Photo courtesy of LSE Library
Photo courtesy of LSE Library

The San Francisco Public Library’s James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center are proud to present a presentation by Jeff Gunderson and Jim Van Buskirk entitled: Artistic, Colorful and Unconventional: A visual tour of San Francisco’s queer art scene. The presentation will focus on the important role played by the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and chronicle it’s nearly 150 year history, covering  the GLBTQ artists of all stripes who have attended the SFAI.

In honor of this event, Jeff and Jim co-authored a piece concerning the process of assembling this presentation, from digging through the archives and collaborating with the LGBTQ community, to the moral considerations necessary to appropriately honor the LGBTQ artists they would be celebrating. Below is a preview of the article, which will be published in its entirety in the Summer 2015 BayNet Newsletter:

Jeff: Last Fall I was asked by Charles Demarais, the President of the San Francisco Art Institute to present a talk about the School’s relationship with the LGBTQ community.  I think it was his and others’ understanding that the SFAI had been a safe haven and fertile ground for LGBTQ artists during the school’s 140+ year history.  Charles wanted me to give evidence of this thesis in a presentation to SFAI Alumni, which was to take place in November 2014.  It is understandable how administrative folk here on campus—the President, the fundraisers, the public relations people and others—had gotten this idea of the SFAI as refuge as I had always made sure when the topic came up to rattle off names of well-known and terrific LGBTQ artists who had attended and or taught at the school.  This included Jess, Minor White, Bernice Bing, Jerome Caja, Annie Leibowitz, etc.  But I am afraid I had promoted the impression that these artists as well as many other LGBTQ artists had thrived here at the SFAI campus when I am sure many of them must have struggled mightily amidst prejudice and homophobia and succeeded in spite ofobstacles hurled at them from fellow students, faculty and staff.

Jim: Our process, I think we can safely say, was organic. Jeff showed me what he had come up with so far and we began brainstorming more names. Did so-and-so identify as queer? Did such-and-such artist have an association with SFAI, either as an instructor, student, or staff member? We combed through exhibition catalogs, books, websites, and the archives. We realized that it would be wise to get as much opinion from current faculty as possible. Whenever we mentioned the project to someone, they became excited and often offered another potential name. Julie Blankenship, a former SFAI student, artist, and Executive Director of Visual AID, was a particularly helpful resource.  Realizing that this needed to be a visual presentation (SFAI is an art school!), we searched for images of each artist as well as a representative sample of their work. Jeff scanned images from books and documents, and Jim contacted possible participants. Knowing we could never be comprehensive, we nevertheless tried to follow up on every suggested name. Moments of sadness punctured our enthusiasm as we realized many of the names had been lost to AIDS.

No one could quite believe that this important aspect of both local queer and institutional history had not previously been documented.  We also recognized potential pitfalls of the project. To what extent did we risk misrepresenting and/or “outing” individuals? For example, Minor White, now celebrated as a pioneering “gay” photographer, was likely not “out” during his tenure at the SFAI.  Reinforcing the “it’s complicated” phenomenon: Angela Davis came out as a lesbian in a 1997 interview, but had earlier married one of her male SFAI students. We continued to ask ourselves: were we uncovering underdocumented material or just fueling the flames of gossip under the guise of historical research.

To see the presentation, head to the San Francisco Public Library on June 3rd from 6:00 – 7:30pm. And keep an eye out for the Summer 2015 BayNet Newsletter which will be publishing Jeff and Jim’s article in its entirety.