Capps Lock

Fanny Singer on 500 Capp Street and art spaces in the Bay Area

Exterior of 500 Capp Street. Photo: Henrik Kam.

THE FIRST ROOM OF “TIMESHARE,” Liz Magor’s recent exhibition at the 500 Capp Street Foundation, was dim and crowded with furniture, boxes, moving blankets, and stacked belongings. A narrow strait allowed visitors to thread through these items to the other side, to look back at the assembled contents of a life: treasures, jetsam, desiderata. A small white dog––fabricated from polyester resin––was sheltered beneath a table like a cowering sentry. The low light gave this most recent iteration of Magor’s ongoing installation One Bedroom Apartment, 1996–, a decidedly melancholic cast, redoubled by the scent of institutional upheaval: On July 6, the premature closing day of the exhibition (it was meant to run through October 12), dozens of visitors gathered around the late conceptual artist David Ireland’s Victorian Italianate residence to stand in solidarity with the foundation’s head curator, Bob Linder, who had been laid off just days after the opening of Magor’s show. Many of those who ventured inside during the final hours were understandably thrown by what they saw. Was this the work on view or evidence of administrative chaos, an all-too-immediate clearing of house? In this context, Magor’s installations felt nothing short of prophetic.

“Drag-Out,” a coincident exhibition at 500 Capp Street, on display in the garage adjacent to the main house, likewise augured the confusion that would soon follow. Installed on the outdoor terrace, Berlin-based artist Nina Canell’s Gum Drag, 2017, comprised of two freestanding vertical cast sculptures made of mastic gum, was meant to slowly transform throughout the duration of the exhibition (intended to close August 17). However, this was Canell’s first experiment with exposing the material so fully to the elements, and within a week of the opening, the supporting metal rods were virtually naked. A viscous, messy slough of gum pooled at their feet. Nearby lay Canell’s Brief Syllable (Bare), 2017, a nearly foot-long chunk of subsea internet cable. These inscrutable, beautiful-grotesque works became almost too-perfect symbols of the hosting venue’s communication failures and of the ensuing meltdown: a broken dialogue, a mess in plain sight. Canell and Magor both decided to pull their work. The exhibitions of other artists (Matt Connors, B. Wurtz, Haim Steinbach), slated for the coming months, are no longer on the calendar. As soon as Magor’s and Canell’s pieces were deinstalled and ready to be returned, the institution’s only other curator, Diego Villalobos, resigned. As Magor explained to Artnews, the decision to remove Linder rendered the display of her work untenable: “Now the context within which I undertook the exhibition is gone and I’m in a situation that could be seen as an unwelcome intrusion. That’s it. I’m out.”

Exactly what transpired in the organization to precipitate such outcomes remains––nearly two months later––unclear, especially given the discrepancies between the director’s and the board members’ published statements; phone conversations I had with all three members of the board did little to clarify the conditions of the layoff. The public has been left to speculate. The context, however, is richly convoluted. Carlie Wilmans, the owner of 500 Capp Street, explained to me that grant applications made last year had been fruitless, suggesting that the reason for Linder’s dismissal was largely financial. Then again, the board also issued a statement expressing a wish to “re-balance 500 Capp Street future exhibitions and public programs with an enhanced education program that will offer aspiring students, young artists, and art historians enhanced opportunities to learn more about curatorial and artistic practice”—or to educate a new generation of artists and curators while simultaneously hobbling exhibition spaces and eliminating curatorial roles.

There was also the well-publicized controversy, beginning in April 2019, surrounding Wilmans’s efforts to evict a family from the top floor of an adjacent building she owned. Wilmans, the granddaughter of legendary Bay Area arts patron Phyllis Wattis, had purchased the two-unit home at 3463-3465 Twentieth Street in 2016, intending to vacate it and transform it into temporary accommodations for visiting artists—something Ireland’s home could not accommodate, though it was part of Wilmans’s vision for 500 Capp Street from the beginning. The planned eviction, pursued through a lawsuit, attracted considerable dissent, both from employees who wished not to be perceived as complicit and from local tenant advocacy groups and members of the public. The millionaire’s invocation of the Ellis Act (which allows landlords to evict tenants if they intend to entirely remove the property from the rental market) to reclaim a home she did not intend to personally inhabit or offer to a permanent resident was, for obvious reasons, divisive, regardless of whether or not her actions were intended to benefit the arts community. Wilmans decided to settle, but not before director Cait Molloy sent a message to 500 Capp Street’s mailing list to publicly distance the foundation from the eviction and to offer a contact for responses.

Uncertainty is part of the fabric of 500 Capp Street. During the last few years of Ireland’s life, his family had debated what to do with his home, a place he had acquired in 1975 and transformed over the following decades into an elaborately patinaed Gesamtkunstwerk. In 2008, a year before Ireland passed away, Wilmans became aware of the threat to Ireland’s work and legacy and, with the artist’s blessing, purchased the residence. She established it as a foundation while two of Ireland’s friends—local arts patron Ann Hatch and then-director of the Yale University Art Gallery Jock Reynolds––joined her as the sole members of the board. Ireland trusted Reynolds, above all, with the execution of the estate, and in 2011––thanks to Reynolds––the Ireland estate donated close to two thousand of the artist’s works to the foundation. What would become of the house and the remnants of Ireland’s life’s work was more or less in Wilmans’s hands.

Liz Magor, One Bedroom Apartment, 1996–, polyester resin, contents of the David Ireland House, dimensions variable.

I knew Ireland from the time I was a little girl. My family visited 500 Capp Street for meals in its dark, eerie dining room, whose cabinets and surfaces were decorated with artifacts from Ireland’s safari-running years in Africa. There was no more magical, or more curious, place. He kept his home open, living, convivial. Having grown up close to Ireland’s practice, I was apprehensive about the plans, forged in 2008, to dramatically alter the future of his house. In early 2016, when the foundation opened to the public, it was a great pleasure to see Ireland’s work reinstalled in-situ in a retrospective. Still, I remember thinking that the house might grow stale if its contents remained static. At the time, Wilmans reflected this concern to the New York Times: “We want this to be an ongoing, living, breathing thing.” Reynolds added, “I don’t want to be mean, but I remember visiting Donald Judd’s home in Marfa and having someone tell me: ‘Don’t move that pencil.’ We don’t want this to be that sort of sacred time capsule.” When Linder, a former student of Ireland’s, was brought on to guide an exhibition program of visiting artists, it seemed as though the foundation’s purpose had crystallized. And Linder’s program soon achieved a startling equilibrium, honoring Ireland’s legacy while remaining fluid, responsive, and—most crucially and uniquely for a small and geographically isolated arts community—internationally relevant. That these shows could be woven into Ireland’s numinous environment made the offering that much more complex. Of course, as with any exhibition program, some members of the arts community felt otherwise. Reynolds suggested to me that many people had expressed concern over a perceived erasure of Ireland; one anonymous commenter on Aaron Harbour’s article for SFMOMA’s Open Space decried the house’s having become “a curatorial playground.”

In San Francisco, few art institutions operate autonomously. And if they do remain independent––like the Lab, another experimental art space in the neighborhood—they are resigned to running Kickstarters to survive. This in a city with one billionaire per every 11,600 residents, a higher density than in any other metropolitan area in the world. Within this cultural ecosystem, instability often swells into institutional turmoil. Take, for example, the fight to preserve the Redstone Building, a historic hub for arts and activism also located on Capp Street, or the Di Rosa Foundation’s deaccessioning of works to raise critical funds. In the case of 500 Capp Street, the turbulence came as a shock in part because the curators had been given the freedom to organize a program that had begun to seem immune to the sociopolitical and economic forces of the region. A petition to remove the board of 500 Capp Street––drafted by a small group of artists and art workers and circulated by Alicia McCarthy––garnered nearly eight hundred signatures. To date, it remains unanswered. Those who may have privately expressed other opinions regarding the nuances of the situation have been far less publicly vocal.

That Wilmans decided to take on so much risk in the first place, and to invest so much personal capital (to date, an estimated eight million dollars) in its operations, is laudable. Ireland was an important figure in the San Francisco arts community, but he was never a highly marketable artist. Not only was Wilmans’s investment without guaranteed yield, but the ongoing operations of the very unorthodox arts organization have also been challenging to keep afloat. Still, arts patronage must come with some appetite for uncertainty, the willingness to listen, and an expectation of engaging with the community––what is an arts culture without tolerance, determination, colloquy? 500 Capp Street will persist as an organization, but in altered form. Whether it can re-establish trust with the portion of the arts community it has alienated remains to be seen, but it would be a shame––and an enormous loss for San Francisco––for us to lose sight of the convivial spirit and commitment to community that distinguished Ireland’s life and home.

Fanny Singer is an art historian and writer based in San Francisco. Her first book, Always Home, will be published by Knopf in 2020.