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Street was not canceled — yet in the wake of Linder’s departure, all but one artist in upcoming shows I know of have withdrawn their work, and the two artists with work currently on display asked that their exhibitions be canceled immediately, a request the organization is honoring.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 Molloy 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.