Why the Layoff of a Curator at a Little-Known Art Space Was the ‘Last Straw’ for San Francisco’s Frustrated Art Community
500 Capp Street has been a beloved part of San Francisco's art scene since 2016. But its audience feels betrayed by its new direction.
Liz Magor, a Canadian artist known for her uncanny casts of banal objects, moved the late artist David Ireland’s furniture and possessions into piles for her show at 500 Capp Street, the foundation in his longtime home in San Francisco’s Mission District. In 500 Capp’s garage, artist Nina Canell installed two sculptures made from mastic gum sourced from pistachio trees, which were already melting by the time both shows closed on July 7.
Though the exhibitions were scheduled to run through October, Magor, and later Canell, requested their closure after learning that 500 Capp had laid off curator Bob Linder, who organized the shows. In the weeks that followed, 500 Capp became a magnet for protest and multiple other artists pulled out of planned projects.
The strong reaction to Linder’s departure reflects the current state of frustration not only in the Bay Area arts community, but also across numerous major cities over financial precarity, a lack of job security, the outsize influence of donors, and a growing feeling that those in power in the arts do not have the best interests of their communities in mind.
How It Started
500 Capp Street, which opened in 2016, is the kind of local art institution often described as a hidden gem. Ireland treated his 1886 Italianate-style home as an artwork and artifact, shellacking and preserving stains and defects in the walls while making alterations of his own. Touring the space feels like glimpsing inside the conceptual artist’s mind.
But upon news of Linder’s departure, public opinion toward 500 Capp shifted quickly, in large part because its programming has been beloved. On June 28, the day after the story broke, 500 Capp released a statement saying it hoped “to re-balance” and offer “aspiring students, young artist [sic], and art historians enhanced opportunities to learn more about curatorial and artist practice.” (In other words, fewer exhibitions by outside artists, more focus on Ireland himself.) By July 4, artists Matt Connors and B. Wurtz, both scheduled to exhibit at 500 Capp later this year, canceled their exhibitions. Petitions called for the replacement of the 500 Capp Street board.
On July 11, Diego Villalobos, a former student of Linder’s and the only curator still on staff, tendered his resignation. While board members told the San Francisco Chronicle that Villalobos was leaving to pursue other “opportunities abroad,” Villalobos told the newspaper he “resigned for other reasons,” though he could not say more due to an NDA he signed at the time of his employment.
Jock Reynolds, chair of the 500 Capp Street board, feels misunderstandings fueled the outcry. Certain news outlets, for instance, reported that Linder was fired, when in fact he was laid off. “We did not fire him,” Reynolds tells artnet News. He adds that, while he can share only limited details regarding Linder’s departure, he can say that “we’ve made a commitment to say nothing disparaging about Bob Linder or the shows, which we have not criticized at all.” (Linder, who also signed an NDA, is not permitted to speak about the situation.)
Reynolds, the director of Yale University Art Gallery until he stepped down last month and a longtime friend of Ireland, helped create 500 Capp Street. Before Ireland’s death in 2009, the artist reached out to Reynolds and Ann Hatch, another longtime acquaintance, saying he feared he would have to sell the house. By this point, the home had become a virtuosic environment frequented by members of the local art community (in 2003, UC Berkeley published a lengthy oral history of the house).
Reynolds and Hatch looked for a buyer who would preserve the house, and out of seemingly nowhere emerged Carlie Wilmans, granddaughter of philanthropist and art collector Phyllis Wattis. Wilmans, who had read in the San Francisco Chronicle about the house’s pending sale, was so moved after touring the home in 2008 that she soon agreed to buy it; seven years later, she officially opened it to the public. Linder, a former student of Ireland, joined as head curator in August 2016 and worked alongside Villalobos, who had joined that January. They exhibited work by Mike Kelley, Bethan Huws, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, among others, installing art to interact with Ireland’s idiosyncratic habitat.
“The ambition of these shows and the expenses associated with them started to go beyond what was planned,” says Reynolds. (Wilmans remains 500 Capp’s main funder, as the foundation did not receive any of the grants it applied for this year.) “I’m not going to disparage people, but all of a sudden it started to be more than Ms. Wilmans was willing to pay for.”
A Community Unsettled
Members of the San Francisco art community say they learned of Linder’s layoff first via word of mouth, days before 500 Capp’s statement. According to Jackie Im of the local gallery Et Al, because the San Francisco scene is smaller than Los Angeles or New York, “when certain programs go away, we feel the lack pretty acutely.” Current economic fears—the city has the fastest growing income inequality in the nation, according to a Brookings Institution study—made Linder’s departure sting even more.
Earlier this year, Carlie Wilmans drew criticism for moving to evict tenants from the property she owns adjacent to Ireland’s home so that she could donate additional space to 500 Capp. The move explicitly associated the foundation with gentrification in the increasingly pricey Mission District, an area even Ireland had struggled to afford later in his life. (Scott Freedman, Wilmans lawyer, says “parties are discussing a possible resolution of the landlord-tenant matter” and that he cannot comment further.)
On top of the real estate squeeze comes anxiety surrounding a dwindling number of arts jobs in the region. In April 2018, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts laid off a longtime film curator Joel Shepard and did not replace him; the San Francisco Art Institute eliminated the budget for its curator Katie Hood Morgan; the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art eliminated one of its two curatorial positions a year before before announcing plans to sell much of its collection. “What happened with Bob,” says Im, “was sort of the last straw.” She and other curators “increasingly saw that our work was becoming more precarious and even feeling a little expendable.”
They spoke out about changes at 500 Capp because they seemed part of something much bigger. “Both within the art world but also certainly outside of it,” says Im, “there’s a feeling the people with privilege and people with power are abusing those positions—in politics and in corporate structures.”
What Happens Now?
Similar anxieties around job security and the changing nature of art hubs are playing out across the nation, from the outcry over allegedly politically motivated ousters of Queens Museum director Laura Raicovich and Long Beach Museum director Kimberli Meyer to the recently circulated Google spreadsheet disclosing salaries of art workers.
But in San Francisco, part of the current frustration stems from the fact that the art community simply enjoyed Linder and Villalobos’s programming at 500 Capp. It put artists—Magor and Canell among them—rarely shown in the Bay in conversation with a local treasure. “It just feels like someone still lives there,” says Mik Gaspay, media producer at the Kadist Gallery. He notes that most museums and art spaces, including the one where he works, repaint and repair walls after every show, erasing the history. “500 Capp seems like it’s just adding to that patina every time it has an exhibition.”
Curator Jordan Stein says the fear is not that “Capp Street will suddenly turn into a mini mall or something.” But he worries that “paid positions that are geared towards imagination, activating history, bringing people together for reasons completely free of commercial interests just seem to be under siege.”
Stein, who organized the July 6 gathering outside 500 Capp, notes that “this seems to be a time when lots of folks who work in around the arts are thinking a lot about morality and wages and labor and time and value.” He adds, “If we’re not going to tear down and completely rewrite the system, it seems to me that it might be important to think about just taking care of one another.”
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