Meet Renny Pritkin: New CJM Chief Curator

Renny Pritikin has been a leading figure in the Bay Area arts community for decades, as Co-director of the historic New Langton Arts, Chief Curator of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Director of the Nelson Gallery and Fine Arts Collection at the University of California, Davis. We interviewed him to see how he is approaching this next phase of his career.

What interested you about working here at The CJM?

My whole career has been about expanding the boundaries of what's permissible and allowed to enter into the world of contemporary art. I said the other day to the Board [of Directors] that it feels at this point like a cri de coeur, a “cry from the heart” for inclusion and expansion of what's possible. The earliest part of my career was spent working at New Langton Arts for experimental art to be taken seriously and then at Yerba Buena [Center for the Arts] it was for the identity movement, people of various heritages, gays and lesbians, political artists, experimental artists and amateur artists, and just to open the door. So it seems obvious that here my own ethnic heritage would be added to that mix. I’ve never literally addressed Jewish issues, my approach has been that inclusion is inherently a Jewish point of view.

The other thing is that I have a deep commitment to this town and even this neighborhood in particular. I've worked in this zip code, 94103, for most of my career, so I care very deeply that the art community south of Market [Street] in the city, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, thrive and grow and be as rigorous and ambitious as it can be. Those are the two things I'm thinking about.

Could you talk a little bit about your Jewish background?

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. I’m very proud and identify very much as a former New Yorker, Jewish, 60s kid. So I think that being Jewish has shaped a big part of how I think about the world.

How do you think it has shaped you?

I think two of the things I most identify with are the humor and [commitment to] justice. As a teenager I was active in the civil rights movement of the 60s (my friends and I created CROSBY–the civil rights organization of Sheepshead Bay youth) and the anti-war movement. And also learning and knowledge. Neither of my parents went to college, but I have found myself being a reader and a writer, increasingly as I get older, more and more. So there's something in that upbringing, that connection between Jewish belief and scholarship. I wonder a lot why, since neither of my parents were formally educated and neither of them were interested in the arts, how did I end up here? But my mother had a passion for language. She was bilingual and she spoke Yiddish at home as a kid. She’s a woman who even though she didn't go to college, did The New York Times crossword puzzle every day and played Scrabble with a passion, both of which I do. That's how I got into the arts, through language. I started as a poet and still write and publish poetry, so that was my mother's gift to me.

How did you take the leap from language to visual art?

In graduate school, rather than getting a Master's degree in poetry, San Francisco State had a new experimental program in interdisciplinary art, and I became very close with the head of the department whose name is Jock Reynolds. He was one of the founders of this experimental art center South of Market called 80 Langton Street, which became New Langton Arts. When I got my Masters he got me involved with that organization. My intention had always been to be a poet, be a writer, and find some kind of a job to support that, but my life just flipped. Working at Langton I got more and more success and national attention as a curator and writer and activist in the artist space field. My life took on a rhythm and momentum. I never stopped writing, but it became more and more art writing, less poetry. And then when Yerba Buena opened in '92, I was lucky enough to get the job of Chief Curator.

How would you compare YBCA (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) and The CJM?

I consider both of them kunsthalle, non-collecting art institutions. They both have specific missions. Yerba Buena has evolved, but in the early 90s it was to be the place where American diversity was embraced and celebrated, and I think in many ways that is what this place is about as well, American diversity celebrated and interrogated from a Jewish point of view. So there's a lot of overlap.

The Bay Area is in some ways an ideal place for that conversation to happen, because of its diversity. From your point of view, what is Bay Area art, and how has it changed throughout your career?

Bay Area art has definitely evolved over the 30-plus years I've been in the field. At one point in the 50s Bay Area art was about figurative abstraction, David Park and his circle. And then it became about the Beats: Bruce Conner and his circle and all those wonderful artists. Then in the 70s it became about conceptual art and that whole amazing generation with Paul Kos, Howard Fried, Jim Pomeroy, Bonnie Sherk and Jock Reynolds. Those were my teachers. And then the Mission School. And then there were other really interesting moments. There was a scene around Nayland Blake in the 80s, a gay intelligentsia, that was really important for awhile, and there has been a thread of high-tech, digital art, people like Alan Rath and Jim Campbell and Paul DeMarinis, people doing amazing things with digital technology. I don't know if there's one thing like that I could put my finger on for this decade. Social practice has been really big, really important here with people like Amy Franceschini. So the Bay Area has had dynamic groups.

But what's consistently true is the under-recognized nature of Bay Area art nationally because there are no national publications coming out of the Bay Area like there are in New York, or to some extent in Los Angeles. Our artists don't get their fair shake and it's only when they show in New York that they seem to be suddenly discovered, so that's always an ongoing frustration. But in some ways it protects us from the marketplace, even though there's been this huge change from very few serious collectors to many serious collectors here. It's not a place where major commerce in the arts takes place so it frustrates artists, causes us to lose artists, but also in some ways insulates us from the trendiness and superficiality of market driven art. So the Bay Area has traditionally been very rich in alternative spaces where ideas predominate over marketability.

You seem to have a strong commitment to working artists and the whole eco-system that surrounds them. How will you bring that to your role at The CJM?

You know, it's my eleventh day, so I certainly hope that all the skills and priorities I've built over three decades will come to the fore. Being artist-centered, I want more artists to participate in public programs, to speak in the galleries, to give tours, to do interpretations in the wall text…there are all kinds of possibilities. Showing local artists and paying artists commission fees is a really important way to contribute. If we can create more opportunities for artists, that's what gets me excited.

You have seen the Bay Area through a lot of changes, and this is a moment in time of particular anxiety about the economic climate and the ability for people to sustain themselves, especially artists. Do you think this time is different from past ebbs and flows?

Yeah, I think this is more serious than any one that I've been through. The last time was the first dot-com boom and crash, was that ’99? That scared me, because I saw what makes San Francisco special, its tradition of diversity, bohemianism, progressive thinking, eccentricity, being edged out by a kind of bland homogeneity. And it really made me worry about the city I have spent my whole adult life in and loved. But then it went away and I was relieved, but now it has come back with a vengeance, twice as strong, and I still have that fear. And I'm not alone. Many people online have expressed serious concern about how expensive it is here and how increasingly homogenous and how you have to be rich to live here. Certainly not a healthy thing for the arts, because artists can't afford to live in very expensive cities. It is what happened in New York. I live in Oakland and I can see my community in Oakland getting enriched, but when the core urban center is not friendly to artists it's worrisome.

A lot of people criticize the tech industry as bringing about these changes. What are your thoughts about this perspective?

Yeah, I'm not one of those people that trashes the tech industry. I think there are issues in terms of values and how one uses one's wealth to enhance one's community, those are things to talk about. But I think there have been efforts by the tech industry to engage with the arts. I've written extensively about what makes an art scene viable. One of the things is access to unusual resources. In LA the film industry has had a big impact on what happens in the arts, and I think here, the community has had an influence as well. Artists come here who need access to digital forms, like Rath and Campbell and DeMarinis. But I also went on a tour a few weeks ago through the artist residency program that Autodesk has set up on the Embarcadero and it's incredibly impressive and generous and exciting. So the conversation is not simple or one-sided. So if we can creatively come up with ways to encourage digital, technical entrepreneurs to engage with the arts, I think it could be very exciting.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about you?

Well my identity is curator and writer, I've written a lot of criticism, published three books of poetry, I've taught writing for curators, and I've taught for a decade at California College for the Arts which is a deep commitment I have to mentoring the next generation.


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