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Is Art Essential?

On the Occasion of the 2022 Soapbox Derby at McLaren Park

by , March 2022

On Thursday, March 5, 2020, my department, SFMOMA’s Public Engagement, hosted a gallery talk for the 2019 SECA exhibition with artists Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Sahar Khoury, and Marlon Mullen. I remember awkwardly elbow bumping friends and colleagues, as handshakes seemed off limits since there was no clear guidance on how to avoid COVID-19. At the mixer after the tour, visitors, artists, and staff sipped wine and casually chatted in the Koret Education Center, not knowing that it would be another year and a half before we held another in-person public program at SFMOMA.

The pandemic made gathering — the very thing we do in public programs — harmful, perhaps even deadly. We sheltered in place. We socially distanced. We wore masks. We waited for updates from Dr. Anthony Fauci. We baked sourdough bread and kept green onions alive in mason jars. We met on Zoom, taught our children on Zoom, celebrated holidays on Zoom, and grieved on Zoom. We launched public programs on Zoom. The museum closed for a total of ten months after shelter in place went into effect in San Francisco, and finally reopened in March 2021.

While the heroic efforts of museum staff during this time cannot be overstated, the impact of the museum closure was devastating. Despite relief measures such as the government’s Paycheck Protection Program loan, by the end of the first month of the pandemic SFMOMA laid off, furloughed, or reduced the hours of more than 60% of its staff. In June 2020, the museum laid off fifty-five more employees, including a member of my small team. Museums across the country made similar decisions as they dealt with prolonged closures. A third round of cuts last year eliminated positions and longstanding, beloved programs: Film, Open Space, and the SFMOMA Artists Gallery. The Koret Education Center — a mothership for Education and Public Engagement programs — usually packed with students on weekdays pre-pandemic, became a break space for front-line staff, as school and public tours were put on indefinite hold.

It is painful, demoralizing, and heartbreaking to say goodbye to colleagues and friends, some of whom had worked for the museum for decades. While museums struggled to stay relevant, the murder of George Floyd became an inflection point for the systemic injustices in the United States, especially for Black lives. As institutions and corporations scrambled for responses, silence became a marker of complicity in the broader cultural discourse. SFMOMA’s censorship of former staff member Taylor Brandon on social media triggered a public reckoning on racial justice at this museum and museums nationwide. It is the current chapter in a decades-long fight for institutional change started by artists and activists. The struggle for equity and the elimination of programs created a further rupture between the local artist community and SFMOMA. In Public Engagement, we began the hard work of repair and rebuilding trust. The Soapbox Derby is one part of this ongoing work of outreach.

Is there still a museum if the museum is closed? Are art and museums still important when we are prioritizing survival? Two years into the pandemic, it is time to recalibrate. Museums, historically dedicated to the care and display of artwork, can be spaces for social connection, learning, and healing. They can also be spaces for radical possibility, because artists uncover truths, transcend boundaries, and open new lines of inquiry. So why a soapbox derby? In the words of Henry T. Hopkins, museum director at the time of the first two races, “The Derby is exciting, it’s funny, people have a good time, and there’s art in the vehicles, in the trophies, in the crowd, and in the unfolding of each minute as the day progresses.” After spending so much time away from the museum’s galleries, there is a realization that if we can’t be inside the space where we expect art to be, we need to bring the art to where we can be. We need joy, we need irreverence, and we need to be together. The task of organizing a third soapbox derby is no small feat. Led by the indefatigable manager of Public Engagement, Stella Lochman, the event involves over one hundred artists and organizations; community outreach to neighborhood groups in southern San Francisco; partnership development with the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and SF Parks Alliance; and support of our corporate sponsors, The North Face, Cruise, and Bank of America. The 2022 derby at McLaren Park is a remix from the 1970s that celebrates the diversity of artistic expression in the San Francisco Bay Area today, and anyone can attend for free. This day-long, all-ages event is the result of numerous hours of efforts of over fifty museum staff, whose contributions are listed below.

Yes, we are doing this for the artists and for the public, but we are also doing this, perhaps selfishly, for ourselves. As cultural workers at SFMOMA, we need something to excite us, to give us a renewed sense of purpose. On Sunday, April 10, 2022, we will all gather in McLaren Park to witness the human capacity for imagination and creativity and our resilience as a community. Art is not just in a white cube; it can be a car made of bread that disintegrates halfway down a hill on Shelley Drive. Art can be anywhere and everywhere. The Soapbox Derby will show us that art is essential.

Acknowledgements

SFMOMA
Paul Armstrong
Julia Askenase
Joseph Becker
Neal Benezra
Tyler Bertao
Sydney Blumenkranz
Claire Bradley
Megan Brian
Sylvia Castillo
Cristina Chan
Julie Charles
Mark Davis
Kari Dahlgren
Kellee Dawkins
Gillian Edevane
Hayley Goebel
Jody Hanson
Caroline Harris
Clara Hatcher Baruth
Richard Havens
Rebecca Herman
Bosco Hernández
Rachel Hunt
Tomoko Kanamitsu
Chloe Kwiatkowski
Amy Lange
Adrienne Lee
Samantha Leo
Mei Li
Stella Lochman
Tobey Martin
Adrian Martinez
Sam Mende-Wong
Alexandra Nguy
Meg Ocampo
Christo Oropeza
Erin O’Toole
Noah Pilchen
Heather Sanchez
David Senior
Sheila Shin
Jen Snyder
Megan Taing
Anna Tang
Howard Thornton
Michael Torchia
Audrey Wang
Maria Wiles
Suzy Varadi
Adine Varah
Amy Yu Gray

Mercenary Production Staff
Ryan Smith
Sheri Sternberg
Christie Ward

San Francisco Parks Alliance
Drew Becher
Luke Spray

San Francisco Recreation and Parks
Shauna Bogetz
Lisa Bransten
Phil Ginsburg
Dana Ketcham
Sarah Madland

Car Artists
Aerostation (SFAI MFA students)
David Andre
Michael Arcega + SF State Students
Avila Rose Signs (Lauren Rose D’Amato + Isaac Vazquez Avila)
Binta Ayofemi
Mark Baugh-Sasaki + Masako Miyazaki
Bella Donna Artiste (Addendum24 + LE BohemianMuse)
Terry Berlier’s “Resisting Monuments at the End of the World” class (Stanford students)
Book & Wheel (Kate Connell + Oscar Melara),
Jason “Jay” Broemmel
John Casey
Catherine Theilen Burke + SFUSD students
Max Chen
Windy Chien
Kevin Convertito
Lisa Rybovich Crallé
Cruise
Ron Covell
Reniel Del Rosario
Joey Enos
Aaron Gach
Girls Garage
Bradley Gottesman
Oscar Grande
Taro Hattori + CCA students
Shawn HibmaCronan
Oliver Hawk Holden + Andrew Sungtaek Ingersoll
Nathan Homchick + Sonny Smith
David Huebner
Liz Hui
joan5000 (Kate Rhoades + Carrie Hott)
The LAST Car (Stephen Gulau, Lukas Kuczynski, Ava Morton + tamara suarez porras)
Macro Waves
Justin Marshall, Agana + Vogue TDK
Christopher Martin
Alina Martinez
Masako Miki + Trevor Sherard
Mission Science Workshop
Nasim Moghadam
Alex Morris + Noah Pilchen
Keith Mueller + CCSF Engineering Club
Muni Toons (Janet Delaney, Sam Haynor, and Crystal Vielula)
The North Face
Rock Paper Scissors Collective (led by Kristi Holohan and Lionel McNeely)
SCRAP
Shaw Weiss (Richard Shaw, Martha Shaw, Whitney Shaw-Brandborg, Gregor Weiss, and Torin Brandborg)
Jonathan Spring
Stink Studios
Tight Quarters (Jeffrey Larrimore + Michelle Nguyen)
Urban Ed Academy
Robert van de Walle
Hans von Clemm
Katherine Ward
Lindsey White + SFAI Photo Students
The Wide Awakes (represented by Hank Willis Thomas, Helen Banach + Smilee Barnacle)
Chris Wood + John O’Connell High School

Trophy Artists
Jessalyn Aaland
Jasko Begovic
Jeff Canham
Ilana Crispi
Cruise
Andy Diaz Hope
James Finnegan
Caitlyn Galloway
John Gnorski
Matt Goldberg
Aaron Gonzalez
Mike Henderson
Cliff Hengst
Liz Hernández
Walter Hood
Melody Kozma-Kennedy
Amy Lange
Chip Lord
Cathy Lu
The North Face
Leah Rosenberg
The San Francisco School
Muzae Sesay
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon
Sun Night Editions
Paige Valentine
Mel Vera Cruz
Benjamin Vilmain
Ryan Whelan
Jenifer K. Wofford
Wanxin Zhang

Announcers: Kumasi Aaron, Pendarvis Harshaw

Music: Chulita Vinyl Club, Science Band!, TNT Traysikel

Judges: Amanda Pope, Dorcas Moulton

 

 

 

 

 


Tomoko Kanamitsu

Tomoko Kanamitsu

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