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McEvoy Foundation closure is another blow to SF’s art scene

Builder Levy, “I am a Man/Union Justice Now, Memphis, Tennessee,”1968. McEvoy Family Collection. Courtesy of the artist.

A New York Times article published in August 2022 decried the twilight of the Bay Area art scene, citing the departure of two blue-chip galleries.

But the article mistakenly equated the high-end art market with the health of the arts community here. In reality, such megadealers benefit only a handful of local artists. Like all art communities, San Francisco is bolstered not only by galleries but also schools, museums and non-profits.

Recently though, San Francisco has been losing these sorts of spaces, too. The venerable San Francisco Art Institute shuttered for good last year, and Pier 24 Photography recently announced its upcoming closure in 2025.

Now add to that list McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, which mounted its final exhibition earlier this month and announced that it would close its Dogpatch gallery space for good on December 31.

In this case, the closure isn’t the result of a downturn in foot traffic or any other pandemic-related precarity that has affected much of commercial San Francisco, but rather the sole decision of the McEvoy family, which runs the foundation in lieu of a board structure more typical of nonprofit organizations.

It’s clear that whatever function the Foundation served the McEvoy family has run its course — but is it too soon for the rest of us to say goodbye?

Opened in 2017 by Chronicle Books CEO Nion McEvoy as part of the Minnesota Street Project’s arts campus, the Foundation made the McEvoy Family Collection available for free through themed exhibitions, a robust film series and numerous public programs.

The collection, which currently holds between 4,000 and 6,000 works, is notable for its breadth in photography and California painters, including many local household names such as Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn. The family will continue to facilitate the conservation and loan of pieces from the collection to other institutions.

Andrea Bowers, “Community or Chaos,” 2016. McEvoy Family Collection. Courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco.

Exhibitions at the Foundation often centered around loose themes from in-person gatherings to climate change to color, drawing on the family collection and commissioning new work by local artists such as Sadie Barnette, Angela Hennessy and Carolyn Drake. But programming was strongest when focused on a single artist or vision.

For instance, two exhibitions — Ragnar Kjartansson’s “Scenes from Western Culture,” a nine-screen video installation employing a series of cinematic vignettes to dissect contemporary social themes, and Isaac Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour,” a narrative video portrait of Frederick Douglas — left lasting impressions for the scope and singularity of their vision.

The Tilda Swinton-curated “Orlando,” an exhibition of visual art interpreting Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same title, organized by Aperture, was another memorable entry for the way it dissected gender identity and representation through Swinton’s particular sensibility.

The Foundation’s final exhibition, “What are words worth?” features visual art about language and text in a cheeky reference to the McEvoys’ illustrious background in both art and publishing: Nion McEvoy is the great-grandson of M.H. de Young, co-founder of the San Francisco Chronicle (there no longer exists any business relation between the newspaper and Chronicle Books), and the namesake of the de Young Museum. The show uses art about text to examine how meaning is inscribed in and on the world through words.

Larry Sultan, “Business Page,” 1985. McEvoy Family Collection © Estate of Larry Sultan. Courtesy of Casemore Gallery, San Francisco; Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York; and Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln.

Some works in the show reframe familiar interactions with language in new contexts. In Natalie Czech’s photographs of books, newspaper articles and album covers, the text has been highlighted, underlined or crossed out to produce her “Hidden Poems.”

Other artists document various uses of language for political and social ends. Builder Levy’s photograph “I am a Man/Union Justice Now, Memphis, Tennessee,” 1968, shows a scene from a protest march in which Black men carry signs with the photograph’s titular phrases stamped across them. Here, language is used for its most fundamental purpose, to define and assert what something is — in this case, human.

Gordon Parks’s “Untitled, Harlem, New York,” 1963, is a color photograph of a young Black boy leaning against a barricade stenciled with the words “Do Not Cross.” There’s something jaunty about the boy’s pose, hips cocked and back turned, that gets at the dynamic of flaunting language as much as engaging with it — in this case, the power to argue, to say otherwise.

The McEvoy Foundation’s final show doesn’t feel particularly climactic or conclusive — ending with neither a bang nor a whimper, but something more like a quiet exit.

While the loss of a local art gallery is never welcome, the Foundation’s location in Minnesota Street Project ensures that another arts institution will no doubt take over the 5,000-square-foot space.

Gordon Parks, “Untitled, Harlem, New York” (1963). McEvoy Family CollectionCourtesy of and © The Gordon Parks Foundation

For the recent rash of closures in the San Francisco art landscape, there has been an equal surge of openings. Look no further than the Minnesota Street Foundation’s major new exhibition space, launched just down the block from McEvoy Foundation in May.

Smaller commercial galleries new on the scene include Jonathan Carver Moore, prominently located on Market Street, as well as a gallery in a movie theater and another in the stairwell of a residential apartment building.

For whatever pall of doom some are wont to cast San Francisco beneath, some locals seem determined to prove them wrong. After all, New York in the 1970s is remembered as one of the greatest periods in recent art history, and it was also one of the city’s most significant periods of fiscal crisis.

If past is prologue, then perhaps San Francisco’s economic downturn will result in opportunity in a sector that previously struggled to compete in a landscape of limited commercial space and a high cost of living.