Artists Protest Program Cuts at SFMOMA

Demonstrators said they were concerned that the museum would become irrelevant.

Over 50 people gathered at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday outside SFMOMA’s main entrance to protest cuts to three public programs, announced in a staff meeting July 15. The Artists Gallery, a nonprofit satellite space at Fort Mason founded in 1946, shows work by local artists. Open Space, started in 2008, is an online platform that publishes critical and academic work by local writers, paying contributors market rate. The film program has screened dozens of contemporary and classic arthouse films each year since 1937, from major figures to recent festival winners.

The decision to cut these programs seems at odds with the museum’s mission statement of striving “to engage and inspire a diverse range of audiences by pursuing an innovative program of exhibitions, education, publications, and collections activities.” Publicly, SFMOMA cites declining attendance as the reason behind the cuts. However, in an internal email to museum staff, director Neal Benezra admitted the resulting savings would be “minimal at best,” and made the paradoxical statement that “the strategic refresh reflects our need to shift current capacity and resources towards the programs and activities that will attract and engage a broader range of audiences.” It isn’t exactly clear who this “broader audience” is, but one possibility might be reflected in the fact that the line of tourists awaiting entry to the museum on Saturday morning was at least twice the size of the protest.

Lindsey White, an artist and professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, whose work has been collected by the museum, said, “This will be a big hit financially to a lot of local artists and writers. If we lose these three programs, the museum will become more irrelevant by the minute. They say they’re interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and these programs extend beyond the museum into the community very deeply.”

A lack of direct financial investment in the coming generations of local artists and writers, while stark, isn’t the only impact. Anya Kamenskaya, the daughter of acclaimed experimental filmmaker and long-time SFMOMA projectionist Paul Clipson, said, “I was incredibly privileged to see the sheer quantity and diversity of films I’ve seen since I was a child. It completely informed my views on humanity, on human nature.” Another attendee told me that they had decided to become an artist after being inspired by one of the film screenings at the museum.

Chris Grunder, a founder of Bass & Reiner, a gallery representing emerging artists in San Francisco, said, “These are the sorts of programs that make institutions unique, and that other museums are scrambling to create in order to connect with their communities more. Getting rid of them is incredibly short sighted.” 

One museum visitor, Barbara, a long-time San Francisco resident and member of the museum since 1992, told me she was moving away the next day and had wanted to visit the museum one last time. “When I tell people what I’ll miss most about this city,” she said, “I always mention SFMOMA.” Now, the community worries that the day will come when locals say they miss the museum, too, not because they’ve left, but because the institution has turned its back on them.

A second protest is planned for Aug. 5 at 5:30 p.m. at the museum’s Third Street entrance. A link to a petition to oppose the program cuts can be found here.

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