This interview is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad At Sports and Art Practical.
Brian Andrews: This week, we are at Adobe Books Backroom Gallery with proprietor Andrew McKinley and Devon Bella, the gallery’s current director. Andrew, when people come to San Francisco and ask what they should see, Adobe Books is on all the lists. But I don’t think people really know what it is because it doesn’t operate as a traditional gallery or museum space; it is its own space. It has been around for a long period of time and has shown an incredible roster of artists. Could you chronicle the origins of the bookshop and the backroom gallery space?
Andrew McKinley: We have been a bookstore for twenty-two years. The book business has subsidized the art scene that we have here, and it has been a good combination. We are not an official white-wall gallery, and we are not just your typical bookstore. The art scene has enriched my life; it’s a great supplement to conducting a business, and the book selling has allowed art to be sold here in bigger and better ways as the years go by. We opened in 1989, and there were a lot of people nearby trying to make their living as artists. I didn’t realize it until my partner Bryan Bilby and I opened the doors. We knew it was a cool neighborhood. It seemed that everyone who was interesting in San Francisco was hanging out here and we wanted to be here. I’ve always enjoyed the people that come in more than the books. We hired an artist, Tim Moran as a bookseller in our first year, and he approached the idea of selling art in the store.
Patricia Maloney: Did you immediately start out using the walls of the backspace or did you use the walls of the bookstore?
AMcK: We started with the front of the store; this backspace was really derelict, it was a mess. We couldn’t afford to finish the whole space when we moved in, so we started storing book and boxes back here. And it was just filthy. A little more than ten years ago, an artist named Amanda Eicher proposed to me that if she could use the backroom—she had gotten some money from an insurance claim, I think she was hit by a bicycle—she was willing to spend that money on building a gallery back here. She had the vision to launch the space as a gallery. Christopher Garrett and Chris Johanson were instrumental in building the space with their own labor and lumber. It just clicked from the beginning. It was a small, intimate space. Amanda had the vision of whom and what she wanted to show.
It’s comfortable; it’s not a gallery. We are not going to represent you; we are not going to do all the work that a gallery does. But it is a serious enough space that if you show here, it garners attention. It was a success from the beginning. And more and more people felt comfortable showing or having their first or maybe their second show in this space, which was not technically a serious space, but through time and through having interesting people show here, it has become what it is. There is something intangible about having the business. It has given me a dignity, pride, and happiness that I would have never had just vending books as a product.
PM: Did you have any trepidations when Amanda first came to you and said “Okay, I want to make use of the space, I have ideas about programming.” Were you nervous at all about what she wanted to undertake?
AMcK: I would have to say no. When Amanda approached me, I was ready to let her attempt something. I knew her, I had seen her for over a year interact in the community, and I was ready to have something happen in the backroom or get the mess that was there, gone. There was no fear. I’ve never been afraid of any of the artists that have come here. There are no dangerous artists. Artists have had big egos sometimes, but it’s a modest place.
PM: At the time you opened the bookstore, were you as engaged with the art community as you are now? Because you are very much on the scene, at openings and events. Did you have that kind of involvement with artists before the gallery?
AMcK: It gradually grew with interacting with artists coming in. I do like art a lot. I became friends with people who happened to be artists and they became comfortable with the store, which is a very casual place. They could hang out, sit here, and discuss art. It is not quite the same now, we don’t have as many people hanging out as ten years ago, but you have to work harder now to be in San Francisco. Although it’s still a place where people experiment and change or discover themselves.
We’ve had good programming too. I cannot be too modest about Devon’s connection to the store. She is actually the third person to help run the gallery.
BA: How does that evolve? Is it sort of a Petri dish: you hand over the space and watch what comes out?
AMcK: That is a good choice of words. Amanda Eicher ran the gallery for a couple of years, and when she wanted to focus on her own art, she stepped back and Eleanor Harwood very kindly stepped in. Eleanor did a very good job of getting more artists and treating them professionally. She has done very well on her own with her gallery since. We had a group of three people running it for a couple of years. But Devon has done much to transform the space into a more serious art space. She has fundraised, revamped the gallery, expanded it, and made it more accessible to more people. It is actually a lot more fun to be back here; people can see bigger and better pieces of art right now. So we have moved more towards being a gallery, but it’s still a bookstore and a very humble place.
PM: Coming in here is not just walking into a bookstore, it’s coming into a space that is very personal, perhaps somewhat idiosyncratic, but allows for a lot of individual investigation.
AMcK: Well, it’s a funky old store at this point. It looks like it has been here for fifty or 100 years. This building is 100 years old and we only have about 2000 square feet; it’s dense with stuff. We like good books, we love to buy them, and we will always buy a good book or what we think is a good one. We have thousands of books that people can browse very casually. There is not a lot of pressure in the store. We have always thought that the books sell themselves, so we don’t worry about display. The organization is fairly haphazard, but we have every traditional section that you would want.
BA: Devon, as a curator, how do you incorporate your desires for programming into an institution that doesn’t operate like many of the theoretical constructs or non-profit organizations around us, but obviously has this literal woven fabric of a community?
Devon Bella: I think you do it very carefully and thoughtfully. When I inherited this space, one of the challenges was actually that inheritance, and after talking with few of the former curators, it was a challenge to work off of that profound history to identify my own mission within that framework.
PM: What was your attraction to Adobe?
DB: I have a love interest with books and the networks of knowledge, so working within this context was sort of a dream come true for me. I also made one of my missions, working in this space, to build a bridge between the gallery space and the bookstore, and evaluate that relationship. My impression was that the real success of the gallery and everything that had been achieved by this space was because of the bookstore and the environment that it provided for artistic activity.
AMcK: The gallery is in very competent hands and the vision of what to show is strong right now. There have been years when I don’t know who to show in here or who should show. It’s great to have someone who is disciplined, organized, and has an idea.
PM: It’s good to know that what you’re doing is well supported. I think for an emerging curator, that’s the best place to be—to develop your own programming in a context you appreciate and having the support to do so.
DB: The first show I did as the curator in January 2009 was really just a way to jump into everything, but also take it slowly. The exhibition was titled “ex libris” and I invited a group of artists to select maybe five to ten books from Adobe’s stacks that reflected the literary influences on their practices. I included artists, writers, and creative thinkers. We transformed the gallery into a library space where we could highlight the role of the book, and also create a new context being pieced together within shelves, formed by other artists within their community. That was a great success, for just being a show of books.
Since I started working here, I’ve treated this space as an investigative opportunity to experiment with untried ideas or without the limitations of what might be a typical gallery setting. That’s been one of the advantages of working with Andrew in particular and within this space. There really aren’t any limitations or constraints that you would find in conventional settings. My programming or approach is to really provide opportunities for artists to make decisions within their practice and give them the experience to move forward with ideas and projects.
Listen to the interview on Bad At Sports: Episode 256!
PM: I am curious to hear what some of the challenges have been. Perhaps the most overt change is to the space itself, which underwent renovation just recently, and I wonder how people have responded to that, because there is an emotional tie and investment in the gallery.
DB: The response has been positive and welcoming. I was worried about spearheading any kind of renovation or demolition in the back. I didn’t want to make anyone feel alienated from the space, that experience, or that history. The former space was small, and the living quarters surrounding the gallery were challenges. When I started the gallery, I was in my second year of graduate school at SFAI in the Exhibition and Museum Studies program and I was up against all these challenges that school could have never prepared me for. For example, I was figuring out how to contain rodents from coming into the backroom.
PM: (Laughing) I guess rodents could be considered viewers, but not the most welcomed ones.
DB: I think everyone has appreciated the ability to see the backroom in its entirety. I mean its kind of hard to imagine now, but things were piled high into the walls. You had to walk through this curtain and a narrow corridor to get into the back. Now there is an opportunity to see more artwork and have more breathing room in that experience.
AMcK: I worried about losing the old space. It was tiny, charming, and intimate. It is still a small space, but it has been improved greatly, and more people can see more art in the gallery now. I am very happy with the changes. Devon took on the fundraising necessary for the improvements here and artists chipped in with donations of work that were auctioned off. We raised a decent amount of money. The artists have been very supportive of Adobe through donating art for raising funds for quite some time.
BA: I totally understand how you feel about one aspect of the atmosphere missing. There was this liminal curtain that made me feel as if I was sneaking into the backroom, where potentially illicit things or a really good party were going on. Now, it is wide open and airy, which is better for the art, but there is a little nostalgia for the grit.
Within this Petri dish, are there ideas, desires, and drives for what we want programming to be? What would be a successful future? What would be the kind of work you want to see come out of this place?
DB: That’s a really crucial and important question. This interview comes at a time when I’m at a crossroads. I’ve been on sabbatical in Los Angeles for about eight months so I am retooling what those original initiatives were, which included, as I said earlier, activating the space and activating other aspects of the space where natural occurrence of thinking and dialogue were occurring.
One of the questions I have right now is what does emerging artistic activity look like in the San Francisco Bay Area and how am I to support that? Not to create a new history, not to create a parallel history, but to really think what that looks like.
AMcK: I think that the gallery has to continue to introduce artists to a bigger community. We’ve shown people who have had little recognition. It has worked very well to have this gallery at the street level and people are comfortable trying to launch themselves here. Occasionally, an artist will be taken out of here and very quickly gain recognition. Simon Evans is one of the great stories. He showed his work in the backroom and sold out the show. A local dealer gave him full representation and his career has done very well since. It’s sort of the dream for a lot of artists and it could continue to happen.
PM: Devon, because you are in this space where you are identifying new practices, are there things that you can point to and say this is something that is notable in the Bay Area in terms of artistic practice?
DB: I’d like to add to Andrew’s statement as far as identifying what success is and really rethinking that in terms of a gallery space. Perhaps success should be more appropriately defined by the artists themselves, and in terms of what they take from working within this space to their future projects. If I had to pinpoint areas of emerging activity, it seems as though artists are very enthusiastically rethinking the nature and structure of an exhibition. For example, I recently worked with the artist Dori Latman; we broke down her exhibition into three-week installments that took place in between other exhibitions.
AMcK: I think one of your more brilliant shows was when you tore down the old gallery and before you built the new gallery. You gave a show to Andy Vogt and Josh Churchill, who took the raw space and made a beautiful architectural show if it.
DB: I invited Andy and Josh to intervene in the renovation of the space and engage the transformation on another level. During the demolition process, they integrated their practice and their works into the architecture of the space itself. Josh took recordings of the space and of the store, put those sounds together and had them installed into the ceiling, so the entire space was consumed by the ambient sounds of the store. And Andy was actually directly involved with the demolition and renovation of the gallery, so he got to see it from both sides through the entire process. He works with plaster lath and other building materials, so he was able to recompile or restructure the debris from the space itself.
PM: You’re inviting artists who are operating in a very particular moment in their careers, when they are still trying to understand what their practices encompass and negotiating the investigations and the limitations of their work. You’re offering them the use of the space without placing the expectation on them that they have to produce work to sell. And you are asking them to open up their process to viewers while giving them a long leash by which they might create something. Are there limitations beyond physical ones that you find that you have to negotiate with the artists in terms of working here? I’m thinking about Chris Cobb’s exhibition, in which he re-ordered all of the books in the bookstore by color, so you had long rows of every red book in the bookstore, and so on.
AMcK: The gallery is more versatile now and can accommodate bigger work. You had to have small, intimate works to show in the earlier version of the gallery. I think it’s just become more accessible for more artists with the direction we are taking. If someone has an idea and it can work, it is fun to try it out.
Chris Cobb’s might have be one of the most successful shows to have taken place here. It was easy to let Chris take over the store and transform it. He got fifteen people to do it in one night. It was a success story at some level, but it also became a business failure. By Christmas time, no one would buy anything. But it was a brilliant idea, and it was an honor to allow him to do it here. People would come in and they wouldn’t know where to find a book, but they would find one somehow because they were looking differently.
DB: I don’t know if the limitations I have are specific to this space or perhaps they are just limitations to the profession in general. Part of running this space has been an internal dialogue of understanding curatorial practice and understanding what it means to direct a gallery. Working with artists has been the really fulfilling part. I think some of the other limitations have been finding the ways to sustain this practice, to bring visibility to all the work that goes into the making of an exhibition. I would say that’s probably a limitation or a challenge for most gallerists or any curator trying to establish their practice.
BA: A few weeks ago, you put a sign in the window that has caused a lot of rumors about the future of the bookstore, so I guess there is no other way to ask it, but what’s the future? The sign says, “Everything must go.” What’s that about?
AMcK: The sign is part of an exhibition by a young artist named Nicholas Torres. I felt very comfortable with sign in the window because book selling has declined in the last ten years. Whereas the sale of the books in the store once subsidized the art, the art has now been subsidizing the bookstore.
I don’t know how much longer we can keep this store open as a book business. The art side has thrived and done very well. This has been as good a year as any for the arts, I would say. Thanks to Devon, thanks to a lot of people.
DB: There has been a recent story circulating about the future demise of Adobe Books, but I think this has been a story on Andrew’s lips for a long time, and anyone that knows Andrew well enough will know what I am talking about. The independent bookstore has always walked that fine line and its future survival has always been an issue.
AMcK: I would definitely sell the store at this point. I’ve thought maybe we could get ten artists to make a cooperative out of it. It would be a crime to close it and we are not being forced out by the landlord or by the neighborhood, but the economics are looking bad. I’m not afraid to call attention to the possibility that the store will disappear.
PM: Is there the potential for Adobe Books Frontroom Gallery?
BA: Or Adobe Gallery Backroom Bookstore?
DB: There has been dialogue now that Andrew and I have been working together. If Adobe Books were to close, I don’t think that would be the last of it. I have daydreamed about creating the Adobe Books Society. If Andrew is forced to close someday, maybe the community would come together to create a non-profit, because closing Adobe Books would be more than just the loss of a bookstore, it would be the loss of a community center, meeting place, and intersection of ideas. So I don’t see the future as grim as closing might paint it. I think that there are other possibilities.
AMcK: I am open to anything and Devon could run the store very easily. There may be somebody else out there who might. I really love books, I do enjoy the book selling, and I’m going to be a bookman all my life. But a lot of people sell online and they’ve closed their stores. It’s part of a trend. But we will reemerge, somewhere. I don’t know what to tell you, except that’s not all, folks.