Room for expression amid virus, turmoil
De Young exhibition gives 763 Bay Area artists opportunity to show their works
When art therapist Evri Kwong got the call that not one, but two of his drawings would be on display at the de Young Museum as part of a new opensubmission exhibition, he was elated.
“I’m thrilled to show at the de Young. I’m bouncing off the walls,” Kwong says. “It’s important people respond to the world with art, especially now that it’s such a critical time for our nation.”
Kwong’s “America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave” and “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land” are both emblematic of current events. The first drawing depicts extremely topical subjects — climate change, protests at Standing Rock, the suppression of voting rights — and juxtaposes them against symbols of American culture, like ice cream and hot dogs. The second compares contemporary images of children in cages at the U.s.mexico border with depictions of American camps that interned Japanese Americans in the 1940s.
“When the virus happened I thought, ‘Do I add this?’ ” says the 58yearold artist, a native of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Eventually, he did decide to expand “Land of the Free” to include images of refrigeration trucks used for storing dead bodies as a nod to the climbing death rates during the current pandemic. At a time when his own livelihood is being impacted by coronavirusrelated shutdowns, he says it felt right to submit work to the museum that reflects “where we are now and who we want to be as a nation.”
Judging by the acceptance of both Kwong works, the museum agrees.
When the de Young Open submission process was announced in March as part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s 125th anniversary celebration, museum officials expected a sizable response from Bay Area artists. What they got far exceeded that, reports FAMSF executive director and CEO Thomas Campbell.
Some 6,190 artists from the nine Bay Area counties applied to be part of the exhibition and sent images of 11,518 artworks spanning painting, drawing, printmaking, digital art, photography, sculpture, fiber art and video. After being evaluated by curators and artist judges Hung Liu, Mildred Howard and Enrique Chagoya, 881 works created by 763 artists were selected.
The exhibition had previously been scheduled for next spring, but was moved up when the coronavirus pandemic upended the museum’s schedule.
“I thought it was a great way to showcase talent in this area and also offer a sense of hope to the many artists here,” Howard says.
Timothy Anglin Burgard, the FAMSF curatorincharge of American art, says the submissions to the de Young Open showed “the breadth and depth of artistic creation in the Bay Area.” During a period where many galleries and arts venues remain closed, Burgard says it feels like an important moment to give back to artists in the region.
“We wouldn’t exist for 125 years without them and the art created by Bay Area artists,” Burgard says. “This exhibition calls on the past and present by embracing these artists to show their work in the greatest time of need.”
The work, which will be exhibited online in addition to the de Young’s large Herbst galleries on the lower level, will also be available for sale with 100% of proceeds going directly to the artists.
Even before the coronavirus, many artists in the Bay Area were struggling with the region’s high cost of living and shrinking gallery scene. Income from the exhibition “makes the difference between paying rent and putting food on table,” for some artists, Burgard says.
To accommodate the large number of works, the museum plans to hang the show in a salon or academy style, where numerous pieces are grouped together in the nine galleries to best use wall space. The grouped works will then be separated into different thematic sections. The first gallery
will feature works inspired by recent events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement; the second will explore art that addresses the impact of the coronavirus. Other delineating themes include nature, abstraction, figures and portraits, as well as works inspired by surrealism.
The exhibition’s overall theme, “On the Edge,” comes from a phrase in a traditional Ohlone song: “I am dancing. On the edge of the world I am dancing.” The theme had already been chosen before the pandemic and the year’s social activism, but evolved to focus around the Bay Area’s geographic location on the Pacific Rim and the region’s historical reputation for cuttingedge creativity.
“Never was a theme or idea more relevant or true,” Burgard says.
San Francisco artist Cheryl Derricotte’s piece “2017 Yearataglance: 214 Dead Black Men” will be in the gallery exploring Black Lives Matter. The work takes a personal calendar and marks with bullet symbols the days where Black men were slain. Derricotte says that although she has exhibited her work at other museums, the de Young is among the most prestigious showing opportunities she’s had in her career.
“I hope it’s a partnership that continues and grows going forward,” says Derricotte, 55.
The de Young Open will be the first time Samira Akbari Hozmahi presents her work in a museum. The 37yearold Academy of Art graduate’s piece “Quarantine Diary on tea bag paper” uses 90 individual tea bags compiled as a single work to depict events she experienced during the first three months of sheltering in place. She completed drawing on her 90th tea bag shortly before the final day to submit her entry.
As museums continue to be disrupted by the changing realities of pandemic life, Campbell and Burgard acknowledge that looking locally and relying less on traveling exhibitions of internationally famous artists may be a key part of how FAMSF will move forward.
“Museums have been dependent on the blockbuster exhibition schedule,” Burgard says. “Here we are relinquishing that role for a more populist model that engages community.”
“There’s not expected to be a big tourist audience in San Francisco for two to three years,” Campbell adds. “In light of COVID, it’s more necessary that we reach out to people in the Bay Area and build on those relationships.”
Chagoya says the Bay Area is overdue for an open submission exhibition and he hopes it can become a new tradition well beyond the de Young Museum.
“Shows like this keep the arts exciting and moving,” Chagoya says. “Local museums should think of doing something beyond the walls and typical mainstream exhibitions trying to compete with New York. We have a lot of interesting artists emerging from Bay Area all the time. The freedoms artists experience here are unlike any other place.”
Evri Kwong’s “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land” will be part of the exhibition. “It’s important people respond to the world with art, especially now that it’s such a critical time for our nation,” Kwong says.
Thomas Campbell, executive director and CEO of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said it’s necessary to “reach out to people in the Bay Area.”