SAN FRANCISCO — On July 15, the leadership of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) announced planned cuts in the fall: the film program, which started in 1937; Open Space, an online publication that began as a blog in 2008; and the Artists Gallery, which has been around since 1946, selling artwork by contemporary Bay Area artists and renting out artworks to people to hang in their homes. Artists, art lovers, museum members, and employees expressed disbelief and outrage, saying the programs slated for cuts were ones that genuinely included the community.
“The museum has spent the last year and a half having conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said artist and San Francisco Art Institute professor Lindsey White. “These programs address all of those conversations and in fact they’re quite inexpensive programs to run, and in an internal memo they expressed that wasn’t their decision-making process — but it’s hard to know what their decision-making process is when they’re not talking to their staff and not having a conversation with the community at large.”
KQED reported that in an email to staff, Director Neal Benezra wrote that the financial savings from the cuts were “minimal at best.” The museum says the cuts were necessary because of shrinking attendance.
White was at a protest in front of the museum on Saturday morning, holding a sign saying, “I don’t love top-down decision making,” with a crossed-out heart making her feelings clear.
“How can you be a modern museum without a film program?” she asked. “What they’re telling us now is that they’re irrelevant.”
Liz Keim, a film curator at the Exploratorium, also attended the protest. Keim has direct knowledge of how the film program impacts lives: Her own changed when, as an art student at University of California, Davis, in the ’70s, she took a bus to San Francisco to attend a Sunday afternoon screening at SFMOMA. Seeing early Werner Herzog’s films was transformative, and the next day she got an application to the film program at San Francisco State University.
Film changes people’s perspective, she believes. “It’s a communal experience,” she said. “Emotions are contagious — you can cry together; you can laugh together. There’s something about sitting in a movie house in the dark, suspended in time by work that is taking us to new ways of thinking and seeing.”
Chris Duncan, who was holding a box of flyers opposing the cuts, said he had an emotional attachment to the film program since he and his wife, Maria Otero, run the press Land and Sea, which published a book of filmmaker and SFMOMA projectionist Paul Clipson’s drawings, Reel.
Seven employees will lose their jobs due to the cuts. An employee of SFMOMA who didn’t want to give her name, said she came to the protest to support her colleagues who built these programs. “These are community-building platforms for the museum,” she said. “There are very few of those left.”
Rick Prelinger, a professor of film and digital arts at University of California Santa Cruz, as well as an archivist who collects found and discarded footage, also joined the protest. While passing cars honked in support, he said he thinks the cuts would take SFMOMA in the wrong direction.
“Every other museum is trying to figure out how to be hospitable and open it up, and this place is doing the opposite,” he said. “The way to make museums important is to invite people in.”
Steve Polta is the director of San Francisco Cinematheque, which has partnered with the museum to present its film festival Crossroads. Reached by phone, Polta said San Francisco owes its reputation as a hub for avant-garde film partly to the SFMOMA program, which had a series of experimental films in the ’40s.
“I really feel in terms of having relevance to local communities, the film program and Open Space are where it’s at,” Polta said. “So many filmmakers care about the film program, and Open Space involves all these poets and writers. What art museum has any involvement in literature?”
Gina Basso, the curator of the film program, said the 1940s film series that Polta referenced serves as a beacon to her, and during her tenure she has tried to show challenging films that engage the audiences, as well as showing the relationship of film to other artworks.
Basso has been working at the museum about 15 years, starting as an intern in the Artist’s Gallery, and eventually working with the film program, in her current position since 2017. She said she’s proud of programs she’s done, like one that highlighted filmmaker Jia Zhangke and paired his films with others, and one called Black Powers: Reframing Hollywood, which included work by Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee, and Ava DuVernay.
Basso is one of the seven employees who will be laid off due to the cuts.
“I wanted the museum to be forward-thinking,” she said. “I’m hopeful they’ll reflect on this outpouring of grief and outrage. The film community is very loyal and supportive.”
Film is accessible and a gateway to other art, said Adam Piron, a curator at the Sundance Film Festival and the associate director of Indigenous cinema there. “It’s the art museum of San Francisco,” he said about SFMOMA. “It’s kind of insane to cut that program given its unique history to San Francisco.”
Getting rid of film as well as Open Space would be a glaring omission, Piron said. “They highlight voices of underrepresented writers, and they’re strong in terms of their commitment to Indigenous authors,” he added. “The museum touts reaching out to communities, but that’s one of its only efforts to really do so.”
Maxe Crandall, associate director of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stanford University, has worked with Open Space. “So many artists in the Bay write and engage with Open Space,” he said. “It’s a single site you can go to and get the temperature to see what’s going on.”
Crandall calls the proposed cuts “bone-chilling.” “I worry about something that’s supposed to be a cultural institution is becoming a corporate institution,” he said.
San Francisco artist Ron Saunders agrees. “I think it’s a shame and kind of a disgrace doing away with programs that benefit artists and artists communities in San Francisco,” he said. “They have become an elitist institution.”
He’s had friends who sold their work at the Artist’s Gallery, and he’s been interviewed for Open Space. “It’s a vehicle for people to find out about artists in the Bay Area, and they’re cutting that off,” he said. “To me, you’re saying you’re not interested in the artist community.”
Raw Material, the museum’s podcast which just won a top award, will become an audio zine that will interact with exhibitions inside the museum.
Erin Fleming, who started the podcast, now lives in Los Angeles, and works as a Senior Digital Production Specialist at Qatar Museums. In an email she said that the podcast had personal stories around art and culture, rather than experts. The collection at SFMOMA, like many modern art museums, is overwhelmingly white, she pointed out.
“Diversity in programming by no means makes up for a lack of diversity on the museum’s walls,” Fleming wrote. “But still — Open Space, Raw Material, and the Film program have been pockets of SFMOMA that centered, celebrated, and paid artists of color, transgender and nonbinary artists, and other artists that have been historically marginalized from the big story of art history and thus ignored by museums.”
An SFMOMA spokesperson sent a statement saying “ the pandemic has had a major impact on our operations, exacerbating existing challenges such as reduced attendance, growing expenses, and constrained budgets,” and that they were “committed to programming that enhances visitor experience, both in our galleries and throughout the museum.” When asked in an email to respond to the people who say the programs are important to the community and the cuts wouldn’t save a significant amount of money, they responded: “unfortunately I can’t add more than what is below.”
An online petition opposing the cuts has more than 2,000 signatures at this time. Another protest at the museum is planned for Thursday, August 5.