By Glori Simmons, Director of the Thacher Gallery at the University of San Francisco
Installation view of The future now, Related Tactics, 2020, from the exhibition, Become The Monuments That Cannot Fall (photo courtesy of the University of San Francisco)
Statutes of Liberty, Antwan “Banks” Williams, 2020, from the exhibition, A Matter of Liberation: Artwork from Prison Renaissance, 2020
DeJon, Eddie Herena, from the exhibition, A Matter of Liberation: Artwork from Prison Renaissance, 2018
Poster detail from The future now, Related Tactics, 2020, from the exhibition, Become The Monuments That Cannot Fall
Woman #1, Adam Chin, 202, from the exhibition, Pulled Apart
East Mojave: Inoperative Devices, Cynthia Hooper, 2004, from the exhibition, Pulled Apart
Chalk Mandala, Nell Herbert, 2020, from Thacher Art Hour, led by gallery manager Nell Herbert
Gee’s Bend Projects, 2020, from Thacher Art Hour, led by USF student Somer Taylor
“How will you be different when the masks come off?”
-Related Tactics, The future now
The University of San Francisco’s Thacher Gallery is a public art gallery at the heart of the Gleeson Library-Geschke Center. We present five exhibitions per year, featuring California artists and collections. Our mission is to bring creativity, scholarship and community together, and our location—its function as a crossroads—has always been key to this.
Like everyone, we have missed the intended and unintended encounters that occur in our physical location. As we prepare for our return to this space after more than a year away, Related Tactics’ question of transformation resonates for us. The masks may remain for a while longer, but we have all changed, and so have our approaches at the Thacher Gallery. Uncertainty has taught us to slow down and given us distance to value the new relationships we have forged, and dislocation to re-examine our connections to the communities beyond our walls.
From the beginning of the pandemic, we understood that art was essential, and that our role as a gallery was to find ways that art could support the University’s pivot to distance learning and working from home. We developed Art Hour, an informal artmaking workshop via Zoom, to bring college students, university staff, and isolated community members together. Our early projects included sidewalk murals and handmade posters thanking essential workers. Depending on the day, it has been a place where friends meet up, curious students try their hands at a new skill, and working parents and their children take a break together. While we look forward to adapting this program once we are back, what won’t change is the sense of experimentation, acceptance, and community that these sessions provide.
Like our counterparts at Jesuit college and university museum galleries, we have shifted to online exhibitions and programs. The gallery’s guiding theme for the 2020-21 academic year has been the examination of systems, seen and unseen, which has also inspired the gallery to take a look at its own structure and strategies. With each exhibition, we have discovered new places for art beyond the gallery walls we so miss, and the importance of keeping these walls permeable in order to respond to the cultural moment.
Under the leadership of curator Antwan “Banks” Williams, A Matter of Liberation: Artwork from Prison Renaissance went on display from August through November 2020. This virtual exhibition gave voice to artists who had lived or were living hidden from society behind the high fences of California prisons. The public conversations were frank and intimate, centering the artists’ voices to define liberation. Gallery manager Nell Herbert created a tour that we brought into thirteen virtual classes, reaching nearly 250 students. After a summer defined by police violence and racial reckoning, these tours became listening sessions, and the exhibition a way for students to begin to unravel elements of systemic racism and its link to prison. The artworks and interviews from Prison Renaissance made these sensitive conversations more immediate, while allowing for individual interpretation and understanding: the art met the students where they were.
For our next exhibition, Become The Monuments That Cannot Fall, we continued with our usual model of collaboration, this time with a cohort of Museum Studies graduate students, led by curator and instructor, Astria Suparak, and the art collective, Related Tactics. Through collective member Nathan Watson, Related Tactics worked directly with his neighborhood of Bayview, an historically Black district of San Francisco, that has also been home to the Yelamu and Ramaytush Ohlone, a Chinese shrimping settlement, and African American shipyard workers. Related Tactics created colorful posters with meditations that linked the violence of last summer, including George Floyd’s death, with the neighborhood’s past experiences with redlining and police brutality. The posters (printed in Chinese, English and Spanish) were exhibited in the windows of fourteen businesses and residences along a one-mile stretch of Third Street, visible to passersby. Like the words that begin this article, the messages suggest remembrance and healing. With this project, Related Tactics shifted their own tactics, as well as the Gallery’s, expanding the exhibition from a survey of past work to include a site-responsive installation that brought us outside of our walls.
Inspired by these experiences, we are continuing these efforts to reach beyond our usual audience and collaborators this spring. Partnering with the University’s new engineering program, our current exhibition, Pulled Apart, has paired artists with USF engineers for content and public conversations. These exchanges have benefited the artists, engineers and students, helping to break down the barriers between STEM disciplines and the arts. The student organizers of our annual junior and senior art showcase are using humor to encourage self-reflection and self-expression during these times with their prompt: “unmute yourself.”
In these past twelve months, the Gallery’s programs have led us beyond the our white walls and double doors to the gates of San Quentin State Prison and the storefronts of San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, into the technical realms of the University’s new Engineering program, and the kitchens and living rooms of our own students. This is a privilege and intimacy we do not take lightly.
What could have been a year defined by distance and disconnection, has instead become a year of nonstop conversation and relationship-building, focused on the question: How will we be different when our masks come off? We will be patient with the unknown and seek its opportunities. We will let the outside in and the inside out. We will slow down, ask questions, and listen to what our students and visitors need.
In one of Related Tactics’ posters, the collective offers this message that will also be our guide as we move forward: Take time to pause, heal, and rest. Do not mistake this for giving in or letting up.