Take a Stand with SOMArts
By SF/Arts Editors
SF/Arts talks to SOMArts Executive Director Maria Jenson about some of the challenges the organization faces during these uncertain times. Maria is recognized and respected in the Bay Area arts community as a leader who advances innovative strategies to serve creative communities.
A few short months ago, SOMArts was looking forward to a productive 2020, following a landmark 40th anniversary year celebrated by the unique cultural center. As things took a turn, the innovative SOMArts team replaced a major live April fundraiser with a virtual online event - a June 20 Virtual Summer Solstice to be precise - and have now undertaken an additional pivot to support causes related to the recent death of George Floyd.
SFAM: You came to SOMArts four years ago after an impressive stint with SFMOMA as a key member of the External Relations team during the museum's expansion. Tell us a little about your new life working in a very different arts organization.
MJ: I actually started at SOMArts a couple of days after SFMOMA reopened following its big expansion. I was excited to have the opportunity to work more closely with artists in the community here at SOMArts while bringing to the table strategies learned from a major institute.
SFAM: Quite different from the state-of-the-art SFMOMA 21st Century building, SOMArts' industrial property is a San Francisco historical landmark.
MJ: The 1920s industrial building here on Brannan Street is very connected historically to arts and culture in San Francisco over the decades. As it was formerly a shipbuilding warehouse, it features a great open space and very high ceilings making it ideal for large projects. The very first prototype of the actual Burning Man was exhibited there.
SFAM: SOMArts is probably best known for the expansive and inclusive Dia de Los Muertos annual exhibition that has become a beloved San Francisco tradition. The group exhibition model seems to have become your signature?
MJ: Yes, in fact Dia de Los Muertos - started by the great artist and activist Rene Yanez 20 years ago - was the first of our major recurring exhibitions featuring multiple artists. We have since added more with this kind of framework, including the recent "The Black Woman is God: Assembly of Gods," an exhibit celebrating the Black female. That show featured more than 60 Black women artists from around the Bay. Group shows offer the inclusivity and access to all that we strive for, and pride ourselves on offering.
SFAM: In addition to exhibition gallery space, SOMArts (in normal times) offers classes in studios reserved for ceramics, printmaking, photography. Has it been a challenge to keep these programs affordable to the public?
MJ: Our biggest supporter is the San Francisco Arts Commission and our mandate is to provide accessible arts opportunities for everyone across the spectrum, so we have managed to keep our classes, workshops and programs free of charge. From time to time we have ticketed events but no-one is ever turned away due to lack of funds.
SFAM: That brings us to the important matter of your upcoming June 20th virtual fundraiser that replaces SOMArts' annual spring fundraiser. Tell us about the necessary changes you've made to produce such a vibrant and meaningful event.
MJ: The organization is facing a loss of at least $45,000 which severely impacts SOMArts' ability to continue to provide the kind of mentorship, space, and stipends that artists rely on. The April 11 fundraiser was to be a very intersectional production featuring a variety of curators and artists. We made the decision to cancel on March 10 as we didn't know what direction COVID-19 was headed. The theme was to be 'Lush,' inspired by the gardens created here by Rene Yanez. It was an effort to present something hopeful in these dystopic times. The 'Please Stand By: We are Transcending Difficulties Together' theme of this virtual event is a nod to the interruption we are all experiencing. Our creative team came up with the wonderful imagery that is reminiscent of an old television test card used during broadcasting interruptions.
SFAM: Your campaign has taken another turn due to recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd, and perhaps as well as asking us to 'Please Stand By' SOMArts is now also asking for us to Please Stand Up?
MJ: I had many sleepless nights feeling like we really are on the brink. I felt the need for us to take a stand but to do more than support a cry for action. It's time for us to be the action. So we decided we will donate more than half of what we raise to the George Floyd Memorial Fund, or Black Vision Collective. This is akin to a war effort and we have to understand that radical times take radical measures.
At the end of the day, we are grateful that art - and our artists particularly - can help remind people what democracy looks like. As we can see, it's problematic when people are not learning about each other. We need to continue to access to each other through arts and culture.
SOMArts' The Black Woman is God: Assembly of Gods exhibit. Photo by Nye Lyn Tho.
SOMArts Executive Director Maria Jenson
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