Amid the 15 galleries of edgy and eclectic contemporary art at the Minnesota Street Project, the exhibition entitled Dialogues, running through February 25 on the second floor of 1275 Minnesota Street, stands out for the sheer variety of art objects it contains: color-stained mesh tubes, fantastical ceramic sea creatures, paper weaves, embroidered watercolor cityscapes, dramatic costumes made from secondhand knitwear, newsprint mandalas.
Guest-curated by Lori Starr, the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s executive director, the exhibition traces a collaborative artistic conversation through its confluences, individuations, and mutual reinterpretations by displaying artists’ works side-by-side with those of their mentors. The artists are San Francisco Unified School District elementary- and middle-schoolers; their mentors are the professional sculptors, painters, and fashion designers who instruct them through programs provided by the San Francisco Arts Education Project, or SFArtsED.
SFArtsED’s founder Ruth Asawa started the organization at Alvarado Elementary School in 1968, when she received a $50 grant to buy clay for use in summer and afterschool classes taught voluntarily by friendly artists. Two years later, SFUSD provided an annual budget to support Asawa’s programming.
Asawa’s vision differed from conventional arts education in that her instructors were artists—not teachers—by profession. After a distinguished career in sculpture, Asawa died in 2013. SFArtsED still abides by her pedagogical mantra: “Art can only be taught by artists. If a non-artist teaches a subject called art, it is non-art.”
SFArtsED brings accomplished visual artists, musicians, dancers, actors, and poets to the City’s public schools, primarily through artist-in-residency programs. The resident artists become part-time instructors, during regular classroom hours, supplementing existing art classes with their own unique curricula. The organization serves 19 schools.
“Every residency is different, custom-made for each school,” said executive director Chad Jones. “They hire us to bring the program to them.”
The organization is a boon to schoolchildren and artists, offering employment and inspiration. Tiersa Nureyev, a costume designer who has worked with SFArtsED since 2005, observed that “having to think of new projects” for her students leads her to “think of new ways of looking at materials. It kind of forces you just to play around more. What happens is that you see the kids’ work and you’re like, ‘Oh, I should try something like that.’ There’s sort of a back-and-forth.”
In addition to its in-school instruction, SFArtsED organizes a musical theater troupe, the SFArtsED Players, whose newest production, Carnival, will run February 4 to 19 at the Eureka Theatre; and an annual summer camp, which’ll take place in June. But until recently the nonprofit struggled to produce a consistent roster of afterschool and weekend programming.
“Space in San Francisco is at a premium,” Jones explained. “Over the years we’ve been in church basements; we’ve been in storefronts; we’ve shared spaces; we’ve been in Rec and Park spaces; we’ve been in schools; we’ve been all over the place. And it’s getting harder and harder to find the spaces for those out-of-school-time programs.”
Fortunately, at an event at the Catherine Clark Gallery Jones met the philanthropists Deborah and Andy Rappaport, who conceived of a plan to “stem the tide of galleries shutting down” in San Francisco by transforming a former Dogpatch warehouse into a collection of below-market-rate art spaces. According to Jones, the Rappaports “liked what they saw” from SFArtsED that night. “It was our visual art on the walls, and we had some of our young performers come in for some entertainment during the evening, so they got to see the performing arts side and the visual art side, and they said, ‘When we develop this thing, we want an art education nonprofit like this to be involved. We think it’s really important to diversify the audience in the art world. It’s not just a hoity-toity Union Square art scene. We want kids and families to be part of it.’ So they courted us; it’s a very rare occurrence in the nonprofit world.”
The Minnesota Street Project opened last year, providing SFArtsED with “a physical space that’s our space, where we can hang our shingle,” said board of directors chair Julie Wertz. “It’s very flexible,” Jones added. “We have movable walls so that we can adjust the size of the classroom, eliminate the walls entirely, whatever we need.”
Without the logistical challenges of “being in other people’s spaces,” SFArtsED has been able to offer fashion workshops for students between the ages of 10 and 16, as well as “Mommy & Me”-style daytime classes, “where the adult and the child, ages three to five, work side by side, and the artist teaches them projects that they can also do at home,” said Jones.
The spring catalog for afterschool courses and workshops has yet to be released, but Nureyev commented that Minnesota Street classes tend to be “pretty original. They’re not just like ‘come and make a tote bag’ or ‘come and draw a still life.’ They’re kind of more interesting and pretty specific to the artists that work there.”
SFArtsED is still in the process of determining how best to use its Minnesota Street studio-classroom to engage the surrounding communities. “We just have to figure out the best way to reach out to people to let them know that we’re here and want to collaborate,” Jones said. One success has come from promoting the Minnesota Street Project as a school field trip destination.
Jones hopes to expand the scope of SFArtsED’s Dogpatch presence. Pointing across the street to the 37 affordable studios that the Rappaports recently developed for artists at 1240 Minnesota Street he noted that “we’ve been in conversations with them about interacting with some of the kids in the program, using some of the resources over there for some of our classes.” He imagines the block as a vast “art ecosystem” for kids and adults alike.
“It’s exciting,” he said, “to bring them into this world where they can visit galleries with artists of all different kinds, all different backgrounds, and let their families know that this is a resource they can come check out any time.”
The Minnesota Street Project is open to the public Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The SFArtsED exhibition Dialogues can be seen at 1275 Minnesota Street on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.