September 18, 2009

Wonderland, A Follow-Up

On September 7th, I posted a blog entitled, “Wonderland: A world turned upside down” in regards to Lance Fung’s multi-site public art exhibition occurring in the Tenderloin in mid-October. The response to this post was overwhelming: there are currently fifteen comments posted, the majority of which are almost as long as the article itself. The commenters included participating artists, interns, former collaborators of Fung’s, social workers and educators in the Tenderloin, those outside the San Francisco art scene and those within it. These thorough and often heated responses communicated to myself and the larger public that people are eager to discuss the issues surrounding Wonderland and that it remains a highly complex and controversial exhibition. I am pleased that the SFMOMA blog Open Space provided a forum for this discussion and hope that the conversation will continue during Wonderland’s symposium on October 18th. While it would be exhaustive to address each comment individually, I would like to take the opportunity to respond to some concerns and outline the two general sentiments I noticed in the comments.

I appreciated, very much, the responses from the artists and those currently or previously involved in Fung’s projects. Clearly, the experiences of the participating artists provide a nuanced perspective into the project and I am glad to know that many have and continue to carefully consider their position within the Tenderloin neighborhood and Wonderland show. These comments, as well as many conversations I have had with participants, assures me that many of the individual artists are aware of the potential problematics of designating the Tenderloin as a “wonderland.” As I acknowledged on September 7th, many projects will benefit the community members of the Tenderloin and provide them with creative opportunities they might otherwise not have. As the artists’ investments prove, Wonderland will undoubtedly have a positive social impact in the Tenderloin, particularly in comparison to other exhibitions that take place within museums and do not directly engage with the public. I appreciated the opportunity to think more deeply about these individual projects.

While I was pleased to read the response from the artists of “Offstage” and pleased to see that they were tracking the Open Space comments, albiet an edited version, on their own blog, I remain disappointed in the missed opportunity to truly engage in the politics at the heart of this project. This project exemplifies a question that I hold dear to my own practice: in what ways do we as artists have the potential to also function as politically engaged citizens, particularly when engaging with marginalized communities?

The concerns that led me to write “Wonderland: A world turned upside down,” and were later reiterated in the comment box have less to do with the individual projects but broader issues regarding tourism, representation and sustainability. In an attempt not to be repetitive, I will say that there remains a complex relationship between art, artists and gentrification. We live in a metropolitan area where property is highly contested. Artists and independently owned galleries are often the “first wave of gentrification” as neighborhoods with cheaper rents and adequate space are appealing for live/work environments. It is a catch-22, as the presence of artists targets the neighborhoods as up-and-coming arts districts, thus paving the way for private developers and wealthier people and displacing low-income residents. The rhetoric used by Wonderland of “rediscovery” and “renewing the Tenderloin as a site for tourists” would make anyone privy to these issues alarmed.

As Zachary Royer Scholz pointed out, the ambiguity of the press release and inability to determine the intentions of the project (for the residents or tourists?) left myself and many others with these questions. Wonderland has produced three press releases in the last several months, the most recent of which was emailed to me by the project manager since the September 7th post. There have been significant changes to the language used within the press releases. For example, Fung’s description of the neighborhood as “seedy and dangerous” has been deleted. These changes confirm that the organizers of this event have given thought to the way that the project was presented and are sensitive to further stigmatizing the Tenderloin.

It is my belief that no one remains outside the realm of criticism, myself included, and so I contend that one’s reputation as a world renowned curator does not relieve them of the need to be accountable and clear with their intentions. I recognize, as Geoffrey of the SF Recovery Theater stated and Mira A. Carberry reiterated, that this level of engagement of “high art” within the Tenderloin does not happen everyday, however, this fact does not negate the desire to have the broader and long-term social justice issues surrounding this exhibition addressed.

A recent conversation I had with a long-time resident of the Tenderloin encapsulates the complexities of this project. While this resident, who prefers to remain anonymous, was immediately skeptical of Wonderland, stating his suspicion of “a blockbuster art show in the poorest neighborhood in San Francisco,” he later recognized that at a micro-level many artists were engaging consciously within the neighborhood. “On one hand, there is a lot of positivity between my neighbors and some of the Wonderland artists. And that is great to see. On the other hand, I’m frustrated about my neighborhood becoming some kind of amusement park. They’ve been trying to clean up this area for a longtime now. When all this is said and done, I sure hope these artists stick around. I hope they are here in a year or two when the city keeps trying to take our property and rights away from us.”

One participating artist commented that she hopes the questions raised about Wonderland will not overshadow the ability of visitors to connect with the work. I, too, hope that those participating within the exhibtion, whether as an artist, organizer, resident or tourist will be able to openly engage with the projects, while also taking these critical questions to heart. Wonderland raises many questions. The answer isn’t not to hold art exhibitions in the Tenderloin, nor is it not to engage with the communities who live there, but to always remain conscious and accountable to one’s position and to hold on to this productive tension during the month long exhibition and well into the future.

Comments (2)

  • Adrienne Skye Roberts says:


    Thank you for sharing your experience with Wonderland. I’m glad to hear that you have also had a positive experience working on the project.

    As an independent contractor hired from outside the museum to contribute the SFMOMA blog and as someone who has written primarily about projects and artists working publicly, the description of being “entrenched” in the arts establishment is very ill-fitting to my practice. My work as an activist and volunteer with local non-profits and community organizations are the largest influences on my arts related writing and curating. My use of the museum’s public, editorial-free zone as a forum to discuss artists projects occurring outside the institution is about as entrenched as I get.

    Your distinction here raises an interesting question that may direct the conversation away from Wonderland (or perhaps it is related, given that the exhibition began as a graduate course at the San Francisco Art Institute). Can the institution also be activated as a site for engaging in social justice work? While the form and actions are different than activist work, there are, without a doubt, activist-scholars working within museums and academies.

  • Your comments about engagement with the community and a “desire to have the broader and long-term social justice issues surrounding this exhibition addressed.” ring somewhat hollow and even condescending, coming as they do from someone entrenched in the very exclusive San Francisco arts establishment. As an artist who has lived and worked in the central city for years,* and as a member of the community who has worked with John Melvin and Lance Fung in the development of Wonderland, I wholeheartedly endorse this project in large part because they have indeed been deeply engaged with the community and have addressed issues of social justice with sensitivity and–perhaps most importantly–the desire to learn about and understand the people who call the Tenderloin home.

    Mark Ellinger

    *if you want my credentials, visit my website

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