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Episode 58
Museum Director Ali Gass of ICA San Francisco

  • 31 min read

Episode Description

A conversation with Ali Gass who is the Krieger Family Director of the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco. In our conversation, Ali discusses how the ICASF got off the ground, the programming vision for the institution, the benefits of being a non-collecting museum and the hurdles that lie ahead.


Craig: [00:00:10] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with Ali Gass, who is the founding director of the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco. In our conversation, Ali discusses how the ICASF got off the ground, the programing vision for the institution, the benefits of being a non collecting museum, and the hurdles that lie ahead. And now building a new home for artistic dialogs by the Bay with Allie Gass.

Craig: [00:00:55] Ali Gass, thank you so much for joining me this Week on the Art Sense Podcast. Ali, you have created a museum and so I'm wondering what led you to think "I need to do this and I can do it from scratch?"

Ali: [00:01:12] Thank you. Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to talk to you about the crazy and exciting startup museum that is the ICA San Francisco. Well, first of all, it certainly isn't just me and it wasn't just me ever. But it is a really, really exciting proposition to have an opportunity and the privilege to be part of the group of people starting a new arts institution in the Bay Area, the ICA or Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco. So it really was something that I think has been in the back of my mind. And I came to learn sort of in the back of a lot of people's mind that San Francisco has. So many in the Bay Area, have so many kind of wonderful arts organizations from really small local nonprofits to big, wonderful collecting museums. And what makes great contemporary art cities go is a great ecosystem, and often within that are ICAs or non collecting ambitious institutions that can take risks and move quickly. And San Francisco doesn't really have or hasn't really had kind of a mid-range ICA of sorts that can be really ambitious. So I back in, let's say 2021 or 2020 and 2021 was sort of thinking, "hey, this would be an exciting thing."

Ali: [00:02:38] I had come back to the Bay Area mid-pandemic, I had taken a job and was and was working at the ICA San Jose, which is a great arts organization, was doing some programing there and a lot of people were sort of starting to say, "hey, it would be really cool to do some of this." Also in San Francisco, which is where I had lived and worked for many, many, many years and where I was living at that time. And lots of things kind of came together and people were saying, hey, San Francisco could could have an idea. There are great ideas across this country. And I can talk a little bit more about what an ICA is. So long, long story short, lots of people came together and said, "hey, what would it be like to have an ICA San Francisco?" Like there's an ICA L.A., there's an ICA Boston, there's an ICA Miami. What would it look like to have one in San Francisco? The wonderful longtime VC, Andy Rappaport, who is a developer who created the Minnesota Street Project, which is a set of galleries in San Francisco, came to me and said, "Hey, I know this is something you're thinking about. Let's talk about what it could look like. I could help you get started and help you secure a building."

Ali: [00:03:41] And he and his wife, Deborah Rappaport, were really the first real believers in this. They they gave me a challenge, me and my now deputy director, Jonna Hunter, they gave us a challenge and said, "if you guys are really serious about this, we would put $1,000,000 seed investment toward this and help you secure a lease on a building to start. But you guys would, of course, have to pay the rent. But if you guys could secure a matching million dollars, I think you could put be off to the races." So that's kind of how this started. We put some vision together a little early, early budget document together. We talked with a lot of other people. There are other players that I'll talk about involved, but that was really sort of the spring, I would say, of 2021. Am I getting that timeline right? Yeah. So, yeah. So we raised the pledge. We didn't take anybody's money at that time, not anybody's money, but we kind of raised interest and the pledges of another matching million. And at that point we were off. And the ICA San Francisco, the seed of an idea was born and now it's real. And so that's how it started.

Craig: [00:04:49] Yeah, that's awesome. So, you know, as you kind of reference there, what is the formula that we normally see with an ICA in its different renditions across the country. And how is ICA San Francisco going to look like the others? But how maybe is it not going to look like the others?

Ali: [00:05:09] Sure, that's a great question. Well, I think the model for ICA is a really come from what is pretty commonly understood in Europe as a kunsthalle, right? A noncollecting contemporary art space or museum that is. And when we say noncollecting, it just means that we don't have a collection, right? Collecting museums, both show works that are from their holdings collections and they also of course show noncollected works. So exhibitions that are loan shows or commissions from artists. But I think when you have a collecting museum you're often really harnessed to, but also have the opportunity to tell stories based on, those collections and stories that are really about oftentimes a real history of art. Collecting institutions are important because of that. But you're also then when artists, contemporary artists, have a chance to show it, collecting institutions...often those are the exhibitions that are really marking moments in artists' careers. One of the things that I think are possible at kunsthalles in Europe, is that they're oftentimes really...can be quite nimble and move really fast. They sometimes are smaller than big collecting institutions and they can give artists an opportunity perhaps to take risks in a different way. So we think of kunsthalles as a place where artists at all different stages of their career can maybe even step outside that examination of the path of their career and really just be like, "Man, I'm going to like really do something kind of ambitious and different and and big and not even maybe think about my market as I might with my gallery.

Ali: [00:06:39] Maybe it doesn't even have to be salable. I can really do something exciting." So kunsthalles in Europe are really oftentimes a very interesting place to see something that's happening in contemporary art that maybe really relates to what's happening beyond the walls of that space that relates to what's going on in the world, whatever. I would argue that in the United States, ICAs or MCAs (museums of contemporary art) have really kind of taken the place of the Kunstler. So that's sort of that's why when we decided to start a contemporary art museum or a serious kind of contemporary art institution in San Francisco right now, we decided to call it an ICA because it sort of signifies that orbit that we're trying to kind of circulate within, not call it sort of something different, like the Dogpatch Contemporary or the San Francisco whatever, right? So calling it an ICA was a really intentional choice to sort of say we're aiming to be here. As far as how it relates to the other ICA is, in some ways that's still yet to be unfolded. It's different in the sense that it's brand new and it's really therefore totally a startup and totally experimental. But all of those pieces were and have been. I like to take the ICA Boston, which is really in many ways the longest running ICA in the United States. I grew up in Boston, so it's also like my hometown museum in every way.

Ali: [00:08:04] And when I was growing up, it was a really small institution in downtown Boston. And now it's this incredible, massive, amazing museum down at the seaport and really was a force of economic impact for a neighborhood in Boston. It was an anchor that really developed a whole neighborhood there. They've even expanded beyond that with the ICA Watershed, which is this incredible experimental contemporary space across the harbor from there, their beautiful permanent building. And so I think they now do have a collection and things like that. So I see these can grow and become all different scales of things. The ICA San Francisco, of course, is a really nascent thing. When we talk about the ICA San Francisco right now, we're still figuring out exactly who we are and what we are. So when we open, we're really very much going to be about the artists, about the exhibitions, really put a couple of sort of values front and center because we had the privilege to start and open coming out of 2020 and out of 2021 moments when a lot of things that people who have been working in the art world and working in museums, we're really sort of vocalizing very publicly things that many had been quite frustrated by and pained by for years, things like inequity and pay inequity and who gets to show and institutions, things like that. So we could sort of start by saying, "okay, we're going to put some sort of values front and center as a means of kind of maybe course correcting."

Ali: [00:09:42] So equity in pay for who works in museums, thinking about what are we showing in terms of realizing that when we show artists and museums and contemporary museums, we're putting a stake in the ground in terms of the canon of our history for the future. So making sure that we're showing the most inclusive range of artists going forward, intersectionality kind of in every way, right? And thinking about the pipeline of who gets to work in museums because traditionally because salaries have been so low, it's really had been a bastion of real privilege. Right. You've had to have other sources of income to get to work in museums. So things like that. It's also been really something for museums that there's been this kind of air of kind of perfection of not often showing what goes on behind the scenes. So we're thinking a lot about transparency of letting it not necessarily look and be totally finished, letting ourselves say like, "Oh, we tried this, that didn't totally work. Let's go left and try this and let that be okay too." So I think because ICA has gone really fast, I think San Francisco has gone really fast to get ourselves open. We're going with a little bit of a like very San Francisco startup model that all the donors at our community are very comfortable with. And I think you're going to see us embracing a lot of that. Frankly, that may be a little bit different from other ICAs around the country.

Craig: [00:11:08] Sure. Well, you make it sound like you hope to be very nimble. And I've spent time in Silicon Valley. And, you know, one of the things that was always kind of a mantra there is "fail fast" and it's okay to try things and it's okay to get it wrong. Let's figure out what that is and quickly course correct, right? And it sounds like you're certainly doing that. And I think what's interesting that I'm hearing here is that you've identified some things that were missing, some things that were underrepresented on the front of the house and the back of the house. And you you kind of have a vision for how to have a new model that does a few things different, correct?

Ali: [00:11:55] Yeah, that is definitely correct. Yep, we hope so. But we certainly don't have all the answers. So I think that's where the kind of throw it against the wall and try it and then throw it against the other wall and try it maybe where we're going.

Craig: [00:12:08] I assume that if you're a non collecting museum you can be more nimble in that there aren't a lot of operating expenses and overhead in regards to storage, in conservation and certain things. And so what are some of the inherent benefits of being a noncollecting museum and what are some of the inherent challenges that a noncollecting museum is going to face that encyclopedic collections wouldn't be facing?

Ali: [00:12:39] Absolutely. Well, for me, the really important things about being noncollecting, of course, the budget model, right? There's an enormous set of costs that go into managing a collection, storing a collection, moving around the collection and caring for our collection. So when you take that away, immediately your budget is lower and therefore you have money perhaps to work with, to pay artists differently, to pay staff differently. But you're just working on a lower budget model and you can be more nimble for sure, and you can also be more free with your building. You don't have the same building needs that you would have if you were trying to house a collection. So we don't have the same climate control issues that we would have if we had a collection. So it's simply just from a cost perspective, I had a lot less money I needed to raise and I can use a much scrappier building. I don't need to do as much to any building that we inhabit and things like that. So there's the cost issue. Then there is really the question of the art historical canon that I think is just an enormous amount of work for anyone who's working in a collecting institution to think about right now. And I have incredible colleagues across this country, across the world who are thinking very deeply about what does it mean to add contemporary artwork into a museum collection for the future of the narratives we tell through museums when we put artwork on display, right? We know that when you add artwork into a collection, you kind of cement that as significant in the stories of sort of cultural production of meaning. And those stories have necessarily been somewhat exclusionary, right? No matter what, someone's making a choice about adding something into a collection.

Ali: [00:14:24] And whoever are the set of people making those choices have their own set of histories coming into making those choices. So it's really hard. These are really, really hard issues to grapple with. I'm kind of grateful to have a moment that is not totally my and my teams and my board and my entire community's responsibility to think about that. I'm so grateful that there are insanely smart people and wonderful people all around me who are thinking deeply about museum collections right now and being inclusive as possible and being as inclusive as possible. Building collections. But I think for us at the ICA San Francisco right now to think about taking that issue very seriously, when we think about showing artists and creating art, giving opportunities to artists to tell their stories with commissions and with exhibitions, but not thinking about the permanence of collections at an institution that feels important now, we are really hoping that there will be collecting that happens out of ICA San Francisco projects, right? That collecting is really important for artists and for communities. So my hope is that work that gets shown through the ICA San Francisco will end up in both public and permanent collections across the Bay Area because we're bringing some amazing work, both starting this Fall and I hope for for a long time to come. And it's very important for artists careers and for kids and for public communities that they get access to this work in perpetuity. And we have amazing collectors and amazing collections in the Bay Area as well. So it's not that I'm not thinking about collecting, but I think for the ICA, we're not thinking about the significance of a collection.

Craig: [00:16:07] In terms of programing, I know that you spent a good bit of time at the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, which has like a pretty robust vision for providing an educational experience. You know, do you see your programing as being educational or exposing people to new visions or is it exposing people to new artists? What is the programing going to look and feel like? And I know that's probably hard to say because we're we're still at the beginning, but from your vision, what do you hope people are able to see and take away?

Ali: [00:16:52] No. Yeah, that's a really, really important piece of the puzzle, actually, and one that, because we've just been starting, we haven't had a chance...this is one of those areas actually where we sort of had to veer. We had sort of hoped to start programing even in advance of opening you. We had this plan that we were going to start our membership program and some community programing even earlier this year. But this was one of those moments where we're like, "oh my gosh, we're a staff of, you know, a few people trying to open an institution and do a construction project and start a 501(c)(3)." And then we're like, "Oh, maybe we don't have to do that earlier in the year." So that was one of those like last things. But no, we are. So there's programing and I talk about like there's kind of flip sides of the same coin that go into programing, right? There's revenue driving programing and there's kind of public and free programing for the community. And I think this is also another part of my mission and vision, our mission and vision for the ICA, right? It's important to say that the ICA San Francisco is going to be a free museum. There will be no admission that needs to be paid when you come to the ICA San Francisco. And that's very important to us. But that means that our entire business model is philanthropy or donations, right? So our budget is $3 million. That's what we set it at. We hope that's right.

Ali: [00:18:09] That keeps going up and down as we learn things about it. But we're roughly about $3 million. We think we got that right. Who knows? But that means that my deputy director, Jonna Hunter and I and other people need to raise that from scratch every year, right? So that's hard. That's daunting. So that means that we have to do some programing through our membership program, which we're calling the 901 Club. 901 Minnesota is our address. The 901 Club, which will be our kind of membership that people pay to be part of, we want that to be both really fun and educational, and I can talk a little bit about that. And then we also have just made a great hire that we're about to announce of our Director of Learning and Partnerships, which will drive some of our K through 12 programing...sort of kids and teens programing, but also adult and community outreach programing that will be more free to the public programing, our 901 Club or membership programing. We're going to structure that so that everything we do with that will also be made free and available on our website once it's done. And then all of our kind of artist-related and exhibitions-related programing is going to be driven out of our curatorial teams department. So yes...but what is the goal of it? It's kind of manifold. I want to really, of course, make people feel like contemporary art is about the world we live in, right? Contemporary artists live and work in the same world we live and work in.

Ali: [00:19:38] These are...the goal of the ICA program is very much to help the broadest possible audience; see that contemporary art can help us kind of navigate the issues that we navigate today, right? So, I think it's going to be less about sort of formal art historical issues and more about what's going on in the world. So, I think when we sort of decide to make a choice to invite an artist to partner with us, it's because we feel like that artist has something to say about what's happening in the world right now. And this is another benefit of not having a collection perhaps for the ICA. You don't have to kind of look in your basement to see what's right that's going to help us shed light on an issue. You can kind of look around and be like, what artists can really help us navigate this issue? So we're going to look at that through the 901 Club or the membership program. We're really going to start talking about sort of behind the scenes of museums. How do they work? How can we understand what we should do to support museums both philanthropically, but also to help museums maybe be a little better? There's been a lot going on in the world and again, we don't have all the answers, but there's been a lot of criticism and unhappiness with our institutions. So we're hoping that in partnering as well with other museums and our colleagues, we can do some programing that helps us think about what have we learned and the process of starting this museum and the process of talking with other people.

Ali: [00:21:07] So we're going to do a whole series called "Starting the Startup Museum" this Fall. That will kind of be about what was the process and the choices we had to make along the way when we had the great privilege to start this museum. And then as we go from "Starting the Start Up Museum" series, which is going to be like building a board, building a program, literally building and thinking about like what are we seeing at other institutions that we wanted to take and emulate? Where were the choices that we made to try something a little bit different and why? What worked? What didn't work? When did we throw something at the wall and it just like fell and it didn't work? So we really want to let people behind the scenes as much as possible. And we're hoping that those moments of failure, because there have been plenty, can maybe be something that other institutions and publics can learn from. After we go from "Starting the Start Up Museum", we're going to do something called "Collector Starter Pack". I believe really deeply that even though we don't have a collection, part of our mission really is to sort of help people have some access to thinking about learning about contemporary art. It can be a really scary thing, but collectors at all price we're not just talking about like the super, super crazy art high art market, but like having access to living with art or feeling comfortable going into galleries or getting to know artists, going to art studios and even knowing where to look.

Ali: [00:22:24] That's going to be really scary. It's not a world that has been very inviting to a broad cross-section of people. So we really want to help people get comfortable with collecting art. So we're going to do a whole program that's really about like, how does it mean even to be a collector? How do you get comfortable with that? How do you feel comfortable asking questions and learn about contemporary artists? And that feels really important because it's not just curators and museums that are going to be making this "canon" of the future or the like...sort of like thinking about where are the artists that that that are worth knowing about or like worth supporting or not just the artists that we that we want to like shine some visibility on at all different levels of their careers. That feels vital to us when we're thinking about mission-driven collecting, supporting artists, supporting galleries in our own community and even beyond. So we'll be doing that. And then our exhibitions are going to run a long time because they're ambitious and we want to make sure that we're really pulling all the threads, so to speak, of all the things our artists and our curators have really worked on to bring them to fruition. And the biggest way that you bring them to life is through deep, deep, deep engagement.

Ali: [00:23:46] So there will be a lot of programing that kind of keep them alive and that's, you know, pitching it. I kind of used to take a take a language from education and say, like meeting the audience where they're at. And that's where we do school programing, adult programing. And I always say, whether it's someone who's like in a PhD program in art history or a kindergartner, we want to make sure that we're doing program that makes everyone come in and be able to engage wherever they are with that exhibition. So we're hoping to really design everything from really fun family days to DJ parties that in some way do relate to the exhibition to like really thoughtful artist panels and curatorial panels. So this is not reinventing the wheel. This is the stuff museums do. And you can expect to see some of that from us, of course. But I think we're hoping to not perhaps take ourselves so freaking seriously, right? We would also like the ICA to be a pretty fun and relaxed place to hang out. So one of the words we keep coming back to is casual, right? We want the ICA to be a place even when we're having parties where you can be wearing sneakers and that's okay, you can ask questions and that's okay and be very comfortable no matter what. So I think maybe that might also be a vibe that we just continually, continually insist upon.

Craig: [00:25:11] So on the curatorial side, if I'm with ICA San Francisco, and I'm putting together an exhibition, am I looking to work one on one with specific artists? Am I working with galleries? Am I putting together a group show of multiple contemporary artists? Am I asking for loans of works from traditional institutions? What do you think? Is it more single artist driven or is it all of that?

Ali: [00:25:43] I will tell you what our inaugural series is about, because I think it's a perfect microcosmic kind of example of what you will can expect to see at the ICA in the future. And I think we really kind of tried to do our inaugural program to give a sense of exactly what we expect you will see to come. So there are three exhibitions, two very large and one kind of small commission project that we will be opening with the two big shows. So the first big show is a solo major commissioned by the artist Jeffrey Gibson, who is a kind of very big name right now in the art world. Jeffrey is an artist who lives and works in upstate New York. He is kind of an artist who's had a lot of exhibitions recently, really. This summer in particular, he's been incredibly well represented. He's got a show that's just opening as we speak at the Aspen Art Museum. Just open an incredible project in SITE Santa Fe, really an important voice, an indigenous artist who really is maybe one of the artists who indigenous artists who's really kind of become perhaps the most significant indigenous voice designated that by the kind of high art world that these are really important artists in, such that he really borrows both from indigenous traditions and kind of very modernist Western traditions and has really pushed his own practice, continually reinvented both from a painting practice, from a sculptural practice and a performance practice.

Ali: [00:27:22] Really gotten a great deal of recognition and continues to, then turns around and offers that platform to other artists constantly "sharing the mic". Jeffrey and I had been talking and I approached him and thought about like, who would we want to give a solo major commission to coming from outside the Bay Area, who hadn't had a major, major project in the Bay Area before? Because I think some of what the ICA needs to do is bring voices into the Bay Area that haven't been seen here before. And I said to him, "Look, you're the right person to come and do this with us, but you've're showing a great deal. People are very familiar. People who are paying attention to this practice in the art world are very familiar. If we're going to do this, I really want to give you the opportunity to do something that you wouldn't be able to do at kind of other major, big collective museums. And I also really want to imagine, like, this is an opportunity to think about kind of what have you been thinking about what's in your back pocket?" And he was like, "All right, challenge accepted. I want to do that." I was like, "Oh, nuts, what have I done?" And he was like, "I've been thinking about a kind of meditation on land acknowledgment, and I want to do this kind of apology to the earth."

Ali: [00:28:41] And I was like, "Well, what does that mean?" And it's this unbelievable thing. I actually just recently got back from visiting him in his studio in Hudson, New York. He basically said to me, "like, look, this is one of the kind of two perhaps most ambitious projects I've ever undertaken." "And I will tell you that, like I've been a curator for over 20 years, this is one of the hardest exhibitions I've ever undertaken." So that was the start of this. It's really amazing. Jeffrey will be in our major...there's two sort of big long galleries that make up the ICA space. And in our major back gallery, Jeffrey will be cutting an incision in our floor, literally digging out the floor and exposing the earth that is underneath the ICA. And then he has shot 300 videos in upstate New York. And there will be a I think it's a 14 channel projection, 360 degrees, that is sort of a meditation, an incredible video projection showing different visions of all four seasons on the land. That is sort of floor to ceiling all around. He has an incredible performer who's singing. There's layers and layers of sound that immerses you when you're in the back. He's also vinyl wrapping our building with this incredible collage. That's for those people who know Jeffrey Gibson. That is kind of where on the outside of our building, which will transform what the building looks like.

Ali: [00:29:58] That's where you'll kind of see Jeffrey Gibson, as, you know, Jeffrey Gibson. But inside, it's a very sort of different major, major video installation with this floor incision, something really different. Then the other exhibition is this really extraordinary project guest curated by two women Autumn Breon and Tahirah Rasheed. We approached the Bay Area Collective See Black Women to guest curate a show that led us to these two women who are just really, really thoughtful, thoughtful curators and artists. They have approached this concept. The exhibition is called "Resting Our Eyes". And the concept that really led them to lead this project is this notion of when black women are free, that means all people, all humans are free. And it's the premise of the show is about leisure and adornment and the proscription kind of historically against black women's ability to kind of engage both legally and culturally truly in leisure and adornment. And so this is a loan exhibition, so we don't have a collection, but these are major loans coming primarily from private collectors or from artists themselves. And it's work from sort of major black American artists working in intergenerational artists across the last 30 years or a work really major artists from Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems to artists who are newer in their careers. And it could come from like La Sheila Brown, an incredible commission from Bay Area artist Leila Weefur. So that's a pretty major show.

Speaker2: [00:31:38] And whereas Jeffrey Show is kind of like intense and somber, resting our eyes is just like visual and delicious and glittery. So there's kind of these like to point counterpoint shows that people will see. So yeah, it's a major solo commission and then a guest curated projects of like object object loans, pretty significant work. And then the final project is in our what we're kind of calling our lobby. But the ICA is being kind of a really sort of rough renovation of a of a really kind of like industrial space. But in the front space, when you enter in, there's a sort of light block wall that is being constructed. And we've commissioned Bay Area artists Liz Hernandez and Ryan Whelan to do a project in that front space. That is, it feels important to us to have some Bay Area artist presence as much as possible. And so Liz and Ryan are doing a sort of meditation on the resiliency required to be practicing artists within the Bay Area. And their project revolves a little bit around the theme of the blackberry and the resiliency of blackberries to kind of tenaciously keep themselves in the Bay Area. There's much more going on there as well. But those three projects I think tell you a little bit about the different kinds of exhibition programing you will see happening, both the like opportunity to give a major artist a chance to do something really ambitious and different in their career.

Ali: [00:33:08] This guest curator model that feels really important to us to get non institutional curators chances to do work, to get other voices of content creation into the space to do major loan shows. Partnering with collectors like a lot of those collectors are Bay Area collectors, but some are not. But to show different works from private collections and major works in the space, and then to give Bay Area artists a chance to sort of like think differently and have a chance to show work as well. That's the kind of thing you're going to see us doing, I think again and again. And I'm hesitant to really commit to how much and what, because to be really honest with you, we're figuring out this space and this budget model and even the time of turning shows over. That's what we don't fully know yet. My mind, our mind has changed a lot. At first we were going to run these shows for three months and then we're like, "Well, that's crazy. This was a lot of work and a lot of money. We need to run these shows for six months and really program the heck out of them." So these are some examples of really realizing that we got some stuff wrong when we first started planning, but we got a lot of stuff right. These shows are amazing and I'm really proud of what we're about to show to this community.

Craig: [00:34:16] So tell me about the atmosphere for the arts in San Francisco, what the atmosphere for arts patronage is like. I lived in San Francisco from '98 to '03, and back then the contemporary art scene really didn't feel like it was very vibrant. And I know since I've lived there, you know, everything in Dogpatch has kind of sprung up. That was a purely industrial area back then. But I know that the San Francisco Art Institute recently closed, PACE recently closed its location there in the area. If you're taking the temperature for, you know, the art scene in San Francisco, what's the prognosis? What are we looking at?

Ali: [00:35:05] Yeah, I mean, it's so hard to say, right? I wish I had a crystal ball because obviously I moved to San Francisco in 2006 for my job at SFMOMA, where I was an assistant curator of painting and sculpture. So I was there and then I was the chief curator at the Cantor Art Center at Stanford for a while. So I've kind of been both in San Francisco and on the Peninsula. And then I went to the art museum, as you said, and then I came back in the middle of the pandemic, and I was at San Jose just for like a little bit less than a year before doing this. So I know the Bay Area pretty well. I say it is my professional home pretty much in every way. I really built my career here. Then it is my favorite place, my it is my home and it's the place where I deeply understand, I think, the best, to the best of my ability the philanthropic community, the artist community. Look, I think I am overwhelmed by the support that the San Francisco has had, right?

Craig: [00:36:12] That's terrific.

Ali: [00:36:12] Yeah, it really is. And I think that it tells me that this idea of hopefulness is still there, even against the, like, incredibly upsetting backdrop of SFAI closing and other institutions like really struggling. And I continue to hear this is something that I get asked in almost every interview I do, right? Like tech money, so to speak. The ICA San Francisco has had extraordinary support from folks who have made some of their wealth working in what I guess people would call the tech industry. So what I want to say is that the ICA San Francisco has had extraordinary support from a cross-section of people, right? People who have been longtime supporters of the arts in San Francisco, people who were major supporters at SFMOMA and other longtime institutions, but also people who are first time supporters of the arts. And that's really, really important because, as I said, most nonprofit arts organizations rely on individual giving or donors to sustain themselves. There is no real government support of any real significance. There's not even a real model of corporate support for nonprofit institutions to keep themselves afloat. So this is a really important message for us who work in nonprofit arts organizations to share and probably nonprofits of all kinds. But my business is museums and the arts is what I can speak to. If people want museums and arts boards, especially ones that are free and they have the capacity to give money, that's what they have to do. If you like it, you got to support it. And I think a huge part of my mission is to educate about that, right? And we live in a city of unbelievable economic disparity, right?

Craig: [00:38:07] Right.

Ali: [00:38:08] And that's one of the things that's incredibly painful about San Francisco. We can love it. But there's also that we all know that it's not like saying anything new. So I think the thing that feels amazing to me is that we have been able to raise money to get ourselves this far because we've had incredible believers and supporters who haven't just given me money and given the money, but lots of time and lots of volunteer work. It took all kinds of expertise to help me figure out how to do this. I think that what that tells me is that what I've been saying a lot is that people talk a lot and I heard a lot and all of my various jobs that like, oh, people from the tech industry are not supporting the arts are not supporting the arts are not supporting the arts. What I like to say in response to that is that, first of all, like, there's no such thing as like the monolithic tech industry or tech donor, so to speak, right? These are individual humans like anybody, like anything. And it's a matter of like who's interested in what, right? And it's our job always to make things clear, to make clear why this stuff matters and to make the case that these are symbiotic partnerships, right? I have the great privilege to do this for my career. Artists have the great privilege to follow their dreams and do this for their career.

Ali: [00:39:34] People who are have the great privilege to have some wealth to be able to support these things. Let's come together and make these things happen together. And it's a real partnership. So my hopefulness comes from the fact that unlike other cities where wealth often can be like a little bit more generational or museum boards or maybe built up of like seats that are more generational. San Francisco has a lot of people here who have made money more recently, right? And that money that's made more recently is also means that it takes a little bit more time for people to figure out how to then be supportive with it and give it away. Right? It doesn't it isn't like you just make a lot of money and then you're like, Oh, I'm done and I give it away. Now you have to kind of make a plan and figure that out. And I think what we're starting to see and certainly maybe what the ICA suggests is that that's happening, right? And I know it's happening at other places as well. And it's not going to be just in the arts. It's going to be in other areas that critically need help, like house business and other civic progress areas and stuff like that. So my temperature taking is that it's certainly happening, it's certainly doable and it's critically urgent. And it's a matter of also saying it's not for me.

Ali: [00:40:59] What I'm finding is it's not about people wanting their name on a wall and coming to a fancy party. It's about wanting to see impact and being part of something, doing work. And that's cool. I think that's really awesome. Like I'm having a lot of people who are like, I don't care about my name on a wall. I don't want to name your curatorship or name this and name that. I want to help figure out how to solve some problems. And that's awesome. Right? So I think maybe that's maybe the fate that the culture of philanthropy also has to be rethought a little bit. And that's exciting. So I don't know. I think's hard to measure that, though, against like some really devastating losses in our arts community. So I'm really and by the way, like while the ICA had an enormous amount of initial success, at the same time, the economy has just shifted and we are also like tightening our budget model that we initially projected. And I'm cutting a lot of stuff because that's definitely slowed down for us now as well. I'm hopeful that once we open and we go into a normal museum revenue cycle, it will pick up. But like, I don't know who knows the case for sure or risk, right? It could fail.

Craig: [00:42:15] Right.

Ali: [00:42:16] So we'll we'll see is the answer. Yeah.

Craig: [00:42:22] You know, and it makes me think that when you came out of college, you probably weren't dreaming about a life in fund raising. You were you're probably thinking about all the amazing programing opportunities. At this point in your career, what percentage of your job requirement is really in this sales role of convincing people that this is a place for them to invest back in their community?

Ali: [00:42:49] Oh, like, oh, my gosh 90%. Yes. I am no longer a curator. I am a fundraiser. Yes. Yeah. I mean, it's sort of funny. You're correct. I never...I didn't plan for this at all. And I think this is something that happens in people's careers as they develop. Right? I was an art historian. I was going to be a professor then. I was a curator, which was a better move for me, for sure. And it's really only as I moved into museum leadership that I came very slowly to understand that what that actually meant was, you know, setting the vision for sure, working with other people to set the vision. But then it's really just managing the budget and managing the team. And what that really means for managing the budget is that it is my job with my deputy director and director of development to bring in the money. So and largely I am the one who, with my director of development, really sets that plan and goes out and does that. So that's the scary, scary, scary reality of my day to day life. That $3 million is what pays for the salaries of everybody and pays for the exhibition and pays the artists and all of that. So every day that is what I do all day long and that is my job.

Craig: [00:44:02] Yeah. If folks were interested in finding out more and we're wanting to keep track and see the calendar, see what's going on, you know, look at opportunities for membership, where's the best place for them to follow you, Ali?

Ali: [00:44:14] Great question. They should for sure go to our website, which is currently it's still our kind of temp website, but it's ICA, San Francisco dot org. Our new website is going to drop on August 15th and almost immediately after that we are going to launch our membership program, which is the 901 Club. I'm going to say within a few days of August 15th. People should watch out for that at You can sign up for our newsletter. You can also follow us on Instagram. Just search for ICA San Francisco on Instagram and all that information is there. But signing up for our newsletter, following us on Instagram, those are the two best ways to stay abreast of everything that's happening. Our public opening date is October 1. Once we drop our 901 Club or membership program, there's going to be some opportunity to join at a certain level to come to our special friends and family opening, which will be the day before. But I'm not going to say too much more about that. Yeah.

Craig: [00:45:17] So everything is subject to change, right?

Ali: [00:45:19] Everything that doesn't change, but that's pretty much locked in. But yeah, for sure there's going to be opportunity to follow along with us. And those inaugural shows are locked in. We've been planning those all year and, you know, fingers crossed that construction stays on track. But I think the date is solid, but I think we're good.

Craig: [00:45:40] Well, Ali, I really appreciate your time today and I wish you the best of luck with the programing and the fundraising and what you're building there. And I'm very excited about the opportunity you're creating for a wide variety of voices in a wide variety of audiences.

Ali: [00:45:59] Thank you so much. It was fun to talk to you and thanks.

Craig: [00:46:10] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art since you can find the show on Apple Podcast, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to And click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at Thanks for listening.

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