Access Institute | Introducing 2017 Spectrum Honoree: Catharine Clark
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07 Sep Introducing 2017 Spectrum Honoree: Catharine Clark

Bart Magee recently sat down with Catharine Clark at her gallery for a conversation. Their wide-ranging talk covered art, society, politics, how San Francisco has changed during her lifetime and how a strong, supportive and generous community maintains hope and keeps moving forward. The full interview follows.

“I think about running the gallery as a creative act. I don’t know that everybody views gallerists that way. I use the gallery as a space in which my political concerns, my creative and visual art interests, even my love of dance, music and performance can intersect and unfold.” 

 

Bart Magee: You were born in San Francisco and you’ve seen a lot of changes.

Catharine Clark: I have. I was born shortly after the summer of love. So, we’re looking at 50.

B: That’s interesting, born after the summer of love.

CC: My parents came to San Francisco in the summer of ‘67 and my mom was told that I would be born in August. I wasn’t born until October, which is sort of funny because obviously the science was off a little bit. My dad came out to be a resident at UCSF. They drove across the country. My mom had just been in graduate school at Hunter College. She came here and worked initially as a substitute teacher and then as a full-time English teacher. We’ve spent our lives in the city.

B: What was it like growing up in San Francisco in the ‘70s?

CC: Besides the bell bottom pants and the tie dye sheets that I had in my bedroom? I think it was a pretty amazing environment to grow in for many, many reasons. One is that I had my parents to thank because they were deeply involved in the community of art and music in the Bay Area. We always had music in our home and we went to hear music and see art exhibitions with regularity. We all grew up with the privilege of learning how to play instruments. I took cello and piano lessons. We all were enrolled in art classes. There were many different places that offered them at that time, including the Fine Arts Museums, which in those days was the de Young in Golden Gate Park. There were also art classes at the San Francisco Zoo and of course through Ruth Asawa’s SF Arts Education Project. There were opportunities to learn to play through the Summer Music Workshop at Lowell High School. I enrolled thinking that I wanted to learn how to play the violin or the flute, and instead they handed me a cello, because that was what was available. It turned out to be a good fit for me to learn that instrument.

The ‘70s were a really rich time in terms of the arts in SF. Part of what was going on was the idea of art as an extension of the political conversation. That conversation in part had to do with the freedom of expression in a very broad sense and also an acknowledgement that creativity was an integral part of life. I was sad to see that through the ‘80s and a more conservative time in San Francisco and the country in general, that idea started to get whittled away. From my perspective, it seemed that it started with the gutting of arts education in the public schools post Prop. 13. Some of the changes were, I think, people’s reaction to what some people found objectionable about the politics of the 1970s from a social standpoint. I was incredibly fortunate, because I grew up in a community that was very accepting and there were people of all different persuasions and cultural backgrounds who were part of our community. That environment shaped who I am and who my siblings are and the kinds of things I wanted to do as an adult.

B: So it’s not surprising that you ended up in the arts. Didn’t you pursue dance first?

CC: Yes, I studied classical ballet throughout my childhood. I also did modern dance in college, and performed with and choreographed for Penn Dance Company. Ultimately, I ended up dancing for a contemporary company in Bologna, Italy—Morphe Danza Teatro. My siblings and I, and my parents, were really involved in the arts and continue to be. I think about running the gallery as a creative act. I don’t know that everybody views gallerists that way. I use the gallery as a space in which my political concerns, my creative and visual art interests, even my love of dance, music and performance can intersect and unfold. At my gallery we’ve found interesting ways to energize our programming through thinking expansively, beyond and in response to what’s going on in the visual art work. Some of that interest and attendant programming started early on. For example, I think maybe one of the reasons I was drawn to time-based media is because of my background in dance. Video and moving imagery felt like an extension of my interest in performance, in an idea unfolding across time.

Last year we began a program called Box Blur, which has facilitated supporting performance and ideas about performance into the gallery. Last year we commissioned a piece by Margaret Jenkins, and this year we are working with Eos Ensemble to perform Jeremy Turner’s score for Chris Doyle’s new video. I’m interested in showing and supporting work that is charged with ideas, often of a political nature, and also often with a fair amount of satire and wit, too. It’s not just didactic, you know, the politics of the work. I think about politics not as this thing external from ourselves and from artwork, but as something that’s integrated into who we are. I’m always looking for work where the politics of it are integrated into its form and content, the same way that politics are integrated into the way I live my life. I try to live my politics and exhibit work that is an extension of my beliefs and values. One of the ways that I have tried to have my gallery be a forum that is engaged with politics and reflect my values is by giving over the space for various types of social and political efforts. That has included Access Institute, and the San Francisco Arts Education Project, that I mentioned earlier. That has also included hosting readings, book signings, political fundraisers, theater pieces, music and other sorts of performances, meeting space, conversations, and more. Providing my gallery as a venue for these kinds of meaningful activities is something that I can do to serve and be in the community. Like, literally in the community. That’s important to me.

“I try to live my politics and exhibit work that is an extension of my beliefs and values. One of the ways that I have tried to have my gallery be a forum that is engaged with politics and reflect my values is by giving over the space for various types of social and political efforts. That has included Access Institute, and the San Francisco Arts Education Project, that I mentioned earlier. That has also included hosting readings, book signings, political fundraisers, theater pieces, music and other sorts of performances, meeting space, conversations, and more. Providing my gallery as a venue for these kinds of meaningful activities is something that I can do to serve and be in the community. Like, literally in the community. That’s important to me.”

B: I like the way you are talking about the artists that you show and the kind of art that you’re interested in, and the way it’s integrated -politics are integrated into it. It makes sense that you integrate your community involvement too. Social concerns are integrated into the gallery, which is unusual.

CC: I guess the downside is that my entire life is sort of one big blur between professional, personal, and political. It’s all mixed in.

B: Professional, personal, artistic, social. Right.

CC: I have poor boundaries. Oh well.

B: That has always struck me about the artists that you show and the work that you show, the voice is so strong. Like you say, it’s not often overt, but it’s so powerful. You have a group of artists that really have strong points of view.

CC: I think that’s absolutely true. That’s good. There was a woman who was in earlier who was talking about her experience growing up in Virginia. She is doing a play about her experience and she was saying that she was hoping that it would be performed at Kala in Berkeley and she was hoping that everyone who attends could bring somebody who, with that, who has a different political perspective from them. And I said, “You won’t have any audience here in the Bay Area.” I think that’s the hard part about living in this community. When we talk about inclusivity, are we really bringing people into the conversation who have different ideas than we do? I think we are able to do it sometimes, but I think it’s pretty hard to reach some of the audience who would perhaps most benefit from seeing the points of view being expressed by the artists. Maybe that’s also what’s wrong with America at the moment, there are few opportunities to bridge divergent views.

B: We’ve become more tribalized, right? People are just having conversations in their small groups and they’re not having the bigger conversations.

CC: Yeah, and I’m not sure how to do that. I always think about something Obama said when he was in conversation with the author Marilynne Robinson. He said for him, the reason that literature is so important is that it provides you with the opportunity to step inside someone else’s shoes and therefore allows us to experience empathy. We shouldn’t always be reading literature that entirely reinforces our own point of view. Empathy comes from embodying someone else’s experience.

B: I know you’ve been supporting Access Institute from the beginning, 15 years running.

CC: I was trying to think of when that first was, the gallery was in 49 Geary, so it was a long time ago.

B: It was one of our first events.

CC: Okay, yeah. We donated work from the beginning.

B: You did.

“I know that some of my artists have availed themselves of your services and I know also that just the fact that your organization exists is a symbol of something important. Your very existence becomes a symbol of a kind of possibility, that there is something available, someone available to listen and help. I think that’s deeply reassuring to people, myself included.”

 

B: My sense is that part of the reason you were interested from the start is because we work with artists.

CC: Absolutely, and it’s incredibly necessary.

B: And artists need the kind of services that we provide, so talk a little bit about relationships with artists, because clearly you know about what they need and their concerns.

CC: Let’s just face the fact that there is a paucity of services for people who aren’t in a position to pay for them – mental health services we’re talking about here. And that’s not just here, that’s everywhere. I was just talking to an artist, who has a niece who is gay and she is 12. She lives in Charlottesville and she is struggling because there are no resources for her to get support. My artist apparently called the LGBT Center and was told they don’t work with kids under the age of 14. Getting a therapist apparently involves a several week wait. The people we are talking about here have the resources to pay for services, and yet are still struggling with access. I found this story alarming. It just makes you all the more aware, of how a place like Access Institute is really, really important and the services you provide the community, critical and life-saving. I know that some of my artists have availed themselves of your services and I know also that just the fact that your organization exists is a symbol of something important. Your very existence becomes a symbol of a kind of possibility, that there is something available, someone available to listen and help. I think that’s deeply reassuring to people, myself included.

B: Just to know we’re there.

CC: Yeah. I know that you’ve heard very specifically from some of our artists how important it’s been. I think I’ve told you in the past that a number of the artists who’ve donated regularly to Access’s auction have said that generally they only give their work to arts organizations, but Access is one of the few non-arts organizations that they donate to regularly because your services are so important. I also think, and I don’t want to be reductive about creative people, but I’ve experienced it first-hand, that often creatives are more sensitive, and that’s part of the reason they’re able to absorb information that’s out in the world and reinterpret it into artwork for the rest of us to better understand an idea or experience. The level of sensitivity and perhaps empathy required to do that well can also mean feeling emotions more strongly, and the world and people in it, while often beautiful, can also be dark and oppressive at times. Being a mirror for all that is out there can be emotionally challenging and overwhelming. I see how artists need to be able to count on support, like that of Access, being available to them.

B: As an artist you may be more vulnerable in a certain way and, therefore, need to know that services are available.

CC: And I would even say that about collectors that I work with who collect the kind of work that we show in the gallery. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, and I never really quite thought about it that way until recently, but in the last few months with everything that’s been going on with Trump and so forth, many people have said to me that they feel like they are re-experiencing depression, that they’re worried, that the feel sad, unstable, full of anxiety in ways that I’ve never heard people express so overtly.

B: That makes sense. I would imagine that the people who are drawn to art, particularly the kind of art you’re showing, that’s, you know, really deep and meaningful, they’re going to be more emotionally open and sensitive.

“I don’t want to be reductive about creative people, but I’ve experienced it first-hand, that often creatives are more sensitive, and that’s part of the reason they’re able to absorb information that’s out in the world and reinterpret it into artwork for the rest of us to better understand an idea or experience. The level of sensitivity and perhaps empathy required to do that well can also mean feeling emotions more strongly, and the world and people in it, while often beautiful, can also be dark and oppressive at times. Being a mirror for all that is out there can be emotionally challenging and overwhelming. I see how artists need to be able to count on support, like that of Access, being available to them.”

B: As you’re talking, I keep thinking about this vision. I have this idyllic vision of when you grew up in San Francisco in the ‘70s. No, really, that it was this place where, like you were saying, where the arts were really supported as an essential part of what it means to be a human being and there are lots of  opportunities to engage in that and it’s also a place where there’s a healthy social safety net. And it’s almost like, I keep thinking about that in terms of that’s what we want to try to keep alive here, right? Both in terms of the arts community and the social service community.

CC: Absolutely. You asked me and I didn’t really answer, how San Francisco has changed. I don’t want to pretend that somehow I am the voice of knowing exactly how that is for everyone, but I think the ‘70s were a particular moment and while I talked about the very positive things, it was also a very violent period in San Francisco’s history. There were a lot of concerns about random violence in the streets.

B: The mayor was murdered and so was Harvey Milk.

CC: Right, and mayor Moscone lived right around the corner from my parents. When I was growing up there were kids being abducted. I remember my father, who is 6 foot 7, and my mom used to be afraid when he would walk the dog at night. There were these random Zebra killers. Also, my father was a professor at UCSF, and there were scientists receiving packages from the Unabomber, which maimed or killed the recipients. We were never allowed to open packages that arrived at our house until my parents were home. So I will say 1970s San Francisco was not just a positive environment, there also was this pervasive sense of unease.

B: Ok, you just blew my idyllic vision.

CC: Sorry!

“I feel like it would be really difficult to start a gallery in San Francisco in the way that I was able to in the early ‘90s. It’s not like I had a huge amount of money or anything like that. I worked a full-time job, but there were neighborhoods that were depressed enough that rents were cheap enough that you could go in and do something that was experimental and you could be young and make mistakes and still figure out how to pay your rent at the end of the day.”

B: But it’s the reality, that’s right.  There were both sides of it, weren’t there?

CC: That’s right, and part of the reason that I bring it up is that it made the art part of it more important, I think. Not to suggest that art’s role is to be therapeutic, but it’s certainly played a therapeutic role in allowing us a place to escape and reflect. These things are very connected for me. There were obviously many ups and downs through the ‘80s too, certainly come mid-80s, the city was hit so hard by AIDS.

B: And it hit the arts community.

CC: Yes, the arts community was hugely impacted. I was gone from the city from about ‘85-‘89, when I was in Philadelphia for college. When I returned, places I had spent time in, like The Castro, had gone from a neighborhood that was full of life to one where people were walking around literally just completely emaciated. It was a really sad time for the city.

I started my gallery in 1991. I worked with some artists who had AIDS and were living under the assumption that their lives were not going to go on that much longer. One artist in particular was very involved with Act Up and my gallery at the time was in Hayes Valley and the Act Up offices were nearby. I remember he asked me if I would be the executor of his estate and if I would make sure that his body…this may be too grim for an interview, but I’m just telling you…would be cremated and made into bricks and he wanted the bricks to be divided up and given to three organizations. He wanted a third of them to go to Act Up so that they could literally put bricks of his body through politician’s windows who were not supportive of legislation to bring an end to the disease. And then for the gallery to have a third to be able to continue to sell his work, and the third was going to a non-profit. I went and visited him in the hospital and his work was very much about HIV transmission and so forth, and then he got on the HIV drug cocktail and he’s still alive to this day. At the time, he had sold all of his things, he’d sold his house, etc. His story was not unique. It was a very peculiar time to enter the art world on a lot of different levels.

B: I can imagine.

“I think we all have to be very conscious of and think about how to advocate for people that we would like to have remain here. I also think we have to figure out, with the kind of wealth that is here, how to solve some of the problems not just around the retention of the creative class, but also around the services and housing for the homeless.”

CC: So again, what do I see that’s different about San Francisco? I feel like it would be really difficult to start a gallery in San Francisco in the way that I was able to in the early ‘90s. It’s not like I had a huge amount of money or anything like that in order to open a gallery. I worked a full-time job to support my space, but at that time, there were neighborhoods that were depressed enough that rents were cheap and you could go in and do something that was experimental, you could be young and make mistakes and still figure out how to pay your rent at the end of the day.

B: And take the time to develop a clientele that was interested in that work, right?

CC: In the beginning I didn’t even think about that. I was living very much in the moment and thinking about artists that I met and knew in San Francisco and how I could present their work, because that seemed like something exciting, important and meaningful to do. I’m glad that a $300 per month rent was something that actually existed in those days to make that kind of thing possible. And while of course we’re all glad to see that people are living well in San Francisco, or at least one segment of the population is living well, I do feel like the creative class here has been unduly hit by changes to the economy that make it prohibitive to live here as an artist.

B: Yeah, you were telling me about artists who were having to decamp to places like Albuquerque or a long way away.

CC: Yeah, and I will say that when I moved to the space I’m in now in 2013, that the art community in general was a lot more depressed about what the character of San Francisco was going to be with the attrition of creatives from the city and galleries from the city. I think endeavors like Minnesota Street Project and other efforts have helped to make people more optimistic again and have solved some problems of space for some artists and galleries, but more needs to be done. I think the problem of affordable space is still something we need to be incredibly aware of, right? The city doesn’t get to automatically keep its alternative culture.

B: I was going to say counterculture. How do you have a counterculture in a gold-plated city?

CC: I think we all have to be very conscious of and think about how to advocate for people that we would like to have remain here. I also think we have to figure out, with the kind of wealth that is here, how to solve some of the problems not just around the retention of the creative class, but also around the services and housing for the homeless.

B: Yeah, I was going to ask, what do you see as our major social problems?

CC: People say that homelessness is not necessarily worse than it was, I don’t know that that’s true, but it’s certainly more visible than it’s ever been. I’m told by friends of mine who work deeply in those communities that the real face of homelessness is actually the face that you aren’t seeing in the tent, that they are the people who are actually showing up to jobs, but sleeping in a car and who aren’t addicted to drugs, but people who may have low wage positions, who have lost their homes or leases, or have a sick family member.

B: Or are couch surfing. We see people in our clinic people that are in that category. They’re just barely hanging on by a thread. Maybe staying with a friend and then moving to a different place.

CC: I’m grateful that you’re treating that community. We need to figure this problem out. I think a lot of doing so involves wider acceptance about mental health issues as a condition that needs to be covered for by insurance companies, by our health care system, by employers, etc.

B: More resources.

CC: More resources and more education. I think that it’s easy to become apathetic or even callous to people who are down on their luck because of the inconvenience that it seems when there’s a tent pitched in your parking space or there’s somebody in your way as you’re walking down the street.

B: I think education gets to the need for earlier intervention, too. If people are educated about the need, perhaps they can get help before they’re in a tent in your parking space.

“I’m told by friends of mine who work deeply in those communities that the real face of homelessness is actually the face that you aren’t seeing in the tent, that they are the people who are actually showing up to jobs, but sleeping in a car and who aren’t addicted to drugs, but people who may have low wage positions, who have lost their homes or leases, or have a sick family member.”

CC: How do you stay so good natured about everything?

B: How do I stay good natured?

CC: Yeah, you always seem so positive.

B: I think it’s just being, I mean, doing what I’m doing. If I can help even a little bit then I can stay positive. I think that keeps you from being hopeless. It’s not easy trying to figure out the things that people can actually do. There are multiple things and how do you actually follow through with that? If you do, it actually helps you feel better.

CC: Yeah, I think that’s true.

B: You’re making, even if it’s a small impact, you’re making some impact. And then if we collectively all make those little impacts then the world gets better and that keeps me hopeful.

CC: I think, in general, the arc of social justice is forward. It just feels like a really bad backwards step at the moment.

B: I think sometimes you do have to have these moments where it wakes people up to “oh yeah, no, no, this just doesn’t happen on its own.” Progress doesn’t happen on its own and there are backlashes and you have to do the work.

CC: Someone was saying to me that maybe in some weird way and as negative as our current political climate is, it is good because it’s awakened us to our complacency. That it’s not like racism was gone, it was less visible. Now that it’s been given a voice and permission in a way that it hadn’t for a long time, it reminds us of that and that there’s still work to do to fight it.

B: Agreed.

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