SAN JOSE’S DIVERSE ALTERNATIVE SPACES:
THE INSTITUTIONS AND THE UPSTARTS
A crazy, unorthodox art scene that, somehow, gets the art out there…

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MACLA, The Museum of Quilts and Textiles, and the San Jose ICA on South First Street in San Jose’s SOFA District, across from Gore Park – The San Jose ICA began as an alternative space — “Word Works”

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero, Summer 2007

San Jose’s art scene is exploding. Enter, alternative exhibition spaces! Sometimes funky or rebellious, sometimes very professional, these “alternatives” have a certain cach√©. The artwork is often a discovery. It feels newer, more contemporary and exciting. Perpetually under-funded, these sites are risky at the beginning. They are labors of love that can disappear as fast as they appear. Yet, a few have been on the scene long enough to become institutions.

In order to talk about alternative exhibition spaces in San Jose we need to ask “alternative to what?” What is the status quo that demands an alternative? What needs are filled by the alternatives?

The Modern period of art history established the imperative of the Museum as a pristine shrine to art: sterile, white, elitist and essentially highbrow. The sixties and Postmodernism brought discontent and “alternative exhibition spaces” that were intended to level the playing field for art and media that had been previously shut out: marginalized media, new media, mixed-media, art reflecting popular culture, women’s art, ethnic, conceptual and political art, and art by self-taught artists. Postmodernism opened the door for innumerable new possibilities. Soon museums began to feel the pressure to be more inclusive, and a genuine curiosity about the changing art scene led to new young curators presenting a bigger, broader picture of contemporary art.

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MACLA — Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino-Americana — opens its Chicano Biennal in August, 2007

San Jose has a first-rate Museum of Art and an Institute of Contemporary Art that do a remarkable job of covering the breadth of art media and styles that compose current trends. In nearby Santa Clara are, likewise, the very professional Triton Museum and de Saisset Museum. They all pay homage to art for art’s sake in contexts that are ample, architecturally well-considered, meticulously prepared with paid staff, painted in subtle background hues, and conceptually developed with lots of text to make the work more accessible and engaging to the public. These institutions present the models of how and where an artist (sometimes secretly) hopes to see their art presented.

But, what does not happen in these paragons of professionalism? First and foremost, what cannot happen is that all the artists who live and work in the geographic area of the Museums of Art or the Institute of Contemporary Art will be represented by work shown in these spaces. San Jose is bursting at the seams with art, and there is simply not enough time or space to show it. Even the most talented artist and interesting art may not fit into the exhibition plans of institutional curators who are following a board approved agenda. A few solo shows on their calendars will attempt to fully develop a conceptual and formal profile of one artist’s work. These shows are mostly awarded to mid-career artists that have built their reputations elsewhere. Otherwise, curators love to explore thematic exhibitions that may include one or more works by local and nationally known artists — shows that reveal trends or delve into an idea such as the concept of ‘home”. So as original, significant and prolific as the art of San Jose artists may be, without our “alternative spaces” we would not see it and their careers would go nowhere. Or, they would move out, as many previous generations of artists have done.

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Angelica Muro and Binh Danh plan to open Space 47 on William Street, in the SOFA District, where they will offer solo exhibitions to emerging artists.

For San Jose artists to launch careers that carry them into that mid-career status that justifies their own solo exhibition in San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York or Tokyo, most of them will have to build a r√©sum√© by showing, first, at home. A group exhibition is a good thing, yet the solo show really proves that an artist is not a flash in the pan, that he or she has her own voice and something substantial to say. Stan Welsh, who directs the graduate program in SJSU’s School of Art and Design, talks about the small start-ups and alternative galleries as “the place where the revolution happens”. He says, “The idea that the status-quo big gallery system would invite the next generation in is a myth. With a few exceptions, it will not be by invitation. Each new generation of artists has to force the art world to take it seriously.”

Municipal galleries, which San Jose does not have, provide an important forum in many cities, offering exhibition spaces that are awarded primarily to local artists for solo or group shows. Most cities the size of San Jose also have private or “market” galleries that showcase the works of a small stable of artists, sell their art, and help guide their art and careers to fame and, hopefully, fortune.

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Until Spratt’s recent retirement, Frederick Spratt, Contemporary Art, on South First Street, was the only private gallery space in San Jose to show a “stable” of artists and manage their careers.

Without these “establishment” entities – the private and municipal galleries – San Jose audiences will still see a certain amount of professional art. But, they may never know the broad range and abundance of art, from professional to amateur done by South Bay artists. Carmen Sigler, Provost of San Jose State University, points to Richard Florida’s observations on “the creative class”, which flourishes in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area. The creative class thrives on diversity, which we have, and which is indeed the source of our wide-ranging art scene.

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On South First Street, artisans gather and musicians perform in front of the lively murals of Anno Domini for San Jose’s “South First Fridays”

Some of San Jose’s alternative spaces fill that need for local or regional artists to be seen in solo or two to three person shows, — as well as in the theme shows, which still predominate. Several are non-profits. Others, like Art Object Gallery, Overpass Gallery and 12 & Taylor, are some variation of the market gallery or artists’ collective that feature a few artists at a time and facilitate the sales of artwork, and collecting. Some dedicate themselves to serving the needs of artists and public in a particular ethnic community or feature a specific medium. Many of the alternative spaces, from Works, to MACLA and Anno Domini, put an emphasis on providing services to urban youth and youth culture, through training and/or exhibition opportunities. Sites like the Heritage Bank and Bill Gould Design are not galleries per se, yet they are sophisticated and very nearly embody the establishment. But, the alternative space typically starts on a shoestring and struggles to keep the doors open for a few years before it fails or picks up momentum. Some of San Jose’s newcomers are illusive one-night stands — the “art party”, and galleries that open their doors only for opening nights, and then transform back into an office, home or gallery-open-by-appointment-only.

 

The following are profiles of some alternative spaces that enrich our art scene.

WORKS GALLERY

Back in the early seventies, when even the San Jose Museum of Art was mediocre at best, the first non-profit alternatives to appear were Wordworks and then Works gallery. Wordworks, under direction of the legendary Jessica Jacobs was dedicated to showcasing works that had a strong conceptual core and new genres or mixed-media art that had been denigrated during the reign of Modernism. Some wonderful conceptual art, performances, installations and feminist artists like Martha Rosler and Rachel Rosenthal began to be seen in San Jose. A few years later, in a split off of Wordworks, Works was born as an artist-run space, and Wordworks became the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. The ICA took the direction of highly professional contemporary art presented in an idealistic format. But the formation of Works marked San Jose’s first recognition of the difference of and importance of the artist’s point of view on what should be shown. Tony May, one of the founders of Works, remarks: “All we wanted to do, at first, was bring in important artists from elsewhere. We had such an inferiority complex in San Jose in those days.” Soon, Works opted for a broader and more inclusive approach, serving local artists along with some art stars, surviving on a meager budget, moving from site to site for thirty years, yet giving many emerging artists and unproven art a chance to be shown.

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“Exacto” shows in August at Works on South First Street

Finally joining San Jose’s nascent gallery district on South First Street, with better amenities than ever before, Works continues as an artist-run space. The organizational structure is much the same as it had at the start — a working artists’ board of directors, elected from the membership, and an artists’ selection committee that makes up a calendar of exhibitions from proposals that arrive from artists and curators. A small part-time staff supports the work of a large volunteer effort. The profile of the gallery continues to shift with the successive groups of artists that dedicate their time to running the operation. At any given time the exhibitions may be sophisticated, risk-taking, adventurous, and surprising, or unremarkable. Erin Cizan, Works Executive Director, likes to point out that it’s about the need for artists to express themselves and have a venue for some exposure, regardless of the uncertainty of critical success. “We intend to be inclusive and egalitarian.”

In recent years, Works has increasingly taken on the role of galvanizing the South Bay artist community with outreach to a broad constituency that may be ethnic, geographic or philosophical. Cizan speaks with enthusiasm and dedication to wide range of programs that serve the South Bay arts community from professional to amateur. In the context of San Jose’s struggling downtown, she speaks of “community cultural competence”, a community that gives artists the respect they deserve, artists that respect themselves and artists that deserve respect because they are knowledgeable and working toward professionalism. A new Works program will place artists’ exhibitions in San Jose Community Centers is a collaboration with the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services. Cizan emphasizes, “This is not just about showing art in the community, but an opportunity to bring the art and community together.”

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Executive Director, Erin Cizan in Works’ new site

Other Works programs provide services and opportunities to families and youth in arts education, students in transition to a professional life in the arts, development workshops for artists at all stages of their careers, critique groups, and support for artists of exceptional promise. On certain Thursday nights, diverse artists are scheduled to show video or slides of their work, talk about the art, converse with the public and answer questions. Before gallery openings, Works provides docent tours to give curious gallery goers more information on the art and artists.

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Erin Cizan gives a guided tour and tells the history behind the art.

Once a year, Works membership shows in an enormous salon-style show where members are represented by one work each. This event is fascinating in that the art ranges from very conservative to ultra-experimental, there is lots of it, from good to excellent, and it’s very popular. The members’ show reveals how broadly, indeed, Works appeals to the community.

Works <www.workssanjose.org>

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Theta Belcher, Galleries Manager, San Jose State School of Art and Design

SAN JOSE STATE UNIVERSITY, School of Art and Design Galleries

In the 70’s, when Sam Richardson began teaching classes that engaged his concepts of “the shape of space”, the classrooms were inadequate. Sam, Tony May and other faculty had begun giving unconventional assignments to students that produced unconventional results. They needed an actual gallery context in which the students could develop their concepts, and the small locker rooms on all three floors of the Art Building appeared ideal for student galleries. Department chair, Kathy Cohen agreed, so the lockers moved out into the hallways. The students energetically embraced the galleries. The ensuing postmodern liberation saw Modern art traditions interface with new concepts and media in five-day long shows, with opening receptions at 6:00 p.m. every Tuesday night. During the tenure of Gallery Director Andy Ostheimer, weekly guest-artist lectures were instituted at 5:00 p.m. in the Lecture Hall, making the evening a bigger cultural event.

Sam Richardson, Tony May, Cathy Cohen and Andy Ostheimer have retired but the weekly lectures and gallery shows continue in the Art Building and in Industrial Studies, where the Herbert Sanders Gallery is hidden away on the second floor. Some of the galleries are very small: others are large enough to accommodate a two-person show quite nicely. The eight galleries show a mix of work by graduates and undergraduates in media that ranges from painting, drawing, ceramics, textiles, metal, light or wood sculpture, printmaking, video, film and photography, to performance or installation and design. Some of these exhibitions are thesis shows — the very best!

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San Jose State’s new Gerald Walburg sculpture joins Fletcher Benton’s “Folded D” (upper) on the east side of campus.

Further, the Natalie and James Thompson Gallery is open, as well, on Tuesday evenings, with curated exhibitions on diverse themes and artists. Gallery Director Jo Farb Hernandez is the author of such interesting volumes as Forms of Tradition in Contemporary Spain, and monographs on printmaker Misch Kohn and, this year, the sculptor, Gerald Walburg. Her exhibitions and the accompanying lecture often link to one of her recent publications, providing an in-depth learning experience for visitors who can see the art, attend the lecture, meet the artist and even acquire a new art book. San Jose State recently acquired a major Walburg outdoor sculpture, now to be seen on 9th Street next to Industrial Studies. It was donated to the campus by the artist after his exhibition and visit this Spring.

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Visitors may enter the campus at the Gates on Fourth and San Carlos, proceeding straight ahead to the San Jose State Arena & Event Center

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At the Event Center, go left, then take an immediate right, passing between the Event Center and the Music Building. The Art Building is now on your left!

Tuesday nights at SJSU are something of well-kept secret treasure on the San Jose art scene. Regular gallery goers to the downtown openings often know nothing about these shows which can include some of the most avant garde art work by the most promising young professionals of San Jose. But, collectors and curators “in the know” find it worth it to don their casual garb and tennis shoes, and hike from one of the available parking garages to the Art Building, located on the extension of 9th street between the Event Center and the Student Union. Sheila Picket, art collector, Museum of Art Docent and former faculty from the SJSU School of Business, along with her husband Ralph, have attended major international art Biennals as well as graduate seminars in the School of Art and design. Sheila says: “‚Ķattention to the MFA students’ work throughout their two year (plus) tenure often brings with it the stimulating challenge of reviewing your own thoughts about many political, philosophical, psychological and scientific issues. It’s the kind of grass roots education that keeps you both aware of the art world’s perspective and your own biases.” Ralph Picket adds, “‚Ķkeeps your thinking flexible.”

 

San Jose State Student Art Galleries and Natalie and James Thompson Gallery
Theta Belcher <tbelcher@email.sjsu.edu>

This article to be continued…

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