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Comment: The Letting Go... 500 Capp Street

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A work by Nina Canell from her Drag Out exhibition at 500 Capp Street, which closed early at the artist's request. Photo by author

The Letting Go… 500 Capp Street

By Aaron Harbour
With invaluable editorial assistance by Claudia La Rocco and Gordon Faylor of Open Space

This is tough to start; I’ve tried it a few different ways but am still dissatisfied with what I’ve done. Maybe let’s get a few things out of the way. First, 500 Capp Street head curator Bob Linder was not fired, he was let go/laid off — a distinction the foundation feels is important to make. Second, the exhibition program at 500 Capp Street was not canceled — yet in the wake of Linder’s departure, all but one artist in upcoming shows I know of have withdrawn their work, and the two artists with work currently on display asked that their exhibitions be canceled immediately, a request the organization is honoring.

Let’s also start from the basic position that founder, primary funder, and former board chair Carlie Wilmans; her two fellow board members, Ann Hatch and Jock Reynolds; and director Cait Malloy are each in their way dedicated to the legacy of David Ireland. When I was researching this subject, I asked on Facebook and Instagram for opinions about what was happening and one anonymous commenter suggested I talk with former employees, or look at the hard work Hatch has done for the community over the decades. But the past is not the issue I am interested in here. Or rather, though the past is interesting — indeed, it might make a case study for how best to begin and maintain an arts organization with a sole generous funder like Wilmans — my questions are about these current changes we are in the midst of, and what they mean for the future.

Let’s also acknowledge that Linder, along with his fellow curator (and former student) Diego Villalobos, led one of the most dynamic and influential curatorial programs in the Bay Area, and maybe the West Coast, overseeing exhibitions and programs at both the David Ireland House and The Garage. The multiplying reasons given by the (recently installed) director and the (new) head of the board, Reynolds, for abruptly letting Linder go without a clear plan for the institution’s future beyond a few talking points, and no plan for the fallout from that decision, do not add up (the foundation apparently didn’t see any of the negative responses coming; who is responsible for this short-sightedness is up for grabs).

More than that, I view these reasons — which I’ll get to in a minute — as half-lies; half, because there may or may not be a grain of truth in them about changes the board and director wish to see happen at 500 Capp Street. Whether or not that grain exists, the justifications feel cobbled together after the fact, spun in the organization’s favor as a clumsy form of damage control; judging by the public sentiment of the region’s art community (for instance, the anonymous Instagram meme page @sanfranciscoartinstitute and this article in Artforum), this is an effort that has soundly failed.

I was at Linder’s birthday party. I co-run a pair of galleries, and each of its two locations used to be next to outposts of Capital, the gallery Linder co-ran until April of this year. As a curator I’ve shown Linder’s work; as a gallerist I’ve hosted another curator who chose to show Linder’s work. I’ve never pretended to be an objective witness or reporter in any of the writing I’ve done about art over the years, but in the wake of the events at 500 Capp Street I made a firm decision to not say anything publicly until I’d gotten home from my hot, hot trip to Europe (which was wonderful, thanks for asking) and talked to the figures involved to the extent that I could. I can’t speak to Linder, who signed a non-disclosure agreement, nor do I feel comfortable asking his former, vulnerable colleagues to speak on this matter. Instead, in deference to the suggestion of the email from 500 Capp Street that announced Linder’s departure, I spoke first with Molloy (recorded for my reference but not for distribution), and then following her advice, to board president Jock Reynolds (unrecorded upon his request, despite his and Molloy’s insistence that there was an excess of misinformation circulating) before writing something about this subject — which I’ll come right out and say is fucked. What has happened at 500 Capp Street is fucked.

During my conversation with Reynolds I couldn’t help using the term “fired” over and over, despite Reynolds insisting on the distinction between that and being laid off, which is fair. These words carry different legal baggage, but the sense of harm that “fired” implies feels so pertinent to this story and how it has played out — “let go” or “laid off” don’t hold the same emotional weight.

We can quickly dismiss a batch of thin ideas for the future being pitched as part of the justification, including a suggestion that some kind of nebulous “curatorial training program” could be incorporated (joining the chorus of local places canceling curatorial positions — training for what, exactly?): such ideas, whatever their merit, have nothing to do with letting go your head curator here and now. If anything, having a strong curatorial core is a prerequisite for such a training program. And let's avoid the numbers game of the two-thousand or so David Ireland pieces crying to be shown instead of works by other artists, another of the organization’s explanations. Disregarding the amount of overlap in those numbers (for instance, the dozens of variations of his “dumbball” works), the board could simply have requested a more thorough rotation of pieces, some minimum number of on view works, etc.

So let's focus on the two main reasons the foundation has given.

On the one hand, 500 Capp Street cites budget issues, with the supposed cost of the proposed exhibitions for next year exceeding this year’s — this is what Molloy said. Wilmans echoed this in the Chronicle article (with a larger number attached), but Reynolds told me that “the budget wasn’t really the issue,” confusingly adding that few exhibitions for the following year had been firmly nailed down (which would suggest that any budget shortfall was nebulous at best).

On the other, the foundation says it desires to reconfigure the program to focus more on Ireland’s work, with “people” supposedly having expressed disappointment at the amount of his art currently being shown. Who are these people? I was directed to one such possible individual, who refused to comment; whereas at this point 750 people have signed a petition started by artist Alicia McCarthy in protest of the Board’s actions. I have not read a single post online in support of the changes at 500 Capp Street, versus the explosion of support for Linder and Villalobos’s programming.

During our phone call, Molloy agreed with my assertion that the majority of people were very pleased with the program, saying, "and we were pleased, too, and our board has been very pleased. There is nothing but praise for the last couple years of programming."

The least tenuous link I can see between these budget and curatorial planks is the notion that a stronger educational focus will help with grants. Yet — again — this doesn’t satisfy, at least not as currently explained by Molloy and Reynolds. If the budget was the problem, why wasn’t there outreach to the community for help filling any financial need? There were no auctions, drawings, dinners, etc., and as mentioned, when pressed, Reynolds demurred about the direness of the financial situation. Even if there were an issue with cost overruns, was Linder given ample opportunity to adjust his programs (pretending for a moment that it is solely the curator’s job to balance a budget rather than a director’s)? Both Molloy and Reynolds were quick to shift the focus away from the budget once the questions got a bit tougher.

And if it’s a curatorial issue… David Ireland is already a niche artist. To some in the Bay Area he is a foundational figure, but in my experience, few if any of the artists and curators who visit San Francisco know about Ireland's practice specifically. Many, however, know of 500 Capp Street, and make a point to see the exhibitions there nestled within Ireland's. These exhibitions have been featured in Artforum, Modern Painter, and Contemporary Art Daily, among other publications. Artists and artwork I was overjoyed to see in our sleepy little town include Mike Kelley, Michael E. Smith, Virginia Overton, and Nina Canell.

I first encountered Ireland’s work via exhibitions at the Anglim Gilbert Gallery; I was never a big fan. I knew he meant a lot to some of my peers, but I didn’t study with him during my time at the San Francisco Art Institute. It is only through the house and the incredible exhibitions that have been happening there that I’ve grown to appreciate Ireland’s practice a bit — there’s something about the house as an object that does more to produce an appreciation of his practice. In a 2016 article about Wilmans’s purchase of the space, she talks about finding out about Ireland’s work not long before his passing and her purchase of the building. The place spoke to her in a way seeing a solo show in a gallery can’t. [note]“Wilmans toured 500 Capp St. on a Thursday in February that year. ‘I was so blown away by David’s ideas about art, the way art can be perceived and what art can mean to people,’ she says. ‘That’s when I thought, “Maybe I can do something?”’ First thing Monday, Wilmans called Hatch: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to buy David’s house.’” https://www.sfchronicle.com/style/article/Carlie-Wilmans-long-journey-to-500-Capp-Street-6759062.php)[/note]

Reynolds is quick to assert his and Hatch’s long association with Ireland, but Wilmans’s belated knowledge of the man and brave, spirited decision to buy the building is no less admirable. And the museum is indeed hers; she owns the thing and can do what she wants with it.

But I would like to think that something happens when a space such as this is shared with the public. We all become responsible for its success or failure via our support or lack thereof, not just financially, but through the acceptance of a space into our local cultural landscape. And the owners/operators of such a space, though legally not required to, should be answerable to the community.

By providing a slew of half-true reasons for an action which will have vast consequences for this space’s future — not to mention the livelihood of a person with a family suddenly out of a job — 500 Capp Street is letting the Bay Area down.

Wilmans is wholly absent from a serious, critical dialogue about what has happened: she had initially committed to a phone interview but backed out at the last minute, referring me back to Molloy and Reynolds. Similarly, at the show of support for Linder organized on the final day of the two current exhibitions, she “had promised in advance to be there to greet people, only to be a no-show. Reached by phone Saturday, Wilmans expressed surprise at the fallout. ‘I never expected it to be so vehement,’ the museum founder said.”

Something about the term “vehement” rubs me the wrong way (like having to say “laid off” despite having the hard-to-shake feeling of someone having been “fired”) — it implies those opposing the changes are being unreasonably angry. In her email to cancel our phone call, and after trying to justify Molloy and Reynolds as the sole spokespeople for the institution, she suggested that, “Moving forward, my hope is that you will join us in supporting Diego Villalobos in his continued position of Curator.” Unfortunately, since her email Monday, Villalobos has turned in his own resignation.

Moving forward will be hard. She, the rest of the board, and the director have done little to foster trust, to suggest that they have any interest in real transparency. Lacking a satisfactory explanation for their recent action, I can hardly be confident that it won’t be repeated.

Having tried for objectivity, I won’t now pretend I’m not angry, disappointed, and disheartened by this chain of events and its aftermath. I sent the following final email, which is rife with my displeasure, to Molloy, Reynolds, and Wilmans. It ends with a series of questions that I think sum up the problem with the story they’ve presented thus far. These questions are likely to remain unanswered (even if rephrased with less obvious disdain for the situation). Without concrete, honest engagement about what has happened, it is hard to imagine moving forward positively with this organization.

 

All,

I spoke to Cait Molloy who was generous enough to talk but stopped when the conversation drifted towards the board, which is fair. Obviously the issue at Capp is first and foremost something put forward by the board, so next I spoke with Jock Reynolds. He focused on the misinformation out there, which is fair, and on his history with David Ireland. He also kept saying 'I can take the heat, say what you will about me' — clearly set up to take the fall/tough questions and hide the real motivator for these decisions.

But not once have I questioned his or for that matter Ann Hatch's dedication to Ireland's legacy. And I recognize fully that Carlie Wilmans is the reason for the house existing in its current state, and for the programming thus far being funded. And I'm not herein interested in the facts regarding the controversy with the neighboring building.

Yet, as one of the most important contemporary art spaces operating in our depleted Bay Area, it is important that 500 Capp Street be forthcoming and honest with the community, and not simply hand off responsibility for being answerable from one person to another.

I'm left at an impasse — there's the story being offered by Molloy, Reynolds, and Wilmans which doesn't quite add up, and there's the speculation of the vast majority of informed artists, curators, collectors, and writers who have observed the goings on.

I have not interviewed a single detractor to the actions, trying first to talk to all the relevant parties at Capp Street first, exactly to avoid the factual mistakes that have plagued this story (not the least of which due to the shoddy public relations, lack of knowledge about what our scene cares about, and the avoidance of real, on the record, concrete public dialogue on the matter)

Still dissatisfied, at this point, the best I can do is offer up a final series of questions to the three of you and hope for answers. I'm available to talk anytime at --- --- ---- but would be happy for answers via email.

-  Are there minutes kept from the board meeting which would once and for all clarify the board's motivations?

-   Cait Molloy stated that she and the board are very proud of the programming thus far. If this is the case, and Carlie Wilmans social media posts about the shows are to be believed, were a change in order wouldn’t the curator of the successful program be logically given the chance to fit the renewed vision? Wouldn’t Linder be let go in a generous, equitable manner, with a decent wind-down (say, six months to complete his programs) and severance as warranted by his lauded performance?

-  Pretending for a moment this is the primary reason for Linder being let go, a need for a deeper focus on Ireland's vast catalog, was Linder given a chance to reimagine the program to suit?

-  If the curatorial work was the issue, why was the budget excuse also proffered? And vice versa: if the budget demanded Linder be let go, why mention the shadow detractors to the program?

-  When Cait Molloy spoke, she mentioned a figure of a 40,000 increase in the projected cost of exhibitions, now a few days later 100,000 is given as an unfunded amount, more than double. Yet when pressed about development and outreach for funds to the Bay Area art community, Jock Reynolds eventually said ‘well, it’s not really about the budget...’ before changing the subject.

Since the director, head of board, and sole funder are each at odds about the fiscal situation, maybe someone can clarify: if the board saw specific numbers indicating a shortfall forthcoming, were Bob Linder and the team given a specific opportunity to address this concern prior to the rash action of laying off the head curator of the program with little or notice and no severance?

-  Is it a simply a coincidence that leadership was handed off just as this second controversy arose?

-  When 500 Capp Street is being so purposefully obstructive of efforts to understand the release of the last curator, what confidence do we have that Diego won't find himself suddenly laid off without severance or notice next should he not toe the line?

-   This one isn’t a question, I just want to clarify something. Stating a series of facts, however true, as the reason for an action when they are not the reason is still a lie. So, when after the real decision had been made to release Bob Linder, whatever exciting new possibilities that you think of for the future are not the reason for his laying off.

This is made all the more obvious by the naivety of the ideas, like the half-thought of curatorial training, the leaning on silent (re: at best a silent minority) detractors, none of which I've been able to get to speak on or off the record etc. Even if these are legitimate, true ideas or claims, they are hardly the reason for laying off a curator successful by every metric he was given suddenly.