Nearly seven months after San Francisco became the first US city to enter a pandemic lockdown, its cultural institutions and nightlife are beginning to resurface.
As the city grapples with whether 25% occupancy caps will help or harm its beleaguered restaurant scene, its famed de Young Museum has unveiled a major new exhibition of 877 individual works, all by 722 Bay Area artists who submitted them during a frenzied, two-week window in June.
Arranged tightly across nine galleries in the manner of a 19th-century salon, the exhibition is a collection of responses to the pandemic – to the social isolation, the economic anxiety, and the ravages of the virus itself.
The large-scale show – in which artists collect 100% of the proceeds from any sales – is a response to the widespread closures of traditional gallery spaces that decimated the art world in a city with an already high cost of living.
“We’re a locally rooted, but nationally and internationally engaged institution,” says Thomas P Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “One of my goals as director is to strengthen the ties with our communities, and the artists of the Bay Area are an important part of that.”
While the museum has mounted a number of Bay Area-focused exhibitions during its 125-year history, it’s never undertaken anything of this scale – and the pent-up demand that greeted the call for submissions was intense. Staff expected a few hundred responses – but, as Campbell says, “in that two-week period, we got eleven-and-a-half thousand applications from 6,200 artists”.
The resulting exhibition consists largely of paintings, loosely grouped under the theme of On the Edge. To the best of the de Young’s knowledge, most individual pieces had been created during the past few months – but a glance at the images of George Floyd that greet patrons in the very first gallery hammer home the show’s socially conscious immediacy. Depictions of Zoom calls or of a masked citizenry populate the de Young Open, as well as what Campbell calls “diary pieces” of work people have made every single day, like etudes or exercises in self-discipline during an otherwise fallow season.
“There are also images of pain and suffering – both literal and metaphorical – and there’s a gallery with images of the city, many of which were made during the pandemic,” he adds. “At the end, we’ve got several galleries of portraits and still lives, so you feel aware of people in the moment.”
This year isn’t just the 125th anniversary of the de Young; it’s also the 150th anniversary of the surrounding Golden Gate Park, typically the third-most-visited urban park in the US. Both institutions fall under the jurisdiction of city departments, and an aptly sized 150ft observation Ferris wheel was to have been the crown jewel of this historic year – until Covid left it incomplete. Construction has now resumed, and the de Young hopes that it will open by the holiday season, drawing visitors back to San Francisco’s most famous park as well as to the de Young Open.
In a sense, this rejuvenation of public spaces feels like a return to the park and museum’s idealist, 19th-century roots, long before the advent of privately owned public spaces. But rather than functioning as a grandiose statement or an expression of moneyed, elite sentiment, the de Young Open has not made the catalogue available to donors or trustee groups. When the website and the physical galleries are unveiled on Saturday, everyone will have the same opportunity to buy art from local artists.
There won’t be red “sold” stickers, either.
“What we want to happen is that, if an artist sells a work, we would still hope that a potential purchaser would reach out to the artist – and even if that work was sold, there might be other works that are available,” Campbell says.
And while the goal is the help stabilize a reeling art community, the show might not be a one-off.
“We’re thinking very hard about making this a triennial,” Campbell says. “We want to see how it goes, but that would be a very happy outcome.