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Regional Interests

SFMOMA’s Cuts to Film, Other Programs Cause Widespread Outrage

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s July 21 Board of Trustees Public “Sunshine” Meeting might have seemed typical at first. Over Zoom, board chair Robert J. Fisher, director Neal Benezra and curator Janet Bishop gave updates on the museum’s post-shelter-in-place rebound, discussing efforts to boost attendance to pre-pandemic levels and refresh exhibitions.

But once the meeting opened to public comment, the queue filled up with concerned workers, artists, educators and fans. For the meeting’s remaining 40 minutes, each of the nearly two dozen commenters lamented and railed against the SFMOMA’s latest program cuts. Some pleaded with leadership to reinstate the programs, while others slammed the museum director and board with words like “shameful,” “ridiculous” and “insult to art.”

Emotions around SFMOMA have run high since last week, when SFMOMA leadership announced plans to discontinue several beloved programs.

The museum will close its long-running film program, which established San Francisco as an international center for experimental cinema upon its opening in 1937, and the Artists Gallery, open since 1946, with its art lending and sales program that 200 artists currently rely upon for income. Also on the museum’s “sunset” list are Open Space, an online publication that pays local artists and writers competitive rates in a thinning arts media landscape; the Raw Material podcast (which will be reimagined as an “audio zine”); and the SFMOMA store in the San Francisco International Airport.

“I ask you why must the drive to bring new audiences into SFMOMA be in opposition to putting forth these programs that have critical, boundary-pushing aims?” asked an artist and SFMOMA employee who identified herself only as Tamara. “Why must we close programs that have fairly paid artists and brought them together for years? Why must we close programs that have showed SFMOMA how to develop meaningful community relationships that exist far beyond the measures of a survey? And why ultimately become irrelevant to and alienate this core audience of people who love the art community here, people who believe in SFMOMA, people who long hoped that SFMOMA would live up to declared values?”

Other speakers who echoed these sentiments included Adam Piron of the Sundance Film Festival; Christopher Harris, head of video and film production at the University of Iowa; Maxe Crandall, associate director of feminist, gender and sexuality studies at Stanford; Tauba Auerbach, an artist whose next exhibition will open at SFMOMA this December; and SFMOMA’s film program manager, Gina Basso.

In all, the museum is cutting seven staff positions. But beyond the immediate layoffs, the cuts represent a major loss for an already-struggling and under-resourced local art scene. In interviews with KQED, 10 artists, museum-goers, educators and employees (both former and current) expressed outrage and grief over the museum’s removal of programs that directly engaged with the surrounding community. Amid the ongoing pandemic and San Francisco’s notoriously high cost of living, this loss of spaces that foster culture and commission new work continues a trend of shrinking opportunities in the arts.

In a statement to KQED, SFMOMA leadership attributed its decisions to declining attendance. Yet in an internal email sent to the staff, SFMOMA director Neal Benezra wrote that financial savings from the cuts are “minimal at best,” explaining that “the strategic refresh reflects our need to shift current capacity and resources towards the programs and activities that will attract and engage a broader range of audiences to the museum.”

But to many of the people interviewed for this story, SFMOMA’s decision to get rid of programs that most closely interacted with diverse artist communities in the Bay Area appeared to contradict the institution’s stated values—especially after the museum’s public racial reckoning just last year.

“I think that deep down these cuts are not about the 2020-21 economic conditions. I think this is an effect of the business logic of the super-sized SFMOMA,” says Dominic Willsdon, SFMOMA’s former curator of education and public practice, in an email to KQED.

“By 2017, it was already clear that the new SFMOMA would be a bigger building with a smaller, more homogeneous range of programming,” Willsdon adds, referring to the museum’s expansion in 2014-2016. “Film, performance, writing and scholarship have all been reduced or eliminated. The expanded SFMOMA has so far proved to be a harsh environment for programming centered on engagement. Art museums should be havens for forms of expression and dialogue that struggle under prevailing economic and cultural conditions. I hope SFMOMA can become that kind of space.”

A slide from SFMOMA’s July 21 Board of Trustees meeting with an update on the museum’s financial picture. (SFMOMA)

Another setback for San Francisco’s film scene

The loss of SFMOMA’s film program constitutes a devastating loss for a local film scene that has been in decline for at least 10 years. In 2018, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts laid off its film curator and put that program on hiatus. And over the last decade, historic theaters such as the Red Vic, the Clay Theatre and West Portal CineArts shut their doors.

“It’s hard to look at the future and think what a place like SFMOMA could mean without the projectors going on,” says Gina Basso, the manager of SFMOMA’s film program, whose position is being eliminated in the latest cuts. “A lot of the experimental or noncommercial filmmakers don’t have distribution channels. They’re often self-promoting their work. … They don’t have a whole lot of financial backing or institutional backing.”

As SFMOMA’s chief film curator since 2017, Basso prioritized diverse filmmakers and often partnered with other local institutions. In collaboration with SFFILM, SFMOMA’s Black Powers film series in 2018 spotlighted decades of African American filmmaking. And in 2019, with the help of the San Francisco Public Library, SFMOMA screened an international film series of gothic films by women filmmakers called Haunted! Both series drew a diverse, intergenerational public and generated lively discussions, Basso remembers—something she would have liked to continue now that pandemic lockdowns have lifted.

Basso considered it her duty to continue the legacy of the first SFMOMA director, Grace McCann Morley, who made film an integral part of the museum in the 1930s after it first opened, and Frank Stauffacher, whose Art and Cinema series turned the Bay Area into an avant-garde film destination in the 1940s. In addition, Basso wanted to support the “fragile ecosystem” of contemporary local filmmakers and enthusiasts.

“There’s a lot of real interesting voices and perspectives and curiosity and critique that runs through experimental film and avant-garde film, and that has always been a spirit of pushing the boundary of the medium or the topic,” she says. “Now is the time to embrace it and not to shutter the doors.”

SFMOMA. (Henrik Kam)

“It’s really hard to be presenting this kind of work in San Francisco right now,” says Steve Polta, the director of San Francisco Cinematheque, which presented its annual Crossroads festival at SFMOMA and has collaborated with the museum since 2006. “It’s rough because SFMOMA really put a spotlight on Crossroads, and helped us be internationally recognized.”

Polta says SFMOMA cutting its film program means local filmmakers are losing a crucial platform in a city where it’s already incredibly difficult to make it as an artist. “The people that are connected with the film program seem to be the most connected to what I would call a grassroots Bay Area artist community,” he says.

The film program was able to maintain those connections to dedicated staffers like Basso, her predecessors Dominic Willsdon and Frank Smigiel, and lead projectionist Paul Clipson, who died unexpectedly in 2018. A renowned experimental filmmaker who began working at the museum in 1997, Clipson loved to share his passion and expertise in the artform, helping foster a tight-knit community among the film program’s audience, artists and staff.

“Hearing that they’re cutting the programs that, in my opinion, have given the museum the most soul because they come from the employees, [a lot of whom] are themselves artists and participate in this larger film and music scene in the Bay Area—it just makes me feel like the museum is saying ‘We’re basically just an asset repository for our rich donors,'” says Clipson’s daughter Anya Kamenskaya, calling the cuts “disappointing and shameful.”

That community atmosphere had already suffered during the pandemic, when the museum laid off or furloughed over 300 employees in 2020. (Twenty employees have since returned, SFMOMA says.) The recent cuts have only eroded it further, says one SFMOMA employee who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing his job.

“There’s been a lot of a lot of people leaving, I think, as a result of the direction people perceive the museum going,” he says. “And that’s from all levels: middle management, curatorial staff and union staff as well.”

On Wednesday, the Contemporary Jewish Museum announced that Chad Coerver, SFMOMA’s Chief Education and Community Engagement Officer, has been named the CJM’s new executive director. Coerver, who oversaw both Open Space and Raw Material, will leave SFMOMA and start his new role in September.

“I would say overall that the morale is a little low,” the anonymous employee adds.

Other employees who spoke at the Board of Trustees meeting criticized the museum in even stronger words.

“I have worked endlessly this past year to maintain relationships ruined last summer by this museum, and this blow is devastating,” Stella Lochman, SFMOMA’s manager of community engagement, said in public comment. She appeared to refer to the racism scandal that publicly rocked the museum last year, and comments made by SFMOMA’s senior curator Gary Garrels about “reverse discrimination” against white, male artists, resulting in his eventual resignation.

“It will take years to rebuild trust in the artist community,” added Lochman, “if it ever comes back at all.”

Closing avenues for local artists

Beyond the film program, the museum’s other cuts affect SFMOMA’s entryways into the Bay Area’s large community of practicing visual artists. Over 200 artists relied on the Artists Gallery for a portion of their income through rentals and sales. And online publication Open Space commissioned new works at competitive rates, publishing articles, essays, photography, poetry and other writing by diverse artists, many of whom hail from communities of color that have been historically excluded by white-led art institutions. (Disclosure: I wrote a freelance article for Open Space in 2017.)

The Artists Gallery allowed San Francisco painter Scott “Tofu” St. John to get his work into tech offices and multimillion-dollar homes in exclusive neighborhoods, and provided reliable income that enabled him to make ends meet and continue creating art. At a time when prestigious Union Square galleries take safe bets on established artists, “I can’t think of another gallery of that caliber that was an entree for artists like me to connect with higher-end clients,” says St. John. “It’s too bad, it was something vitally useful for local artists.”

The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Atrium at SFMOMA. (Photo: © Iwan Baan, Courtesy SFMOMA)

For artist and former SFMOMA employee Melissa Saenz Gordon, a San Francisco native now living in New York, Open Space’s hundreds of commissions from artists like the collective ARTS.BLACK showed an investment in the community often lacking in other branches of the museum. “I don’t necessarily think people in the Bay Area would think the SFMOMA is committed to the local art scene at all, but it did have these pockets that nurtured it and facilitated that connection,” she says.

In 2016, Open Space editors Claudia La Rocco and Gordon Faylor invited Saenz Gordon to contribute a photo essay called “Te Aprecio: The Yay Area,” where she shared snapshots of her childhood home, the pub where her dad used to bartend, a drag show at a now-closed bar, the Oscar Grant protests and Dia De Los Muertos celebrations. “Me having been born and raised in San Francisco, I really appreciated that space to be able to share my story as a photographer and mixed-media artist,” she says. “It’s awesome to have that freedom. It’s rare to be given that and then paid for it; it was pretty special.”

Saenz Gordon similarly praised the Raw Material podcast, produced by Erin Fleming. “They invited audio producers and audio artists to create these works. So, again, it’s bringing in new voices, new energy into the SFMOMA space,” she says, adding that Raw Material‘s latest call for submissions in April invited pitches about interconnectivity, access and kinship in the Black community.

Sustaining such forward-thinking programs “requires the institution to invest in these things and to be forward-thinking,” says artist and former SFMOMA employee Lor O’Connor, who also contributed to Open Space. “And I don’t think that staff, no matter how creative they are, can do that without the support of the administrators and the board.”

At the Board of Trustees meeting, Adam Piron, the associate director of the Indigenous program at the Sundance Institute, called the cancelation of the film program and Open Space, which featured writing by Indigenous authors, “a betrayal of San Francisco’s film history as well as the Indigenous community.”

“Are you really telling the Bay Area that you spent the last year and a half forging diversity, equity and inclusion committees, to then eliminate the three most diverse and accessible programs that foster a sense of connection and support for local artists?” asked artist Lindsey White, an associate professor and photography department chair at the San Francisco Art Institute. “A museum is more than a collection of objects. It is a pillar, an ideal, a place that extends beyond itself and has a responsibility to its community.”

In the wake of Wednesday’s board meeting, workers, artists and museum patrons continue to organize: a Change.org petition opposing the cuts is circulating on social media and has been shared by prominent figures like author Rebecca Solnit. And on Saturday morning, a demonstration is planned at 9:30am outside of SFMOMA.

“[The museum] made these decisions unilaterally without talking to their staff,” says White in a separate interview. “It’s important for SFMOMA to be held accountable for making these kinds of choices.”

Copyright 2021 KQED