San Francisco Chronicle

Yerba Buena galleries’ reopening uncertain after protest

- By Tony Bravo Reach Tony Bravo: tbravo @sfchronicl­

After the closure of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts due to an artist protest this month, officials at the San Francisco institutio­n told the Chronicle they are not yet certain when its galleries will reopen.

During “Love Letter to SOMA,” a scheduled performanc­e and event at the downtown arts center on Feb. 15, eight artists featured in YBCA’s group exhibition “Bay Area Now 9” altered their own artwork with spray paint, fake blood and banners as part of a demonstrat­ion demanding the museum’s support for the people of Gaza. Changes to the works included messages calling for a cease-fire in Gaza such as “Free Palestine,” “Ceasefire Now” and “Stop funding genocide.”

Protesters also dropped flyers from YBCA’s upper balconies that alleged the organizati­on’s leadership censors artists “who stand for the liberation of Palestine,” calling for officials to “make a public and internal commitment” to the Palestinia­n Campaign for the Academic and the Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Among the other demands, which are outlined in an Instagram post by Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area and an online petition, the artists requested YBCA keep the altered works on view through the entire run of “Bay Area Now 9,” which is set to close on May 5, and work with other artists showing at the museum to create programmin­g centering “Palestinia­n voices and Palestinia­n liberation.”

The demonstrat­ion was co-organized with Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area, Palestinia­n Feminist Collective, Bay Area Palestinia­n Youth Movement and U.S. Palestinia­n Community Network.

YBCA CEO Sara Fenske Bahat told the Chronicle in an exclusive interview that she and her staff have been assessing the situation and the organizati­on’s response. Fenske Bahat added that YBCA does not plan to take a position on the conflict in Gaza at this time but sees this as “a challenge to rise to our values, rise to our mission and really try to handle it in as strong a way as we can as an organizati­on.”

Fenske Bahat’s sentiments echoed a statement released by the YBCA on Wednesday, Feb. 21, which in part read that it believes “we can be a progressiv­e, forward-leaning organizati­on without permitting polarizing, disruptive tactics. We do not intend to expand division by providing a stage for it, and instead aspire to be an environmen­t for observatio­n, reflection, and meaningful engagement in the moment.”

The statement asserted that if the institutio­n had not commented on specific issues, “it has been so that our many stakeholde­rs can hold theirs.”

The demonstrat­ion came during a week that saw pro-Palestinia­n actions at other cultural institutio­ns around the globe, including the Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum and Jewish Museum in New York; the British Museum in London; and the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin. Locally, the Golden Gate Bridge was shut down by a group of protesters demanding a ceasefire in the region.

But while the Israel-Hamas war was at the heart of the YBCA protest, the local artists involved also wanted to bring to light allegation­s of censorship by the institutio­n.

On Monday, Feb. 19, Oakland artist Jeffrey Cheung said on Instagram that his commission­ed outdoor vinyl mural was censored because it included figures in the colors of the Palestinia­n flag. In another Instagram post that cited a separate public work commission­ed for YBCA last year, New York-based artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo reported not being allowed to say “Free Palestine” on YBCA’s Marquee Statement sign artwork.

YBCA has previously posted messages on the marquee in support of Black Lives Matter and the Woman Life Freedom movement in Iran. Fenske Bahat said the marquee, which was installed by artist Tania Bruguera as part of a 2017 exhibition, was “designed to take input from a variety of perspectiv­es” and that it was intended to be “a rapid response board for what’s going on.” Fenske Bahat said that while messages are reviewed by staff, not all text comes to her for approval.

Cheung was joined by Bay Area artists Paz G, Tracy Ren, Leila Weefur, Sholeh Asgary, champoy and Courtney Desiree Morris at the YBCA protest, while Branfman-Verissimo helped coordinate the action but was not in attendance.

Fenske Bahat said there was a back-and-forth conversati­on that happened between artists and museum staff about the changes to the projects that was not unusual for the commission process, and she disagreed with the characteri­zation as “censorship.”

In regards to the work that was altered by artists Feb. 15, she noted that YBCA has photograph­ed the changes to each work and “reached out to all of the artists after we released our statement to ask them how they wanted us to proceed.”

YBCA is still determinin­g in what condition the altered work will be exhibited once the museum reopens. Although its galleries remain closed for the time being, previously scheduled programmin­g in the theater is proceeding as planned.

Changes to the art included Paz G spray-painting their sculptures with the words “Free Palestine,” champoy turning their boat installati­on into an altar for Gazans killed in Israeli strikes, and Ren placing a banner over their wool rug installati­on with the words, “No more blood money — ceasefire now.”

Protest organizers, with megaphones in hand, made it clear at the event that more actions are planned.

“We’re gonna show up in your art exhibits, at the Academy of Sciences, at the Golden Gate Bridge, at the Bay Bridge, at the Federal Building,” declared Maisa Morrar of the Palestinia­n Feminist Collective, according to a KQED report. “We’re gonna be there.”

 ?? Darabi Photograph­i ?? The galleries of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts have been closed since a Feb. 15 protest during which artists altered work with proPalesti­nian messages.
Darabi Photograph­i The galleries of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts have been closed since a Feb. 15 protest during which artists altered work with proPalesti­nian messages.

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