MIX and the Museum: Researching the Politics of Inclusion

11.3 / On Being Included

MIX and the Museum: Researching the Politics of Inclusion

By Qianjin Montoya April 23, 2020

On December 28, 1973, Michael McCone, Deputy Director of the San Francisco Museum of Art (today known as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or SFMOMA), sent a letter to the San Francisco Foundation (SFF) requesting a continuation of funding for their popular program: Museum Intercommunity Exchange (MIX). The document included a record of MIX’s “outstanding successes” since it began in 1972 as an initiative to bring a larger cross section of cultures in the Bay Area together through museum programs, both on- and off-site. At that point, MIX had presented film festivals at the Galería de la Raza, produced music concerts that brought over 3,000 people to the Civic Center Plaza, and hosted traveling exhibitions through local partnerships with organizations including Kearny Street Workshop. In the last paragraph of the letter, McCone acknowledges that while the museum would  only be able to partially fund the program going forward, they would, more importantly, commit their Main Gallery for a proposed exhibition called Third World Painting/Sculpture Exhibit. “More than money,” he states, “this space indicates the priority and the confidence that the art represents to the Museum.”1 While McCone admitted that the museum was not willing to fully fund the exhibition, he offered what he considered to be equal, if not more valuable: prime museum space. 

In the summer of 2017 I had just completed graduate school at California College of the Arts in the Curatorial Practice program and I was still swallowing the word “curator” when asked what I’d be doing with my degree. Every project I’d been a part of in school had questioned the role of the curator and the structure of the institutions they worked within. I had been utilizing art objects and experiences to learn how to re-engage, disrupt, and sometimes dismantle past and present institutional networks, but I hadn’t quite found a name for that kind of work yet. Soon after graduating, I was connected to Deena Chalabi, the then Barbara and Stephan Vermut Associate Curator of Public Dialogue at SFMOMA. I asked her about the Galería de la Raza posters I’d seen in the museum’s Koret Education Center and whether the programming meant to educate museum-goers of the Galería’s almost 50 year history in San Francisco, or whether the posters were another attempt to “give space” to a community organization inside the white walls of the museum.

Graphic poster promoting free performance of Luis Gasca & Friends, Roberto Vargas, and Los Flamencos de la Bodega at SFMA, San Francisco, April 1972. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

In a gesture toward finding the answer to this and similar questions about the institution, Chalabi offered me a research assignment: look into a short-lived museum program in the 1970s created to support and engage communities of color in the Bay Area but ran for only three years. It would be worth knowing not only what was archived, but also what was left out, and how those findings could inform present-day programming at SFMOMA.2

To: Community Involvement Committee
From: Sally Lilienthal
July 7, 1971

Positive Guidelines: Develop a workable pilot program to involve at least some San Franciscans who come from someplace else other than the white middle class which now make up the preponderance of SFMA members and visitors. Ideas for the program, as well as the specifics of it, should come from representatives of the community or communities who will participate in it, working with the committee.

Negative guidelines: As a committee we have no jurisdiction over what is exhibited in the museum galleries…3

The MIX archive at SFMOMA contains notes from committee meetings that SFMA board member and local arts philanthropist Sally LilienthalI was part of. MIX was Lilienthal’s brainchild and these early notes, with their insight into what was “positive” and “negative” when it came to working with an expanded audience, offer a fascinating window into the past, and a direct line into mechanisms of institutional access and community engagement within the museum. After an initial $24,000 grant from the Oakes Foundation in 1971, Rolando Castellón (one of the founding members of Galería de la Raza) was hired as MIX director and curator of exhibitions, and Becky Jenkins, of the Neighborhood Arts Program (NAP), was brought on as the performing arts director. Not only were these “representatives of the community” coming from outside the museum to helm MIX, they were coming from organizations that worked to support the multi-sourced narratives that were overwhelmingly missing from SFMA’s daily workings. The MIX archive surfaced a transactional dynamic between the museum—an entity directly connected to funding avenues like the Oakes Foundation and philanthropic board members—and representatives of local groups whose collateral was their established networks of collaborative partnerships, community organizing, and the shared experience of supporting the arts outside of major institutions. Proof of this unevenly yoked partnership between Jenkins, Castellón, and the museum was described in Castellón’s 2007 oral history where he describes a short resignation from MIX soon after taking on the position. According to Castellón, because the museum was going to be working with local organizations through MIX, there was a proposal to channel all current and future SFF funding for these organizations through the museum—in other words, that the museum would become the gatekeeper to vital support for local arts and culture spaces.4 As MIX was a pilot program for a major museum and not a fixed community space or independent initiative, Castellón felt it “would be taking the bloodline directly from the community.” “This was not something that I could accept,” he writes.5 He mentions giving a list of demands as terms for his return, but there is no record of those in the archive, or any meeting notes between him, Jenkins, and senior staff upon their return. It seems that enough was promised to Castellón and Jenkins to get them to come back, and they brought their unbending ethos with them. Whatever the reason, the absent record of this important turning point in the program’s history spoke to a larger feature of the dominant white art historical archive: the privilege to exclude the demands, needs, and terms of people outside of the institution when they are presented with the possibility, however misaligned, of institutional support, collaboration, and partnership. What was absent in the archive did indeed account for as much meaning and context as that which was present—and who exactly held the power to render things visible or not, was clear.

Graphic poster promoting the free MIX concert by Xoregos Dance Co. and Carlos Carvajal Dance Spectrum. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

In McCone’s SFF funding letter, Castellón and Jenkins were asked to include the details of the high attendance and popularity of MIX’s first year of programming and prospective components of the upcoming exhibition in hopes of enticing larger gifts of continued support. In doing so, Castellón emphasized a different impetus for the museum to host the exhibition: the dialogue and connection it would generate between communities that were otherwise foreign to one another. He explained that the exhibition would include in-gallery programming, “lecture and panel discussions to stimulate communication and understanding between third world artists and the general public.”6 This unique opportunity to engage and educate the public, as well as board members and museum staff, as Castellón often emphasized, was an integral quality he and MIX staff brought to the program.

Besides researching the MIX archive at SFMOMA for unknown details about the program, I was also asked to take note of what went right or wrong in hopes of sparking interest for future programming of a similar nature. While the thought of spending hours in the archive to gather and organize information on community programming in San Francisco was exciting, I was finding it difficult to answer my own questions about the work I was doing. Was this an effort on the part of the museum to “get it right” when it came to substantive community engagement? What else does that charge involve? Why was the last major effort to do so 45 years ago? As a recent college graduate and a person of color hired as an independent contractor, how was I implicated in regurgitating age-old dynamics of legitimacy via institutional recognition by taking this project on?

Graphic poster promoting free MIX concert of Afro-Caribbean Drum Dances and Poetry Reading at SFMA at Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, September 1973. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

The MIX archive contains documents, concert posters, press releases, and other ephemera, but the collection of published interviews, journal features, and academic essays were also of great value. A name I heard early on in my conversations with Chalabi and read in Castellón’s oral history was Grace McCann Morley, SFMA’s first director. When asked to characterize the role SFMOMA plays in the Bay Area’s art community, Castellón referenced Morley’s legacy of an expanded collection of non-American or European-derived works, and he stated that a widening of art historical and cultural perspectives was also what MIX had endeavored to normalize at the institution.7, 8 These parallel initiatives positioned the work I was doing as one point in a cycle. Instead of causing a rupture in the fabric of the museum’s practices, as Castellón called out, I understood my work was part of an ongoing mechanism of engagement with various communities, followed by retreat from any responsibility to them.

After the opening of Third World Painting and Sculpture in June 1974, Thomas Albright reviewed the exhibition in The San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle. In his article, “First View of the Third World,” Albright asks why the content of a “Third World” show should have so few images of what he considered Third World content. He lists the artists who he feels indeed helped to “develop the venerable cultural traditions of the non-European world” with works of totems and masks, and says these were the only works that gave the term “Third World” its “real validity and force.” Albright credited the work that coincided with his admittedly narrow vision of what “non-European” art was considered to be, and stated that to expect an audience to think outside of that framework—and to appreciate the work for requiring them to—was asking too much. This article was one of many that focused on the real vs. expected content of a “Third World” show in a large museum. The message of humanity, of multi-sourced and shifting truths about the experiences the artists were portraying in their works, was lost on the museum’s mainstream audience because it was not aligned with the monolithic narratives they were used to consuming in a museum.9

Reception for performances of Xoregos Dance Co. and Carlos Carvajal Dance Spectrum at SFMA galleries on Van Ness Avenue San Francisco, November 1973. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

After three years of intermittent research, archival discoveries, staff presentations, artist interviews, and a culminating community workshop series on the potential of the MIX program as a jumping off point for future SFMOMA programs and residencies, I couldn’t shake the persistent questions I held. Was recounting the ways a white institution strategized a temporary inclusion of people of color only aiding the argument that the institution has indeed successfully endeavored to be more substantively inclusive—rather, was I doing mercenary work laundered through missionary goals? How was my labor actually going to work against the notion that the museum has the power to legitimize these community narratives? It became evident that MIX had been short-lived not only due to lack of funding, but because it was successful with a community whose ethos was not what the museum was built for. The museum was not able to maintain a program like MIX because its value system and inherent function as a keeper of dominant, singular historical narratives could not contain the prismatic expressions or provide adequate sites of address for these communities.

Promotional materials announcing MIX community photography exhibition at the Waden Branch Library, San Francisco, July 1973. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

Third World Painting and Sculpture artist Mike Henderson explained in an interview that at first he hadn’t been fond of the name “Third World” because of its hierarchical connotation, like being ranked in third place. I asked what it was that made him agree to participate, knowing that the name wasn’t changing. “I wanted to give back to what art had given me,” he said. “Each generation [of artists] seemed to have a way of taking off another layer to find out, to get to the core of what is what. And I wanted to be a part of that.”10 The complexity Henderson describes—participating in something problematic in hopes of bringing examination and critique, while also making space for relevant dialogue about its methods and purpose—is the paramount principle in my own approach to this kind of labor.

SFMA Free Film Festival promotional materials. Listed sponsors are MIX and the Neighborhood Arts Program (NAP), July 1973. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

The majority of US museums are cultural institutions built to uphold dominant white culture. They are therefore inherently incapable of presenting the multi-sourced discourses and experiences of the communities they were created to dismiss with any amount of sensitivity or nuance. And giving museums the authority to legitimize only the histories and cultural narratives recognized by their institution further propels erasure and dismissal. Naming these longstanding deficiencies alongside the ways we as curators, researchers, and arts workers are implicated in their propagation is imperative to building the kind of baseline we will need to do our work moving forward. Like Henderson, I think it’s important to continue to pull back the layers whenever possible, to find the core of how and why these institutions still hold space alone as currency and are able to trade it for what they consider to be our cultural, spiritual, and intellectual goods. There will be questions of balance between old and new methods. One may need to look back in order to move forward. Acting strategically may mean ranking the value of a wrecking ball versus a surgical tool when it comes to making change happen within art institutions. I still don’t know what to call this kind of work, but I want to be a part of that.

Notes

  1. Correspondence from Michael McCone to Mr. John May, Director of the San Francisco Foundation, December 29, 1973, ARCH ADM-014, Box C2, Folder 24, Office of the Director Records, 1974-1986, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California, United States of America.
  2. Chalabi also discussed the research she’d already done on past museum programs, including MIX, in an effort to understand the local history of collaborations between the institution and local organizations, in service to her position as curator of “Public Dialogue.” Chalabi discusses this research in her “Thinking with Strangers” essay. Deena Chalabi, “Thinking with Strangers,” Open Space, November, 14, 2016, https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2016/11/thinking-with-strangers/.
  3. Meeting notes from Sally Lilienthal to the SFMA Community Involvement Committee, July 7, 1971, ARCH ADM-005, Box C8, Folder 32, Office of the Director Records (Gerald Nordland), 1966-1972, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California, United States of America.
  4. Rolando Castellón, “Rolando Castellón: SFMOMA 75th Anniversary, Rolando Castellón Artist SFMOMA Staff, 1972–1980 M.I.X Program Coordinator, 1972–1975 Curator, 1975–1980,” interview by Jess Rigelhaupt, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2008, 5, https://ohc-search.lib.berkeley.edu/catalog/MASTER_1378.
  5. Ibid., 5.
  6. Castellón’s description found within correspondence packet from Michael McCone to Mr. John May, Director of the San Francisco Foundation, December 29, 1973, ARCH ADM-014, Box C2, Folder 24, Office of the Director Records, 1974-1986, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California, United States of America.
  7. Castellón, interview, 23.
  8. An essay by Berit Potter (published online by SFMOMA) about Morley’s activities to diversify and expand the museum collection and exhibition processes was hugely useful to understanding why Castellón felt she stood out in the museum’s past, and how it was connected to the work he was doing at MIX. Berit Potter, “Grace McCann Morley: Defending and Diversifying Modern Art,” June 2017. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/essay/grace-mccann-morley-defending-and-diversifying-modern-art/.
  9. Years later, Castellón helped organize an exhibition with a friend and TWPS artist, Carlos Villa, called Other Sources. In an the exhibition catalog Villa returns to this issue of confusion by the general public and a “Third World” focused show; of the SFMA exhibit he recalls “... the jury didn't want to include only works of hands breaking chains and raised fists and flames, they wanted to represent the full spectrum. People don’t realize that there’s really a cry for humanity behind all of the protests that are happening.” Carlos Villa, Other Sources: An American Essay: Celebrating America’s Bicentennial (San Francisco Art Institute: SFAI, 1976), 58.
  10. Author's interview with Mike Henderson for SFMOMA's Open Space, currently being edited for future publication on https://openspace.sfmoma.org.

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