Tracing the engagement of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) with the region’s vital art community across the past five decades, the exhibition Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards (December 9, 2011, through April 3, 2012) marks the golden anniversary of the museum’s art interest group SECA (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art) and surveys for the first time works by a range of artists who have won SECA’s competitive award recognizing exceptional art made in the Bay Area.
In 1961 a council of SFMOMA supporters founded a collector’s club dedicated to educating its members about the most current art practices and helping the museum bring the newest art into the collection. Known as the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (or SECA), the group established its SECA Art Award in 1967. Since then, the award has become the group’s most visible initiative and remains one of the few and longest-running award exhibition programs dedicated to local artists at a modern art museum in the United States. The biennial award honors Bay Area artists at a relatively early stage in their careers with an exhibition at SFMOMA, an accompanying catalogue, and a modest cash prize. Two SFMOMA curators select thirty finalists and then visit the artists’ studios with the SECA group. The final section of up to four winners is made by SFMOMA curators.
Since its formation, SECA has recognized more than 150 local artists—often bringing much broader critical attention to their work and introducing them to the museum’s international audience. Further, the award and extensive selection process have provided a platform for hundreds more in the community to discuss and show their work not only to museum curators but also to a diverse group of arts professionals, collectors, and enthusiasts.
SFMOMA’s ongoing dedication to SECA award recipients can be seen in many ways throughout the museum’s collection. From commissioning a mural by 2004 SECA award recipient Rosana Castrillo Díaz for the walkway to SFMOMA’s Rooftop Garden, to selecting a painting by 2006 award winner Leslie Shows for the cover of the musem’s75th anniversary catalogue and prominently featuring an installation by 1996 award winner Barry McGee in the related 75th anniversary exhibition in 2010, SFMOMA has affirmed its long-term relationships with local artists in many ways through SECA, placing the group’s efforts in the foreground of the museum’s vision for the future.
“SECA has been an admirable force in the Bay Area art scene during the past 50 years and has evolved in tandem with the growing international profile of the museum itself,” says SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra. “The group consistently galvanizes SFMOMA’s commitment to the local art community and helps shape the understanding and appreciation of art practice in the region. We are thrilled to celebrate SECA’s crucial role in bringing the pulse of Bay Area art into the museum, where it has certainly influenced our exhibitions and collection activity.”
Exhibition Finds Throughlines and Affinities
Coorganized by SFMOMA assistant curators Alison Gass and Tanya Zimbardo and assembling some 60 works in various media created between 1960 and the present, Fifty Years of Bay Area Art offers the first-ever major overview of past award recipients. Arranged thematically rather than unfolding chronologically, the presentation reflects on loose clusters of works, identifying affinities among the artists and throughlines over the last five decades of the program.
The exhibition begins with a broad focus on place, marked by a narrower focus on this place. Works such as Bonnie Ora Sherk’s and Howard Levine’s temporary offsite portable parks (1970), Amy Franceschini’s citywide victory garden program (2006) and Rigo 23’s panoramic view of the redevelopment of South of Market area (1998) examine how SECA artists have responded to and intervened into the Bay Area’s urban landscape. The genre of landscape is further explored in works by Leslie Shows (2006) and Trevor Paglen (2008).
A gallery devoted to intimate-scaled works on paper includes documentation of Wayne E. Campbell’s 1971 SECA exhibition, in which he invited another man by the same name to exhibit instruction-based paintings and drawings alongside his own. Minimalism in sculpture practice and the use of quotidian materials link sculptures by John Beech (1992), Gay Outlaw (1998), and Mitzi Pederson (2006).
Abstract painting has been another core thread throughout the history of the program, from the pattern-based inquiries of Tauba Auerbach (2008) and the monochrome paintings of Anne Appleby (1996) and John Meyer (1990) to the meditative works of Laurie Reid (1998) and Kathryn Van Dyke (2000). Reflections on personal mythology and shared American cultural references arise in the work of William Allan (1969), John Bankston (2002), David Best (1977), and Desirée Holman (2008). And examinations of art-making in a digital era weave through works by Jim Campbell (1996), Kota Ezawa (2006), Chris Finley (1998), and Jordan Kantor (2008).
From Funk to Mission School, SECA has responded to some of the most exciting Bay Area cultural and stylistic movements over the years through its focus on individual achievement while reflecting within any given award year various strands of contemporary production.
Other featured artists in the exhibition include D-L Alvarez (1996), Nayland Blake (1990), Rebeca Bollinger (1996), Sarah Cain (2006), Squeak Carnwath (1980), Paul DeMarinis (1996), Rosana Castrillo Díaz (2004), Simon Evans (2004), Charles Garoian (1974), Mel Henderson (1967), Andrea Higgins (2002), Chris Johanson (2002), David Jones (1974), Hung Liu (1992), Barry McGee (1994), Rachael Neubauer (2000), Shaun O’Dell (2004), Maria Porges (1992), Will Rogan (2002), Bryan Rogers (1974), Josephine Taylor (2004), and Larry Thomas (1984), among others.
“In an era when many museums are becoming increasingly community centered, initiatives like SECA can be looked to as a model,” says Gass. “It has consistently helped bridge the activities happening within the museum’s walls and the changing culture beyond them. SFMOMA brings art in from everywhere to inspire the artists working here, but it’s equally important for local artists to see their work in dialogue with history as well. SECA ensures that this continues to happen.”
Comprehensive Historical Publication
The exhibition stems from a larger 50th anniversary book project edited by Gass and Zimbardo. The historical publication covers the full scope of the awards as well as the story of SECA’s layered development and the many educational activities it has sponsored. Whereas the exhibition features selected past award recipients, the book represents all SECA artists from 1967 through 2010, arranged chronologically by award year and accompanied by a work or installation view from their respective award exhibition. Descriptive quotes—from the artists themselves, former award curators, art journalists, and art professionals—further illuminate each artists work. New essays by Gass and Zimbardo look at the social history of SECA and its impact on artists, as well as resonances between artists and across genres.
According to Zimbardo, “One of the most valuable gains in looking at the SECA award exhibition history in its entirety is a fuller understanding of the ways in which several decades of Bay Area artists responded to showing in a museum setting at a given time, from expanding the scale of their work to creating site-specific installations.”
The book showcases other special awards the group periodically held in addition to the ongoing SECA Art Award, such as the SECA Vernal Equinox Special Award (1970 to 1973), SECA Film as Art Award (1973 to 1998), SECA Photography Invitationals (1980 and 1982), SECA Video Invitational and Award (1988 and 1992), SECA Electronic Media Award (1996), and SFMOMA Experimental Design Award (2001). Additional texts look at various projects the group has spearheaded through the years, elucidating the richness of their diverse activities.
Prior to establishing the SECA Art Award, the group organized ten national survey exhibitions of cutting-edge work between 1961 and 1966, contextualizing key Bay Area artists such as Nathan Oliveira, Peter Voulkos, and William T. Wiley with their contemporaries elsewhere. SECA has also supported the museum’s interest in performance work, such as Thai artist RikritTiravanija’s Untitled (Pad See-ew) dinner for 75 guests held at the museum in 2002; and the free public event Amorales v. Amorales (Challenge 2003), an epic wrestling match staged in SFMOMA’s atrium by Mexican artist Carlos Amorales.
SECA has recognized excellence in critical writing through its SECA Visiting Critics Fellowship program (1987 to 1992); mounted non-award exhibitions showcasing the strength of work in California, such as the legendary trip of six Visionary artists to the desert in Baja (1974); and facilitated a host of important museum acquisitions by leading contemporary artists over the years.
Besides administering its award program with the museum’s department of painting and sculpture, SECA serves as the museum’s liaison to the artist community year-round, regularly organizing educational opportunities and meeting with artists, gallerists, collectors, and curators. Across the Bay Area, collectors’ homes are filled with pieces they first encountered through SECA’s outreach. More information about SECA and the award process is available online at sfmoma.org/pages/interest_seca.
SECA Oral History and Interpretive Media
Reflecting SECA’s mission to foster direct dialogue with artists, Fifty Years of Bay Area Art will feature both in the galleries and online a selection of interpretive media drawn from oral history videos conducted with a cross-section of SECA award recipients, former curators, SECA chairmen, and community members. These video programs weave together voices to relate behind-the-scenes personal recollections and examine the award’s significance to artists and the broader community.
The SECA interviews were anticipated by SFMOMA’s larger oral history project on the occasion of the museum’s 75th anniversary in 2010, which chronicles SFMOMA’s evolution through video interviews capturing the observations and anecdotes of those who have been involved with the museum’s development firsthand.
Screenings at the museum on January 3 and 19 will feature selections from SFMOMA’s SECA Film As Art Award program (1973 to 1998), which recognized innovative and challenging new works by experimental filmmakers in Northern California such as Les Blank, James Broughton, and Bruce Conner, among many others. A screening on March 22 will focus on video works.
On Thursday evenings in February and March, a selection of past award recipients will discuss works by other artists currently on view at the museum as part of SFMOMA’s ongoing One-on-One series, in which a curator or specialist gives a 20-minute public talk in the galleries. Audio documentation of these talks will be highlighted on the museum’s blog Open Space at blog.sfmoma.org.
Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Major support is provided by the Graue Family Foundation.