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A Pandemic Silver Lining for a San Francisco Institution


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Usually, major museums begin planning their exhibitions three to four years ahead of time, Thomas Campbell, director and chief executive of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, told me on Thursday. They have to figure out loans from other museums and write the catalog of pieces.

The de Young Open — an exhibition that ran last year at one of the two institutions Mr. Campbell leads — was, however, very unusual.

First, there’s the fact that it was a contest, open only to Bay Area artists. Nearly 6,200 artists submitted more than 11,500 artworks for the show, which included 877 works from 762 artists. The pieces could also be sold.

Then, there’s the biggest reason the show was singular: It was conceived, assembled and shown essentially entirely during the pandemic, as a way to mark the de Young’s 125th anniversary.

Now, Mr. Campbell said, the exhibition is set to become a triennial event — at least one tangible silver lining from a turbulent year.

“Looking back, what was remarkable about it was that it really brought the whole museum together,” he said. “And it really gave us a connection with artists all over the Bay Area.”

Because the museum was at reduced capacity, some 28,000 visitors saw the de Young Open exhibition in person, when typically a show might get closer to 100,000.

But it wasn’t just the pandemic that artists responded to. The submission portal for the contest opened on June 1, just a week after George Floyd was killed.

Artists were asked to submit work that could fit the theme, “On the Edge.”

Enrique Chagoya, a Stanford professor and one of the established artists who was asked to help judge the contest, told me late last year that the works he saw reflected a world in deep social, political, economic and environmental crisis.

“Art is kind of a reflection of society and an interaction with social values and experiences and whatever happens in the artist’s life,” he told me. “Even if you do the most abstract nonrepresentational work.”

And Mr. Chagoya said that the art world itself would be forever changed. Many people were laid off from museum jobs. Galleries were forced to close, and many may not reopen. All that will show up in the art of the future.

So — in spite of the awkwardness at having friends whose work didn’t make it through the anonymized judging process — he said that the idea for the de Young Open as a contest for local artists, and one that explicitly explored immediately relevant themes, was helpful.

“One of the best things a museum can do is get in tune with the local community,” he said.

Cheryl Derricotte — a visual artist based in San Francisco whose work was selected for the show — told me that she appreciated the museum’s focus on highlighting art of the Bay Area.

“Museums often look to the next biggest city, instead of their own backyard,” she said. “The de Young took the moment to engage with social justice movement work, with pandemic-related work, that really embraces our collective thinking and anxiety and challenges.”

Ms. Derricotte’s work, “2017 Year-at-a-Glance: 214 Dead Black Men,” predated the summer’s protests, she said; the theme of police brutality had been on her mind long before then.

“The calendar was a vehicle for me to show the magnitude,” she said.

Ms. Derricotte, who is Black, said she first relocated to the Bay Area for her “day job” — something she isn’t shy about keeping, in order to live as an artist in one of the nation’s most expensive metros. And that’s been important during the pandemic.

Ms. Derricotte said that collectives — such as the 3.9 Art Collective, formed in resistance to the erosion of San Francisco’s Black population — had also provided crucial help for both artists and museums, as they rethink their approaches to diversity and accessibility.

Mr. Campbell, the de Young’s director, said that’s the top priority going forward for the Fine Arts Museums.

“If we’d been going along, business as usual,” he said, “I don’t think we would have reflected as deeply about the work that needs to be done.”

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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