Works by Rosie Lee Tompkins at BAMPFA


UNDER THE LEADERSHIP of Mayor London Breed, San Francisco has fared relatively well over the past couple of months. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has faced infections and deaths, but early actions by the mayor significantly contained its impact. As of May 4, 1,624 people had tested positive in San Francisco and 29 died. Despite being challenged by an early outbreak, the city’s numbers trail far behind other major cities in California.

Breed is San Francisco’s first black female mayor and only the second woman to serve as mayor of the city since 1850. Based on recommendations from local public health officials and other key city agencies, the mayor implemented a series of precautionary measures. On Jan. 27, San Francisco activated an Emergency Operations Center and took gradual steps to keep the city safe. A local emergency was declared on Feb. 25.

Next, social distancing recommendations were issued (March 6), large gatherings were limited, and schools were closed (March 12). Then on March 16, San Francisco was the first city in the nation to issue a shelter-in-place order, requiring residents to stay at home and all businesses to cease operations, unless they were essential.

(Ultimately, nine Bay Area counties—San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, Sonoma, Solano, Napa, Contra Costa and Alameda—and the city of Berkeley implemented shelter-in-place orders, before the statewide mandate was issued.)

Museums and art galleries, of course, are not considered essential in a public health crisis. Since mid-March, public and private art spaces have been closed, locally and across the nation.

Earlier this year, before the pandemic, “Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze” and “Kahlil Joseph: BLKNWS” were on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. After opening last November, the landmark traveling exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” remained on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, when the city began taking steps to stem the spread of the virus.

Exhibitions dedicated to African American artists are not rare in the San Francisco Bay area. Multiple shows on view concurrently at major museums and galleries, however, is rare. This spring, that was to be the case. At least 11 exhibitions focused on art by black artists were scheduled at venues throughout the area.

Exhibitions dedicated to African American artists are not rare in the San Francisco Bay area. Multiple shows on view concurrently at major museums and galleries, however, is rare. This spring that was to be the case.

THEASTER GATES, “Do you hear me calling? Mama Mamama or What is Black Power?” 2018 (still). | Collection SFMOMA, Accessories Committee Fund purchase. © Theaster Gates, Photo courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles


The de Young museum closed to the public on March 14. “Soul of a Nation” was scheduled to conclude March 15. After much fanfare and visitor interest, the exhibition was shuttered one day early. At the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco, installation of a new exhibition was underway when the city’s shelter-in-place order was issued.

The museum was temporarily closed to the public preparing to present “Mary Lovelace O’Neal: Whales, A Romance…” (March 25-Aug. 23, 2020) featuring paintings by Mary Lovelace O’Neal. Since March 16, museum staff have been working from home and the show has yet to open.

The abrupt closures and resulting loss of visitors and income, has been shocking to the arts community.

MoAD has been forced to make staffing adjustments, which were announced internally March 20. Seven staff members were laid off and the remaining 11 are working reduced hours. Monetta White, executive director of MoAD, told KQED that the forced closure due to COVID-19 was “impacting our already limited operating funds.”

To help raise funds and bolster support, MoAD is holding an online auction to benefit the museum: “MoAD: Diaspora Unite! Artists of African Descent Benefit Auction 2020.” Nearly three dozen artists, including Amoako Boafo, Kwame Braithwaite, Andrea Chung, and Enrico Riley, have donated works to the auction, which is hosted by Artsy. Bidding ends today.

At the end of March, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced more than 300 employees would be laid off or furloughed. The museum’s president and other leaders are taking pay cuts. SFMOMA estimates an $8 million loss in revenue through June 30, about a 40 percent reduction. “Dawoud Bey: An American Project” is on display at SFMOMA.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Art Institute, whose alumni include Kehinde Wiley, was already facing financial challenges and reduced enrollment when the coronavirus hit. Reports that the school would close permanently proved premature. SFAI is hanging on and strategizing a way forward.

This spring, exhibitions featuring local and nationally recognized artists including O’Neal, Bey, Rosie Lee Tompkins, Kahlil Robert Irving, Simone Leigh, Theaster Gates, and Cauleen Smith were scheduled to be on view in the Bay Area. Some shows have closed since the city and surrounding areas have been shutdown. Others slated to open, remain in limbo. For now, anyone who wants to see the exhibitions is relegated to exploring them online. The following is a selection of this season’s shows:


Installation view of “Mike Henderson: The Black Paintings” at Haines Gallery in San Francisco. | via Haines Gallery

Mike Henderson: The Black Paintings @ Haines Gallery, San Francisco | Jan. 2-March 28, 2020

Mike Henderson has had numerous shows at Haines Gallery. He generally works with bold bright colors. This exhibition presented a series abstract paintings, defined by a dark palette. Anderson’s work was featured in “Soul of a Nation” at the de Young Museum. He lives and works in San Leandro, Calif., a suburb of Oakland.


Installation view of “Dawoud Bey” at Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, Feb. 1-April 25, 2020. | via Rena Bransten Gallery, Photo by John Janca

Dawoud Bey @ Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco | Feb. 1-April 25, 2020

Coinciding with Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey‘s retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, this show reflects the work on view at the museum. Four bodies of photographic work dating from 1979-2018 are presented: Harlem U.S.A., Black-and- White Type 55 Polaroid Street Portraits, The Birmingham Project, and Night Coming Tenderly, Black. The gallery notes that the exhibition end date is TBD. View catalog


DAWOUD BEY, “Three Women at a Parade, Harlem NY,” 1978, from the Series Harlem U.S.A. (gelatin silver print). | Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, Stephen Daiter Gallery, and Rena Bransten Gallery, © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey: An American Project @ San Francisco Museum of Modern Art | Feb. 15–May 25, 2020

Co-organized with the Whitney Museum of American Art, this comprehensive retrospective of Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey surveys four decades of work, including his early Harlem portraits and more recent series, including The Birmingham Project (2012) and Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2018), which focuses on landscape images capturing sites along the Underground Railroad. Watch a video


ROSIE LEE TOMPKINS, “Untitled,” 2005, Quilted by Irene Bankhead, 2008 (cotton, corduroy, rayon linen, polyester print, cotton terry, cotton embroidery, cotton bedding, and other fabrics with cotton muslin backing, 26 x 39 inches). | BAMPFA, Bequest of the Eli Leon Living Trust. Reproduced Courtesy of Estate of Effie Mae Howard, Photo by Ben Blackwell

Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective @ University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, Calif. | Feb. 19-July 19, 2020

BAMFA is presenting the largest and most comprehensive exhibition to date dedicated to celebrated artist and quiltmaker Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936–2006). The show features about 70 quilts quilts, as well as pieced tops, embroideries, assemblages, and decorated objects. Born in Arkansas, Tompkins learned quilting from mother, when she was a child, but didn’t pursue the practice seriously until the 1970s when she was living Richmond, Calif. This is the first exhibition to emerge from the transformational acquisition of approximately 3,000 quilts by African American artists, including more than 500 by Tompkins, donated last year from the estate of the collector Eli Leon. Virtual tour


SIMONE LEIGH, “Stretch Series #1,” 2019 (glazed stoneware, 25 x 13 x 13 inches / 63.5 x 33 x 33 cm). | Inventory # SLH 19.096. Photo by Farzad Owrang. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine, New York and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles

Formed and Fired: Contemporary American Ceramics @ Anderson Collection at Stanford University | March 13-Sept. 28, 2020 (postponed)

The practices of Kathy Butterly, Kahlil Robert Irving, Simone Leigh, and Brie Ruais embrace ceramics, a centuries-old medium, and push it into new realms, through a variety of finishing process and their unique substantive and aesthetic approaches. Works by these four racially diverse contemporary artists explore “questions of value, identity, materiality, and the body.”


KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING, “Titled Mass: Crushed Floral vessel (circa: some century) Enjoy Heaven,” 2018 (glazed and unglazed stoneware and porcelain, opal luster, gold luster, silver luster, blue luster, found decals, personally constructed decals, 13.5 x 8 x 8 inches). | © Kahlil Robert Irving, Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery

Kahlil Robert Irving: Mixed Messages (Streets & Screens) AOL + Lottery @ Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco | March 14-May 2, 2020

For his first exhibition in San Francisco, Kahlil Robert Irving is presenting works in a variety of mediums, including works on paper, ceramic sculptures, a light box, and a wallpaper edition. The works consider the contrasting worlds of technology and social media and the industrial materials that inform the built space. Born in San Diego, Calif., Irving is based in St. Louis, Mo. Watch a video tour


MARY LOVELACE O’NEAL, “# 12,” 1981 (acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 81 x 138 inches). | Artwork © Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Photo by Kija Lucas, Courtesy the artist

Mary Lovelace O’Neal: Whales, A Romance… @ Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco | March 25-Aug. 23, 2020

This exhibition features Mary Lovelace O’Neal‘s “Whales Fucking” series, large-scale paintings and smaller works on paper she made in the 1970s and 80s. The abstract works reflect her experience seeing whales in the midst of migration, enormous otherworldly creatures leaping in the Pacific Ocean. O’Neal was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute at the time. A professor emerita at the University of California at Berkeley, who once chaired the art department, she splits her time between Oakland, Calif., and Mérida, Mexico. This show follows “Mary Lovelace O’Neal: Chasing Down the Image,” a major solo show at Mnuchin Gallery in New York.


DAVID HUFFMAN, “Sideshow,” 2009 (acrylic, oil, glitter, collage on paper, 52 x 120 inches). | © David Huffman, Courtesy the artist

David Huffman: Terra Incognita @ Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco | March 25-Aug. 23, 2020

Since the early 1990s, Oakland, Calif.-based David Huffman has been been developing a narrative body of work focused on “Traumanauts.” He describes his “futuristic beings” as galaxy travelers constantly searching for home. Combining his interests in abstraction, science fiction, and social justice movements, the works are expressed in a range of mediums, including painting, works on paper, ceramics, video, and printmaking. This is the first museum exhibition dedicated to Huffman’s Traumanauts series.


Detail of “Sam Vernon: Impasse of Desires,” a pair of site-specific installations at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. | via MoAD

“Sam Vernon: Impasse of Desires” @ Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco | March 25-Aug. 23, 2020

Inspired by Matt Richardson’s book “The Queer Limit of Memory” (2013), Sam Vernon created site-specific installations at the museum. In the lobby and first floor gallery she drapes a cascade of colored fabrics. Meanwhile, a “constellation” of images, both made and found, is installed throughout the first-floor hallway. Vernon lives in San Francisco and teaches at the California College of the Arts.


SYDNEY CAIN, “Never Catch Me,” 2019 (monoprint, 16 x 20 inches). | © Sydney Cain, Courtesy the artist

MoAD Emerging Artists Presents Sydney Cain: Refutations @ Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco | March 25-June 7, 2020

This exhibition presents San Francisco native Sydney Cain‘s ongoing body of work “exploring ancestral memory and the power of Black myth.” She works in a variety of mediums. Works in this project are emerged from personal genealogy research, photography and drawing. Along with Chanell Stone and Vincent Miranda, Cain is an awardee of the museum’s 2019-2020 Emerging Artists Program, which provides exhibition opportunities for local artists.


CAULEEN SMITH, “Sojourner,” 2018 (still). | © Cauleen Smith, Photo courtesy the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werbie Gallery, New York

Future Histories: Theaster Gates and Cauleen Smith @ San Francisco Museum of Modern Art | April 25–Nov. 1, 2020

This exhibition unites the work of Los Angeles-based artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith and Chicago artist Theaster Gates. Each is presenting a video projection centered around archival magazine photography. Smith is featuring “Sojourner” (2018), which invokes an unpublished Life magazine photo from 1966. Based on the Johnson Publishing Archive, Gates is showing “Do you hear me calling? Mama Mamama or What Is Black Power?” (2018) for the first time in the United States. CT


TOP IMAGE: Installation view of “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective” at University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. | Screen shot from BAMPFA exhibition video


San Francisco Bay Area galleries and museums of temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Check directly with each institution for scheduling updates


FIND MORE about how San Francisco arts institutions are fairing during the city’s closure

READ MORE about the latest update on COVID-19 cases in the San Francisco Bay Area and track statewide virus updates in California


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