Manitoba Museum of Finds Art: Interview with Alberta Mayo
From Tanya Zimbardo, SFMOMA assistant curator of media arts:
If you had visited the waiting area of the directors’ offices at SFMOMA between 1975 and 1978, you would have encountered an exhibition not advertised on the museum’s official schedule: one of the 23 shows organized by Alberta Mayo under the auspices of the Manitoba Museum of Finds Art (MMOFA). Mayo, then assistant to Director Henry Hopkins and Deputy Director Michael McCone, directed her own museum within “the other museum,” turning her administrative space into the venue for a range of solo and group exhibitions by artists who — with a few exceptions, like Sol LeWitt — were largely under SFMOMA’s programming radar.
The “Finds Art” in MMOFA’s name nods to “Dudley Finds,” aka artist Lowell Darling, who since 1969 has been giving out thousands of free MFAs — Masters of Finds Art. Greeted in San Francisco by “Manitoba” Mayo and Fanny Footstar (Eugenie Candau) holding up a large sign emblazoned with “Lelcome Wowell,” Darling officiated a 1974 graduation ceremony at SFMOMA in which he bestowed MFAs on the staff, while Hopkins and McCone were (not coincidentally) busy with off-site appointments. Darling’s letter-writing campaign asking Neil Armstrong for his shoe would be the subject of his 1975 MMOFA show Artists & Astronauts.
Photographer Joel Sackett held the first and last shows at the MMOFA in Room 305 of SFMOMA’s former location in the Veterans’ Building. Mayo’s MMOFA virtual gallery on Flickr offers glimpses of some of her museum’s other activities. Judging from the crime scene–like image on the flyer for Lynn Hershman’s What’s behind the gray drawer (1975), I assumed there was a macabre tableau within the filing cabinet. Instead, I learned from Mayo that the answer was a box of donuts. Bruce Conner did not, in fact, win the MMOFA-sponsored Bruce Conner Look-Alike Contest and Bake Sale, which aimed to raise funds for a museum staff member to attend a symposium SFMOMA wouldn’t subsidize. The “mooseum” also held a Moosecentennial exhibition of moose-themed objects (including a stuffed moosehead loaned by Manuel Neri) on the occasion of the U.S. bicentennial in 1976.
In addition to organizing MMOFA exhibitions, Mayo shot behind-the-scenes films at SFMOMA, a few of which are now available online. They include portraits of a former showgirl and visitor services cashier in “Didi on Duty” and of the conservation team in “A Film about Conservation,” and glimpses of the installation of Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram for his 1977 retrospective.
Mayo eventually left SFMOMA, but not MMOFA, transporting the collection of found items, gifts, and correspondence art to her new post at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1979. Membership in this museum-without-walls continued, with potluck picnics at Port View Park and MMOFA calendars commemorating various members’ birthdays. In 1996 an exhibition of the MMOFA collection was held at the Art of This Century gallery, Austin, and in 2009 Mayo, Hopkins, and George Herms reunited for the Henry Hopkins Look-Alike Contest and Bake Sale.
There have been a number of artist-curated galleries within office buildings or other non-art spaces, but they have typically been more covert than the MMOFA. And while SFMOMA has had a long history of guerilla performances, unofficial artworks, and offerings left in the galleries, rarely has the subversion been from within, and rarely has it been so visible to the higher-ups. Known to staff through word of mouth and flyers, Mayo’s activities also were publicized to that nebulous thing we call the art community. MMOFA made it into the local mainstream press, with Jon Carroll writing in the San Francisco Examiner (“Museum on wry—hold the Mayo,” April 15, 1977):
So we have this secret and subversively good-natured museum tucked away inside this larger and appropriately grimmer museum. We have a way for artists who have not yet hit the big time to hit the eyes of Henry Hopkins, who is definitely the big time. Every time Henry leaves his office, there is outlaw art under his very nose.
“I’m not official,” says Manitoba, who always says a great deal without talking very much. “I’m unofficial. Unofficially, they let me indulge myself.”
I’ve admired and been curious about MMOFA for some time, especially knowing the limitations on who gets to show work at SFMOMA. I kept landing on Mayo’s website while doing other institutional history research, and became interested in how her project had been received at the time, given the larger context of artists’ museums in that era. So I decided to ask Alberta Mayo some questions about her museum-within-the-museum. Here are excerpts from our correspondence:
Tanya Zimbardo: Could you describe how the Manitoba Museum of Finds Art started? How did you find out about Lowell Darling and his Master of Finds Art degrees?
Alberta Mayo: My interest in the Fat City School of Finds Art started when I read an article in a copy of Avalanche magazine. I think it was an interview that Willoughby Sharp did with Lowell Darling. Lowell seemed to be the kind of artist that was having fun, and I liked his idea of the Fat City School of Finds Art. The article must have had his mailing address in it, because I started a correspondence with him. I didn’t have an MFA and thought it would be great if Lowell did a graduation ceremony for the staff of the San Francisco Museum who didn’t have master’s degrees. It turns out that [SFMOMA curator] Bob Whyte had scheduled a panel with Lowell as one of the participants, and we set that day for the graduation ceremony. The staff was somewhere between 30 and 40 people, so it was easy to get the information out by word of mouth. Somehow we decided to dress up in costumes for the graduation ceremony, too.
At that time, there were other artists who had pseudonyms, and I decided to take Manitoba Mayo, thinking that the alliteration was good, and also (not knowing much about Canadian geography) that Manitoba was next to Alberta. It turns out I should have been Saskatchewan.
TZ: Before you first started selecting artwork to be exhibited in Room 305 — where your office desk was located — with the show of Joel Sackett, was there existing office artwork or decoration? What did you first communicate to your supervisors about what you were doing, including the announcements and newspaper listings?
AM: There were works from the permanent collection hanging in most of the office spaces of the museum. Berkeley #23 by Richard Diebenkorn was hung on the wall directly across from my desk. There was something about the composition of the painting that made me uncomfortable. Everything seemed to be draining towards the middle bottom. We were allowed to go into storage and choose what we wanted to hang in our spaces, so I chose another painting that was less abstract by another artist whose name I don’t remember. I think it had birds in it. The shelves behind my desk were mostly empty. There were things like the city directory on it, but not much else. Gradually I began to put items on the shelves, things that people would give me and stuff that I had collected, and that became the permanent collection.
At first the Manitoba Museum of Finds Art was just a name. It wasn’t meant to be an actual space where exhibitions would be shown. Some of the staff members were also artists. In the museum bookstore I had a conversation with Joel Sackett, who had graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute with a major in photography, and somehow we concocted that he would have an exhibition in my office. I asked Julius Wasserstein if he would take the painting across from my desk down, but didn’t say anything else. I didn’t tell Henry or Mike what I had planned. Joel and I came into my office over the weekend and hung the exhibition. A few weeks before that we met and chose the work which would be in the show. Joel also printed the photograph that was going to be the poster for his exhibition, and we hand-rubber-stamped the information on the bottom. We made 10 or 12 posters. It was a limited edition since it was a photographic print.
TZ: Was the mooseum framed then as an artistic or curatorial project? What kind of feedback, or perhaps even pushback, did you receive from the curatorial staff? How important to you was the idea of showing artists whom SFMOMA hadn’t yet shown, or wouldn’t likely show?
AM: The mooseum wasn’t framed as anything. It took on a life of its own. I thought that the Sackett show might get me fired. It was an insubordinate act, so I didn’t know what would happen. But when Henry Hopkins saw the show, he seemed to think “Oh, what a novel idea, a staff person exhibiting the work of another staff person.” I think [SFMOMA curator] Sue Foley was upset, since I wasn’t a curator. Somehow, I didn’t think of what I had done as curatorial. After Henry’s reaction, I thought, I won’t just show SFMOMA staff, it will be a project for artists who are not likely to have an exhibition in a museum, because this will be a subversive way for them to get into the museum. None of the artists were students, they were just artists who were working off the grid. There are a lot of artists who didn’t have any gallery connections, let alone museum connections. I didn’t even consider what anyone’s reaction would be to having the museum there, or to what was being shown. I didn’t even think of it as something framed inside the “art world,” it was just something I did.
TZ: Could anyone just walk in or did they have to make or pretend to have an appointment? Was there any signage or flyers outside the door?
AM: There was no signage. Anyone could walk into the office to look at the exhibitions. The majority of the people who came to the museum were probably coming to see Henry Hopkins. Perry, a talkative elevator operator, enjoyed telling people that there was an exhibition in Room 305. He was the most enthusiastic supporter of the Manitoba Museum of Finds Art. Announcements were sent to a mailing list of about a hundred people. When an artist had an exhibition, I would ask for their mailing list, as well. And announcements were sent to the local art critics, such as Alfred Frankenstein and Thomas Albright, as well as the local newspapers, like the S.F. Bay Guardian. In 1975 the museum was listed under “Museums (unusual)” in a guidebook called San Francisco Free & Easy, The Native’s Handbook written and edited by the staff of the Bay Guardian.
TZ: Here is a sample of coverage in the local alternative press, by Carla Liss for the Berkeley Barb, June 13, 1977:
Since January there have been three exhibits of works that Manitoba finds left in her office. Neo-neo dada and everything else as this place is, I liked the humor and charm of Manitoba and, most, the accessibility of the museum to artists who wish to hang there; which, of course, means they’re hanging in the S.F. Museum of Art, as well. Ms. Mayo also gives out Manitoba Museum pencils and day-glo bumper stickers “so you can find your car in the dark.” Rumor has it that the Director of the S.F. or “other museum” has applied for a show and is seriously being considered.
TZ: You also approached Sol LeWitt when he had a show at SFMOMA to do a MMOFA show, yes? Were his wall drawings in Room 305 and the wall posters done at the same time?
AM: In 1975 Sol LeWitt was at the museum during his installation of wall drawings. During that time the staff of the San Francisco Museum was invited to a special early admission of the blockbuster Exhibition of Archeological Finds of the People’s Republic of China at the de Young Museum, and Sol went with us. During that outing we started talking, and I invited him to do a piece in the Manitoba Museum of Finds Art. Upstairs, one of his pieces was a huge wall drawing, and it was also the poster for the exhibition. The artists who did the wall drawing used the poster to keep track of what they were doing on the wall. Sol gave me the three posters that they used, and the artists who did the wall drawing also signed it. Additionally, I made a Super 8 movie of some of the activity of making the wall drawing. His exhibition at the MMOFA was from June 30 to July 18, 1975, and the one upstairs ran from July 5 to August 17, 1975. Sol and I became corresponding friends. In 1981 he sent me a small drawing on paper for an issue of Cenizas — Literature/Art, which was a small-format magazine published by [SFMOMA curator] Rolando Castellón. I was the guest editor for No. 12, which included work by Robert Allard, Wendy Cadden, Judy Grahn, George Herms, Louis Hock, Sol LeWitt, Sandra McKee, Jim Nisbet, Christopher Rauschenberg, Joanne Rruff, Hilda Shum, Louise Steinman, and Charley Wong.
Ten years later in 1991, out of the blue, Sol sent me a small painting he had done on paper. We had not seen each other since the 1970s, although I tried to see him a few times in New York, we never got together.
TZ: Could you describe a few of the shows — Jon Peterson, Susan Subtle, George Herms?
AM: Jon Peterson was a Southern California artist who had gone to Otis Art Institute. He had developed this process of layering vellum paper with strings and paint in between. He called these pieces Negentropic Spaces. The MMOFA space wasn’t large enough to show many of these large works, so we decided to call the exhibition A Few Partially Negentropic Spaces.
Susan Subtle was a good friend. She was always looking for interesting products, and she has a wonderful sense of humor. A lot of items in her collection were toys. She came up with We accept plastic as the title of her exhibition, and Ken Doll did the announcement drawing with plastic wind-up babies.
Bruce Conner had introduced me to George Herms in Los Angeles. George had been invited to the Bay Area to do performances at 80 Langton Street, and we arranged to have an exhibition. Somehow we got a three-foot-diameter Plexiglas disk up from L.A., and when George flew in, he brought a bag of feathers. We had plans for me to film the making of the exhibition in an empty classroom down the hall on the third floor. We bought a gallon of roofing cement, and I filmed George while he made the Tarzan Feathers pieces. When the work was finished, we carried it down the hall to my office. The smell of roofing cement was strong during the entire time the show was up.
TZ: Would you describe the Bruce Conner Look-Alike Contest and Bake Sale? What was his involvement?
AM: Bruce Conner came to the attention of Stephen Kornhauser, who was working as a conservation intern. Steve and I liked to get into trouble together. A Bruce Conner piece was sent to the lab for conservation, and Steve was talking about how you would conserve a nylon stocking. When Bruce Conner came in, Steve was struck by his saddle shoes. Steve had found a wooden shoe and painted it to be Bruce Conner’s shoe. It went from there to a Bruce Conner Look-Alike Contest. I don’t know if I really knew Bruce at that time, but we did have a connection with one of the potential judges, Richard Brautigan, through the photographer Edmund Shea. Brautigan chose not to participate. I think the Bake Sale didn’t raise much money, but I spent a few days before the event baking cookies and cupcakes after work.
TZ: Did you solicit donations for the MMOFA collection, or did artists you met send you things, knowing, for example, the concentration of moose/Bullwinkle-related objects?
AM: Works were not solicited for the collection. It all sort of happened organically. There were no criteria. Things just were put on the shelves. I was a huge Bullwinkle fan since the early 1960s, and had written Jay Ward when I was in junior high school, saying that when I graduated from college I wanted to work for him. By the time that I was out of college, Bullwinkle was no longer on TV except in reruns. Moose became a theme for the collection. Most of the work was gifts from artists, including Bruce Conner, Edmund Shea, Jules Backus, Clayton Bailey, Ant Farm, General Idea, Joanne Harruff, Hilda Shum. And there were many found objects. It was not easy to move the permanent collection from SFMOMA to SFAI. The office space was much smaller. The exhibition space became a window that allowed people to see work from the outside, so they wouldn’t have to come into the office. It wasn’t much of a space. Sandra McKee, an artist from New York, was the only one who showed there.