gathering: “The conference took place at the Brava Theater with over 90 participants leading workshops, giving talks, and creating events that spread out all across the Mission. It led to a special issue of the Journal of Visual Culture, co-edited by the three of us, that was just published last week and includes many of the contributors to the conference. The conference could not have happened without SFMOMA and their institutional, intellectual, and logistical support.” Speakers at the conference included Berkeley faculty members Jackson and Trinh Minh-ha, as well as a Cal alum, the artist Michelle Dizon.

Jackson recently partnered with SFMOMA on another project, a book called Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, co-edited by Jackson, Willsdon, and Johanna Burton of New York’s New Museum. It will be published this fall by MIT Press. She says that one of the book’s goals was to explore how socially engaged artists are “reckoning with the changing nature of governance across all different domains, in education, in the organization of labor and economics and in urban planning.”

As the country’s top public university, UC Berkeley is uniquely equipped to engage in these dialogues about the role of public and cultural institutions. Jackson adds, “Museums are investigating the nature of ‘public engagement’ as an essential part of their ethos and identity.”

An extension of the classroom

During his senior year at Berkeley, Neal Benezra, SFMOMA’s current director, decided to add an art history degree to his political science major. He says, “Great professors inspired this switch. And the combination of a background in political science with art history ultimately shaped my particular approach to art and to museum work.”

Richard Greene

‘I, for a long time, have believed that the future of museums is collaboration.’
— Richard Greene

Education will play an important role in SFMOMA’s future: As of September 2016, the museum will offer free, bookable tours for college and university classes from the Bay Area. Benezra says the goal of these offerings is “to inspire coursework, foster key collaborations with professors and allow the museum to serve as an extension of the classroom.”

Richard Greene, a graduate of UC Berkeley and chair of the Berkeley Foundation, served on SFMOMA’s Board for 21 years. He observes a similar evolution in the museum’s goals. “I, for a long time, have believed that the future of museums is collaboration.” Although he will step down from his position with SFMOMA this June, he describes his time on the board as “a lot of fun,” adding “I learned a great deal.”

Partnerships make it possible for museums to play more active roles in education, especially for young people. “The greatest thing museums provide is not just access to artwork but access to something much more important: the human mind,” says Greene. “That is where UC Berkeley comes in, and these kinds of collaborations, between education, art, and young people, should work.”

Greene worked closely with the museum on the two campaigns that ran “side by side” to complete the renovation. One campaign raised $665 million for the building and endowment and the other was “an art campaign.” SFMOMA Director Benezra and curators went to patrons and requested, “We want you to
donate a piece.” Greene adds, “They did something that was unique: They went after specific pieces. SFMOMA has fractional and donated works of approximately 3,000 pieces. It’s an amazing collection and many of those pieces will be in the opening show.”

Greene himself donated to this project. “My wife and I were honored to give to the art campaign: Peter Voulkos sculptures and a piece that will be in the art campaign exhibition, that is a painting by Chinese American artist Hung Liu Wu and it is a great piece. She also lives in the Bay Area.” Voulkos served as a professor in Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice, where he founded the arts ceramics program and taught from 1959 to 1985.

Squeak Carnwath

Squeak Carnwath (Photo by Peg Skorpinski)

Professor Emerita Squeak Carnwath received a SECA Award in Art, named for the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art, from SFMOMA in 1980. Two years later she joined the Department of Art Practice and retired in 2010. Dedicated to nurturing Bay Area artists, Carnwath created a foundation in 2000 that became the Artists’ Legacy Foundation (ALF), an entity that encourages like-minded artists to “pool their resources.” Carnwath says she “traded a painting” with Greene, in exchange for his legal services for the foundation. Carnwath’s works are included in SFMOMA’s collection, along with a number of pieces by Berkeley alumni, including Robert Colescott, Jim Melchert and Carrie Mae Weems.

Current faculty who have had their work exhibited at SFMOMA include Stephanie Syjuco and Nicholas de Monchaux. Syjuco, who joined UC Berkeley’s faculty in 2014, created a project at SFMOMA called Shadowshop in 2010 that Willsdon describes as “amazing.” He adds, “We are commissioning her to do something new in 2017, and I am co-curating this with Deena Chalabi (SFMOMA’s Barbara and Stephan Vermut Associate Curator of Public Dialogue), who happens to be a Berkeley graduate.”

Nicholas de Monchaux

Nicholas de Monchaux (Photo courtesy of CED)

De Monchaux, an associate professor of architecture and urban design, adds a historical perspective to the evolution of museums’ identities. “Dating at least from the work that Emilio Ambasz was doing at the MOMA in the early 1970s, we are now party to the notion the museum as a place with an obligation to the larger context, to be more radically inclusive, as well as more radical in addressing the social and political positions that started to be an inherent part of art practice in that time — both including them and amplifying them,” he explains.

In 2012, de Monchaux had his project Local Code exhibited at SFMOMA as part of a show that focused on Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area. Local Code was a “rethinking of our attitudes, and understanding of opportunities around vacant public land, specifically as it relates to connections to both social and ecological resilience.” It included hundreds of models — CNC-carved out of wood from abandoned buildings — of proposed interventions on neglected sites in San Francisco. In the design galleries at SFMOMA, de Monchaux set up “a huge mandala-like installation that was itself an enormously important a way of broadcasting to the city through the lens of culture, far beyond the exhibited objects themselves… It was a project that was made at Berkeley, transmitted to SFMOMA, and then beamed to the world at large in a way that only the museum can accomplish.”

Vectors of influence

For Anneka Lenssen, a faculty member in the History of Art department, Bay Area museums are both resources and catalysts. Lenssen estimates that “99.9 percent of our (art history) undergraduates visit a museum, work of public art, or community art project as a student of UC Berkeley.” Being part of a cultural landscape that includes BAMPFA, which opened its own sparkling new building in January, as well as SFMOMA, the de Young, Legion of Honor and Asian Art Museum, among others, enriches undergraduates’ education. Lenssen adds, “All my colleagues and I are diligent about incorporating visits to see works in person into our courses as much as possible. I am consistently amazed by students’ incisive and creative work researching and interpreting the kinds of modern artistic objects and practices that comprise the SFMOMA collection.”

Anika Lenssen

Anneka Lenssen

Lenssen looks forward to seeing the new museum when it opens on Saturday (May 14). “I’ll be attending the Higher Education Reception and Preview that Dominic Willsdon and Deena Chalabi put together, which will kickstart the collective discussion about program plans across college and art school communities.” As Julia Bryan-Wilson observes, “The vectors of influence between a museum and a university go both ways.”

Allan deSouza, chair of the art practice department at Berkeley, is deeply invested in how our interactions with art are shaped by our educations. “I am interested in how the critique that happens in art schools could happen in these other sites where viewers engage with artwork, and how we might create meaning collectively,” says deSouza. He is currently working on a book about pedagogy that’s called How Art Can be Thought and will be published by Duke University Press. “What I’m trying to do is to pursue more precise language for talking about what happens in the encounter with artwork,” he explains. Being able to articulate the nuances of these encounters is a path to deeper understanding and critical engagement.

Berkeley brings arts leaders together

Flows of ideas and resources move in multiple directions, connecting the university and Bay Area arts organizations. On April 28 and 29, UC Berkeley hosted SFMOMA and other arts leaders at the Cross Sector Conference, organized by the Arts Research Center and the Arts + Design Initiative. This symposium brought together artists, scholars, curators, administrators, and organizers to examine questions and challenges of institutional exchanges and collaborations.

SFMOMA curator Chalabi spoke at the conference about the museum’s new partnership with the public libraries of San Francisco. This project will place artwork and artists within the city’s branch libraries. Jackson is excited by this cross-sector collaboration that required the creation of new institutional processes within a shared system. “Deena is setting up a relationship between two types of organizations — the museum and the library,” says Jackson. “It is truly a cross-sector collaboration that’s embedding art in a wide network of social spaces, and using the public library as a kind of delivery system for art and also, perhaps, changing people’s perception of what a library is.”

The Cross Sector Conference revealed how the campus itself is a resource for SFMOMA and other Bay Area partners. “The university can function as a convening space for our neighboring arts organizations,” says Jackson. “It’s a kind of neutral territory for bringing arts leaders together to think deeply about shared issues and values.”

While Berkeley’s campus is a physical resource, the school’s contributions to this cultural landscape extend far beyond its perimeter. As Jackson says, “Berkeley’s impact, relationships and influence on a wider ecology of arts organizations is so much larger than the footprint of our campus.”

Related information:

Interviews with 54 people who have been close to SFMOMA’s development can be read and heard on the website of Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office

Read about the new BAMPFA opening, in Berkeley News.