When Rio Yañez and Kevin B. Chen curated SOMArts’ new exhibition “Building the Building,” which honors the cultural center’s 40-year history, they couldn’t depend on an archive. Such a thing doesn’t exist.
“Because of that lack of documentation and go-to archive for SOMArts, it was really just talking to people and emailing and getting a sense of what was there in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” says Yañez, 39, former building manager of SOMArts (for nearly a decade) and son of influential Bay Area Chicano artist René Yañez.
Given the lack of recorded history, and limited space, “Building the Building, which runs through Sept. 3, is not a comprehensive look into SOMArts’ prolific years. It’s a snapshot of multiple generations intertwined with a building and mission that have outlived the Reagan Era, the first dot-com boom and SOMA’s gentrification.
Despite the title that stems from SOMArts’ internal name, “the building,” the exhibit is less about the physical site and more about artists who have and continue to maintain its community-centric, multidisciplinary and multi-cultural vision.
Bernice Bing, Carlos Loarca, Johanna Poethig and Nancy Hom are featured for their lasting contributions to the center’s legacy — artistically, curatorially, administratively or all of the above.
Bing’s “Quantum” (1988-1990) and “Blue Mountain” (1966) abstract paintings open the exhibition, while Oliver DiCicco’s kinetic sound sculpture “Sirens” (2008) floods the space with layered sounds of whale-like calls and whirring metal.
The show expands into examples of diverse, socially-engaged artists: Cece Carpio’s 2019 vibrant canvas paintings of ancient Tagalog goddesses; Katie Gilmartin’s “Queer Words” series (2002-2019) of 30 linocut prints visually defining words like “queen” and “Stonewall” in and out of the context of the LGBTQ community; and Victor-Mario Zaballa and Ann Chamberlain’s “Memorial for 5000 Indians” (1991-2019), acknowledging the lives of indigenous people brutally exploited by colonialists.
What isn’t explicitly written on any of the gallery’s white walls is how much SOMArts has helped its artists develop and grow.
“My history with SOMArts is that it saved me,” says Hom, 69, former director of Kearny Street Workshop, an Asian American arts organization. She turned to SOMArts after she and KSW were evicted from the International Hotel in 1977.
SOMArts didn’t have the pristine installation walls it now uses, but Hom found enough resources in the “raw space” to continue her work in a time when she was innovating “partly out of necessity.”
“It was a creaky, old, funky warehouse, Yañez says. “And that’s kind of what made it special and beautiful.”
Though SOMArts’ environment has drastically changed, with a Trader Joe’s, Mercedes-Benz dealership and five tech companies headquartered nearby, the center remains an invaluable resource.
“One of the amazing things about SOMArts is that it’s still very accessible to artists, to young artists, to broke artists, to struggling artists,” Yañez says. “It’s still one of the last community art spaces that has a large space and is still accessible to artists.”
IF YOU GO
Building the Building
Where: SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan Street, S.F.
When: Noon to 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays; closes Sept. 3
Contact: (415) 863-1414, www.somarts.org