Keep Experimental Art Alive: Help The Lab Build a New Model for Working Artists

The hallucinogenic work of Jader

Surely you've heard: SFMOMA is on the verge of reopening. We're excited and for good reason: SFMOMA is a gem of a museum, something we, as San Franciscans, ought to be proud of.

But what are museums for? Art — right? Yes, but — where are the working artists?

Generally, not in museums. Institutions with a capital “I,” museums are places we go to canonize the artists we idolize, but not to see art being made — or rules being broken.

The Lab, a 31-year-old arts and performance space located in the Mission at 2948 16th St. (aka the Redstone Building, a storied building with a long history in San Francisco's labor movement), is a place where you can go to see (or hear, or feel, or smell, or touch) art being made before your eyes.

And it needs your help, by the end of today (Wednesday May 4).


The Lab is attempting an ambitious project: To hand over keys to its doors, plus control of its website, plus carte blanche to do as they please, plus a living wage of between $25,000-$75,000 to three Bay Area artists — Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon, Dora García, and Brontez Purnell — beginning October 2016 through March 2017. 

I spoke recently with Dena Beard, Director of The Lab, about this new initiative. Where did it come from? From her past history working in museums.

“It became very obvious, [working in a museum,] that the institution itself was preventing great art from being made, in many ways,” Beard told me.  “The restrictions, the frustrations, from having to work in a very strict set of rules and propositions. Many artists knew how to flaunt those restrictions and figure out ways to create a sense of freedom outside of that. But I began to feel like if there were an opportunity for artists to remake the institution itself, we'd see things that allow us even more freedom,” she explains.

Hence this new initiative at The Lab, in which Beard will be putting her money where her mouth is (pun very much intended). By providing the artists with this sizable stipend and keys to its facilities, The Lab will essentially be paying artists to live and work for a set period of time. And considering The Lab is a nonprofit endeavor without the sizable endowments or top-dollar donors that other arts institutions have, it needs your help to accomplish this goal.

Direct fundraising has a visceral impact, too, on the audiences served by its art, explains Beard. “In many ways, [crowdsourcing] is enormously important for the sense of complicity that we need for the work that we do,” she says. “I'm interested in how art becomes a way of reflecting upon systems that don't necessarily work anymore. These longer-term projects and residencies are about labor and creative labor. They're about re-thinking the function and the role of the artist in contemporary society, and allowing the project of art to have that effect on us — to change our systems in that sense.”

As we all know, San Francisco is not an especially hospitable place for artists these days. Changing this is an uphill battle, and often, for artists themselves, a matter of survival or eviction. The Lab is doing what it can to change this. Beard reflects: “Looking at the numbers — we did give more than a third of our budget to artists [in 2015]. We did provide room and space for this kind of [non-institutional] work. We make little changes, year by year, improving the model. And a lot of other institutions have been reaching out to me, calling me up, asking for advice on how to change their ways of working. So, I do think that simply by stating it loudly and clearly, people do take notice.”

Let's take notice, indeed. Please donate whatever you can to this project and ensure that San Francisco remains not just a place for Art with a capital “A,” but for those living and working to expand its fringes.

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