Can We Talk About Art

Audience member with Can We Talk About Art map on October 17 at Rincon Annex Post Office, with Anton Refregier murals in the background. (Photo credit: Charles Villyard)

To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the WPA and the museum itself, Deena Chalabi (SFMOMA’s Barbara and Stephan Vermut Associate Curator of Public Dialogue) invited Amanda Eicher to collaborate on Meeting Points, a day-long, city-wide event that took place on October 17, 2015, and explored the relationship between the two. Eicher’s response was “Can We Talk About Art,” a series of pop up conversations on around art and art-related subjects, led by members of the local community. See Amanda Eicher’s interactive map for the event here.

As an artist who left San Francisco several years ago for the East Bay, I don’t find myself visiting as frequently as I used to. However, when I do, I often find myself at Aquatic Park, swimming out from the beach at the Dolphin Club. Turning to breathe to the left, I see the San Francisco Maritime Museum, where Amy Hosa — one of my first employers in San Francisco in the early 2000s — worked as the museum’s graphic designer until her retirement in September. Turning to the right, I see the old tall ship Balclutha where Amy’s husband, Chris Jannini, works as a shipwright for the National Park Service. Back to the left I see the Sargent Johnson tile murals on the Bay-facing wall of the Maritime Museum, and I think (back to the right again), Chris is right, the best place to see these murals is from the water. Chris’s preferred mode of gaining perspective is to row out in his Depression-era sloop through the Aquatic Park piers, heading for Alcatraz, where, looking back at the museum, Johnson’s murals tell the story not just of a young African American artist gaining notoriety and power through a WPA commission in the 1930s, but also of the spirit of resistance that ran through San Francisco’s art dialogue at that moment. Johnson left the last panel of his mural series, Sea Life, unfinished — seen from the water, the tiles and design motifs end in an abrupt zigzag leading to an empty wall, painted green, an obvious vacuum in contrast with the completed panels of fish, turtles, and the shapes of light and waves. 1

Chris Carlsson’s presentation at Rincon Center for “Meeting Points: Stories in Art from the Urban Frontier.” (Photo credit: Charles Villyard)

Chris Jannini and Amy Hosa were two of the first contacts I made after Deena Chalabi, curator of public dialogue, contacted me to “get my thoughts on a small project.” The conversations and oral histories that ultimately constituted Can We Talk About Art, a mapping project accompanying SFMOMA Public Dialogue’s daylong celebration of the museum’s eightieth anniversary (itself in January 2015) on October 17, 2015, represented a diversity of knowledge embedded in the city systemically, geographically, architecturally, and culturally. The map identified more than eighty experts — artists, archivists, researchers, bread bakers, MUNI drivers, park rangers, engineers, students, longtime residents, shipwrights, and more — in their everyday locations willing to talk with audiences about San Francisco’s art and cultural history since 1935. That moment marked not only the establishment of SFMOMA by Grace McCann Morley, but the onset of support for art, architecture, and infrastructure projects through the WPA in the wake of the Great Depression, projects that continue to influence the systems, physical shape, and culture of the city today. Can We Talk About Art began as an attempt to orient audiences for the anniversary celebration, titled Meeting Points: Stories in Art from the Urban Frontier, as they moved between hourly scheduled presentations in two locations that bracket much of the city’s WPA-era infrastructure: the Rincon Annex Post Office and the San Francisco Maritime Museum. In its entirety, Can We Talk About Art encompassed dozens of conversations elaborating expertise around art’s central role in civic life in San Francisco.

San Francisco Arts Commissioners Kimberlee Stryker and JD Beltran invited audiences to join them for lunch at Yank Sing in Rincon Center to ask questions and discuss Rincon Center’s public artworks. Above: Heather Smith, Jeff Gunderson, and Mary Hogan speak with JD Beltran. (Photo credit: Charles Villyard)

The two locations selected for Meeting Points’ hourly presentations exemplify the scandal that seemed to surround the art world at the time of the New Deal: the Rincon Annex Post Office, with its twenty-nine-panel Anton Refregier mural, The History of California; and the Maritime Museum at Hyde Street Pier, where commissions by Hilaire Hiler, Beniamino Bufano, and Sargent Johnson comprise elements of the overall building design directed by Hiler. Presenters Grey Brechin and Caille Millner told of the near-destruction of the Rincon Annex murals as Communist propaganda during the 1950s, and the powerful effort to save them rallied by Morley as well as artists and museum members. 2 At the Maritime Museum, National Park Service Rangers and docents referenced the activism of artists in response to the private rental of the building as a restaurant/casino in 1939, then stepped outside their official roles to share opinions on the artworks — “Hilaire Hiler’s murals are the best existing example of American jazz on a wall,” mused David Pelfrey, NPS ranger and researcher on artist communities in the U.S. and California in the 1930s and 1940s.

Tracing possible paths between the financial district and Hyde Street Pier, my assistant Shari Paladino and I were fascinated by the way that daily movement through downtown and the waterfront followed the city’s cultural history. We began our research along the Embarcadero F-Train line (partially a New Deal project, as Stella Lochman, SFMOMA’s program associate for public dialogue, pointed out), and Shari immediately drew into the conversation Phil Moore and Anthony Leval, two MUNI drivers who were willing to take time on their routes to talk with audiences about how heavily touristed works of art like those at Coit Tower speak to political and immigration histories as well as present-day experiences of immigration and diversity.

Can We Talk About Art participants Adam Gottstein and Katherine Petrin talking with audiences at Caffe Trieste in North Beach on October 17. (Photo credit: Jenny Gottstein)

The map took shape through more than one hundred such person-to-person conversations in the course of six weeks, cultivating both data for the print edition of 2,500 maps, and performative cues for the spontaneous conversations that made up the content of the piece itself. NPS Ranger Lu Sonder let us know about Christina Zeigler’s expertise, both as the longtime custodian of the Maritime Museum and formerly as a San Francisco high school student who spent hours lingering with friends on the bleachers outside. The bathrooms and museum spaces are free and open to the public, and as she was working on the day of the event, Christina made herself available to point out the Art Deco details even in the restrooms; how when each of these details is clean, the site fulfills its purpose as a refuge — both practical and aesthetic — in an area flooded with visitors and newcomers.

The project aimed to map a sense of connection to (or potential differences with) Morley’s original ideas as the museum’s founder. In early research interviews for the map, Grey Brechin, Peter Samis, and Berit Potter, among other project contributors, gave a snapshot of a nascent and active art dialogue in those first years, when Morley kept the museum open on weeknights until ten p.m. with events aimed at working audiences; debates over art commissions showed up as front-page news and in social dialogue; and New Deal programs were employing artists both to complete commissions and to manage large-scale public art and architecture projects, all of which allowed a somewhat more diverse group of artists to rise to recognition than in San Francisco’s pre-Depression era. In proposing what to discuss with audiences for the mapping project, Chris Carlsson, Susan Schwartzenberg, and Liam Golden, among others, indicated how San Francisco’s streets and waterfront still reflect the aesthetic and sociopolitical influence of New Deal–commissioned artists (like Johnson, Bufano, and Hiler) who were also supported by the museum; and the activism of individuals such as Emmy Lou Packard, a project assistant to Diego Rivera and muralist in her own right, whose voice was essential in enacting the 1979 restoration of the Refregier murals at Rincon Annex.

Jin Zhu, Shari Paladino, and other audience members at the Telegraph Hill project site talking with Can We Talk About Art participants Paul Chasan, Nik Sokol, and Marisha Farnsworth about the relative timescales of geology, urban planning, and public art. (Photo credit: Nik Sokol)

One map participant, Marina MacDougall, noted that SFMOMA’s reopening and programming allowed many organizations (like the Center for Art and Inquiry that MacDougall directs at the Exploratorium, which itself moved into its new home in 2013) to reconnect with core institutional ideas such as those active during Morley’s tenure or exemplified by WPA support for artists as infrastructural workers. As participants in this project, MacDougall and Exploratorium staff created free access for Can We Talk About Art audiences to the Exploratorium’s top-floor observatory, where a group of student volunteers (who were invaluable to the success of the day’s activities) met with Exploratorium staff and instructors from Bay Area art schools, reflecting on the city’s New Deal art and architecture visible from the observatory on the top floor. This student group — in which no two people had grown up in the same country, apart from two Iranian students — together with faculty, staff, and audience members, raised questions critical to constructive institutional critique: What can this moment of widespread public support for the arts teach us, from the level of institutional growth all the way down to daily programming and how it connects with art practice? How can institutions offer one another opportunities to think through their roles in a changing city? And how can artists and students engage institutions in conversations that support a nimble cultural dialogue, active in its moment while it reflects on the past and imagines the future?

Many groups formed easily from the individual speakers and their audiences — at Caffe Trieste, architectural historian Katherine Petrin and Adam Gottstein, grandson of Coit Tower muralist Bernard Zakheim, found themselves in dialogue with an ebbing and flowing audience throughout the afternoon, discussing the renovation of Coit Tower. Below Coit Tower, Nik Sokol, lead tunneling engineer for Arup in the stabilization of Telegraph Hill, discussed the relative time frames for public art, urban design, and geology with Paul Chasan, San Francisco urban planner, and Marisha Farnsworth, artist and principal designer with Hyphae design.

There were also ways in which groups and conversations failed to form. Having created something like an alternative map to the city, we found that there were countless other alternatives outside of what we made. Some activists, artists who are also organizers, and politically oriented groups, whose perspectives we would have liked to include, did not respond within the tight project time frame. There were others whose contact information we did not find in time. While the project showed significant diversity in terms of class, gender, and cultural background, many vantage points were missed, and it would be a good goal to create successive projects that better reflect their communities’ demographic diversity. Even among our project participants, there were people who never talked to audiences, and these included some of our foremost New Deal scholars (Dick Walker from the Living New Deal project awaited conversation at the Ferry Building for two hours — so much information unapproached) and at least one third-generation San Francisco resident spent solitary time uninterrupted in Washington Square Park, as did the two people whose expertise began my early research for the project, Amy Hosa and Chris Jannini.

Amy Hosa and Chris Jannini at the Hyde Street Pier Shipwright’s shop, demonstrating watercolor drawing techniques and shipbuilders’ arts on October 17. (Photo credits: L, Chris Jannini; R, Amy Hosa)

At the end of the day on October 17, the crowd gathered for the last of the hourly formal talks convened by Deena Chalabi. As the sun was setting behind the Maritime Museum, I found myself next to Amy and Chris, listening to Gary Kamiya narrate the natural and sociocultural history surrounding the museum and Aquatic Park, the former Black Point Cove. Chris leaned over to me to say that he has read Kamiya’s column every week in the San Francisco Chronicle, and how pleased he was to meet this writer whose knowledge complements his own — Gary having studied the land and habits of the city so carefully, and Chris having built boats to negotiate the city’s aquatic territories. And I thought about how the more than one hundred people contributing ideas about the city to this map tended to end their speculations on the future of an overpopulated, gentrifying, tiny urban area with one point of relative optimism each; and how this amounted to a wealth of possibility articulated by so many different perspectives. In the fading light I saw swimmers crossing the cove, and I remembered the feeling of being held by a city and its histories, and how important a city’s people are to this feeling; and how through taking on these processes of dialogue and exchange, we might be able to access some of that feeling not just of being held, but of holding on.


  1. 1Johnson and his mentor, the sculptor Beniamino Bufano, on the news that the public bathhouse had been rented to the Gordon Brothers upon the building’s completion in 1939 for use as a private restaurant and casino, staged a protest that included not only the refusal to finish artworks but the destruction of Bufano’s works, already completed. As recounted by numerous participants in Can We Talk About Art, but notably by Maritime Museum curator Richard Everett and NPS Saturday docent Susan Greider, Bufano completed a series of either six or nine sculptures for the building’s balcony, which looks out toward Alcatraz over the beach at Black Point Cove (the present-day Aquatic Park). Bufano contacted his “union buddies” one night before the opening of the casino and together they dragged all but two of the granite sculptures down to the beach and allowed them to be broken in the waves. According to urban legend, Bufano proclaimed, “I’d rather have them destroyed by children playing on them than drunk rich people tripping over them.”
  2. 2For a full account of the Refregier murals’ near-loss and preservation, see Gray Brechin’s Trial of the Rincon Annex Murals at the Shaping San Francisco digital archive:
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