San Francisco Art Gallery Closing After 47 Years: ‘The End of an Era’

An art gallery owned and operated by the City of San Francisco that held art shows over four decades — featuring everything from drag queens to fine artists in a former auto garage across from City Hall — will have its final sendoff this weekend, capping a 47 year run.

The San Francisco Arts Commission, which has operated the space since 1970 said it plans to cease holding new shows in the building to concentrate on its newly opened gallery in the War Memorial Building.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Meg Shiffler, the SFAC’s Gallery Director. “Almost 4000 artists have shown here over the course of 47 years.”

In a nod to the flowery era of its founding, the barn-like gallery with soaring wooden rafters was originally called Capricorn Asunder. Sculptor Ruth Asawa and photographer Ansel Adams were among the artists who showed in the gallery.

The city closed the gallery to shows in 1994 after taking stock of its un-retrofitted buildings following the Loma Prieta Earthquake. It reopened several years later but only for window displays which visitors could take-in without entering the building.

Aside from fine arts, the gallery hosted many wacky, spectacle-driven shows over the years. San Francisco artist Cliff Hengst recalled his first show in the gallery which featured a bevy of drag queens.

“It was just tons of drag queens walking in and out, each trying to outdo each other,” Hengst said. “I thought ‘wow, this is a great place — magical.’”

Joe Rosato Jr.

This Saturday Hengst will lead a farewell procession from the old gallery to the new one — where a party will fete the history of the old space. Inside his Mission District studio, Hengst made signs for the procession bearing the names of the titles of the different shows that took place in the space.

“This one says ‘Meat Show. There’s Zephyr,” Hengst said leafing through the signs. “Nightfall, Groundswell, Lost Caress, Tortured Anvil.”

The gallery sits tucked in along Grove Street facing the golden tinted dome of city hall, next to a sunken empty lot that also hosted art displays over the years. Even in its later incarnation of solely window displays, the gallery was prized for its ability to surprise visitors passing by with unexpected art displays.

“It’s kind of fun to be across the street and watch people just wander by and suddenly stop,” said artist Martin Venezky, “because they’re not expecting to see anything there.”

Joe Rosato Jr.

The arts commission tapped Venezky to create a final window display of large colorful photo collages which will remain up for the unforeseeable future.

“It’s always sad when these things disappear after being around for so long,” Venezky said.

In a tumultuous economic climate that’s forced out artists and galleries, the closing of the arts commission gallery was at least tempered by the opening of the new space in the War Memorial building. Still, Hengst couldn’t help but feel a bit of nostalgia at the old gallery’s passing.

“It’s always a little sad, especially when it comes to a public art space when it has to go,” Hengst said. “They don’t come back.”

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