"Not About Preaching to the Choir." An Innovative Curator's Take on Activist Art

Alcatraz prison was one venue for a public art exhibit by Cheryl Haines. Photo: MintImages/shutterstock

Alcatraz prison was one venue for a public art exhibit by Cheryl Haines. Photo: MintImages/shutterstock

As more funders look to art as a vehicle for social change, we're seeing subtle tactical differences in how proponents frame this enterprise

Some funders focus on individual artists, while others give to organizations. Some explore broad themes; other zero in on specific issues. Some measure impact; others don't even bother.

Given these differences, coupled with the fact that inquisitive funders remain open to new and provocative approaches to activist art, Forbes' Rimma Boshernitsan's chat with curator and gallerist Cheryl Haines is worth the read.

Through the Haines Gallery in San Francisco and her nonprofit FOR-SITE Foundation, which is dedicated to the "creation, understanding, and presentation of art about place," Haines connects artists' work to issues like incarceration, national security, social identity and environmental concerns.

By focusing on specific issues, Haines' approach aligns with that of other funders in the surging activist art space.

The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Agnes Gund's Art For Justice Fund address mass incarceration, while the Ford Foundation, in addition to partnering on Gund's initiative, supports immigrant art mentorships. Ford also tackles activist art at a more conceptual level through its #ArtofChange fellowships, which explore "freedom and justice in America."

Haines' definition of activist art conforms with that of her philanthropic brethren. The arts experience shouldn't be passive and transactional, but should instead spur reflection and action.

"It’s one thing to attend a public art exhibition containing essential and thought-provoking ideas," she told Boshernitsan, "but if you can walk away saying, 'What can I do? How do I address these overwhelming concerns about equality, freedom of expression and human rights around the world?' That’s a far more powerful experience."

To generate this kind of experience, Haines curates place-based and issue-driven projects complemented with viewer action items.

She collaborated with Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei to create @Large, a public art exhibition on Alcatraz Island. The exhibition received nearly 1 million visitors to "explore human rights, freedom of expression, and the role communication plays in creating a just society."

Normally, that would be sufficient for many funders or curators. But Haines went a step further, enabling visitors, many of whom fell outside of the traditional museum-going demographic, to choose and correspond with an Amnesty International-vetted "Prisoner of Conscience" currently incarcerated in one of the countries featured in the exhibition. 

This action-oriented approach dovetails with another thread weaving its way through activist art, which is the idea of expanding access to previously underserved audiences. 

We saw this goal undergird the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation's recent round of Art and Social Justice grants, which address at-risk communities lacking "high-caliber artistic programming."

Haines, meanwhile, told Boshernitsan she initially did independent research and built relationships to inform her projects, discerning where the social and political gaps were. From there, she curated projects that spoke to the "universal emotions that are accessible to everyone."

"Our work goes beyond the art world because of the people who visit these sites, only 25 percent of them are art-world participants," she said. "What is incredibly important for me, and for us as an organization, is that this is not about preaching to the choir."

Bottom line, here? By marrying immersive, place-based programming with action-oriented visitor outcomes, Haines' approach represents yet another variant in the evolving field of activist art.

One last point: I'd consider Haines' work impactful regardless of her location. That being said, the fact that her For-Site Foundation is based in San Francisco is particularly encouraging.

Roughly a year ago, when asked how the city's art scene has changed since she first opened her gallery in 1987, Haines told the Art Dealers Association of America's Nicole Casamento, "One of the most significant shifts that's occurring is that many of the artists are moving out of San Francisco because they can't afford to live here any longer—and in some cases, out of the Bay Area, so there’s less of an artistic community."

Fast-forward to January of 2018. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment within 10 miles of San Francisco stands at $3,670. The region's tech workers and millennials remain relatively uninterested in the performing arts. And despite the occasional rare exception, the elite tech donors still aren't giving to the arts on a game-changing scale.

But rather fold up their tents, regional funders have risen to the occasion mightily over the past four months.

In November, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced $8 million in funding for its Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions. The next month, the Koret Foundation launched a $10 million arts and culture initiative. And earlier this year, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation named the winners of its Open Spaces program, which links public art with social issues across the Bay Area.

The success of Haines' FOR-SITE Foundation provides further evidence that donors remain bullish on art—and more specifically, place-based activist art—in the Bay Area.

"We have tremendous support both within the art community here and the philanthropic community," Haines said. "All of our funding comes from generous individuals, some of which are involved in the arts, others of which are approaching these projects from more of a human rights perspective."