I screamed over the crowd at my friend, “How do you think they put on this art show?”
"I bet it’s not that hard,” was the response I got. “I dare you to do it.”
So, I took the dare to throw my own pop-up show. As it turns out, my friend was wrong. This was way easier said than done.
The first step for throwing a pop-up show is finding a location. A recent New York Times article explained that “pop-up galleries,” are increasingly appearing in abandoned storefronts throughout NYC. As the recession drags on, landlords are offering commercial spaces for free to artist tenants. I wondered if the same trend was happening in San Francisco and if I could use a vacant space for my own one night art party. I combed areas of the city where I knew I’d find abandoned storefronts (i.e., the Tenderloin), called every unoccupied spot—about 25 places—and left my spiel on their voicemail about looking for a space to host an art show, which I explained, would help the community by keeping the neighborhood vibrant and encourage people to come to their space (possible new tenants!).
Most people didn’t even return my call, but those who did … well, I’ll just say I have never been laughed at so much. “What, for free? Hahahaha.
Months passed, and I still hadn’t found a venue. In the meantime, I found some local artists – Alex Luke, Chris Ritson, Cyrus Tabar, Erik Wilson, Shemoel Recalde, and Shalo P – who would participate in the show. During the past two years, I had become familiar with each’s work, from attending various gallery openings. I chose these artists because I felt that each was pushing the boundaries of the way we think about art. Young and hungry, they were all eager for opportunities to show their work, but considering that I have no standing in the art world – and therefore little chance of selling their art – it was a privilege to have them accept my invitation.
I was running out of ideas for a space, when I talked to Mauri Skinfall, founder of Unspeakable Projects. Mauri had always collected art, and when she was ready to take it one step further, she decided to start a gallery in her living room. An interesting idea, but did I know anyone who owns a house and would let me throw a huge art show in it?
After some brainstorming, one home came to mind.
A while back, I’d been invited to a 24-hour-party at a house-turned-art-space called Granny’s Empire of Art in Potrero Hill. I’d been so in awe of the property that I contacted the owner, Jaina Bee, and interviewed her for the SF Bay Guardian. Jaina is an eccentric heiress who purchased her home in the late ’90s while she was in her 20s with the vision of creating a collaborative-art utopia. In five years, she gave each chamber of the house a makeover with the help of her artist friends — Jason Mercier (who bestowed Jaina with the nickname “Granny” after she met up with him with a batch of fresh baked cookies in tow), Christine Shields, Jenny B., and many more — and fitting nicknames, like the Haunted Parlor, the Opium Den, Pencil Vania, and Secret Rain Drop Room. Once a year, Jaina opens Granny’s Empire of Art to the public.
Although I had only met Jaina twice, I knew she’s a devoted patron of the arts. When I asked her if Granny’s Empire of Art could be the venue for my pop-up show, she said yes!
Usually art shows remain up for a month after the opening, trying to draw in passers-by, but our locale was in a residential area and there were no storefront windows to give a glimpse of what was going on inside. I decided, we would lure our guests to the opening, and that this would be an extravagant one-night only event.
It was important that the show be open and free (as most gallery openings are and always should be) but it was important that Jaina’s home would still be standing—and in tact—when it was finished. The actual art show took place in the downstairs basement space, but I also wanted to give people a chance to tour the inside of her very unique home. I decided to have friends give guided tours of the house to ensure that no one slipped on the staircase or ripped off any treasures from the wall.
Now that I had a venue, I still had a lot of other details to work out:
1. Choosing a name for the show. One artist was insistent on the name “Poop Pop,” because “think about all the different meanings it’ll have.” I named the show “Pop Up Empire,” suggested by Chris Ritson; once I heard it, I knew it was right.
2. Creating an invite. I decided to go completely digital, and created a Facebook invite. I included a catchy image, a description of the show, and links to the artists and musicians. The Bold Italic helped spread it like wildfire.
3. Finding transportation. Moving art and musical equipment, especially when you don’t own a car, is very difficult. This involved a lot of nagging, begging, Zipcar-ing, and one parking ticket.
4. Finding free/cheap help. It was amazing to learn how much the artists, musicians, and my friends were into my project, and were willing to lend their time and energy—with the promise of a few Pabsts.
Curating the space. The first time I took artists Chris, Shalo, and Erik to the empty “Subterranean Panoptikon” (as the gallery space is called), we had to decide what art would fit where, how to change the lighting, and where the musicians would perform. We had to come up with a way for Shalo to hang his work without putting holes in the wall (artist tape). Alex Luke creatively hung a piece on vellum paper with fishing wire, using black tape that was camouflaged on the ceiling.
One of the coolest things I experienced while prepping the show was learning more about the artists, their work, and their process. While setting up pieces with Alex Luke, who crafted three abstract sculptural landscapes for the show, I discovered an openness and her strong emotional connection with her works. Talking with Shalo P, as he hung his drawings, there was a pure, almost childlike, excitement and joy for his creations and the complicated tales they tell.
Chris Ritson created pop-up books —dog-dragons that seem to breathe fire as you open the book — and accompanying DIY Pop-UP Kits, for guests to buy as mementos. As we set up the display, Chris explained that making the books was a unique challenge. He used the concept of kirigami (a Japanese papercraft), but instead of following a pattern, he created his own, and then had to provide instructions for others to do it themselves.
Finally, the night of “Pop Up Empire” arrived. Several minutes before the show started, while we were frantically setting up the party, some people showed up. There was an excitement bubbling between the artists, and it took me a second to realize what was going on. The first people who come to art shows — usually about half-an-hour before it even starts — are art collectors.
From 7:15 p.m. onward, more and more people started arriving. By 8 p.m., the gallery and backyard was packed, the bands — Yoshi Omori, First Family, and Tears Club — were playing, and people were lined up to sign-up for house tours.
For a moment, I tried to stop, and just be aware that my pop-up show was actually happening. After months of planning, I just wanted to experience it, even if just for a moment. I took a deep breath, and then before I had time to exhale, my friend who was in charge of handing out drinks told me there was an undercover cop that I needed to talk to.
“No, we are not selling alcohol,” I told him.
The tall, broad-shouldered man wearing a Carhardt jacket and jeans explained that he’d walked around the party and watched people give money for the beer and wine we provided for our guests. I explained that the drinks were free, and mentioned the big “DONATIONS” sign we had at the table, which he admitted that he saw. We bickered about the fine points of selling versus donating, before I demanded to see his badge.
Eventually, we came to an understanding. Because we weren’t actually
selling alcohol and as long as everything was done by 10 p.m. (the
original plan), the show was fine. The inspector gave me his card—
worked for the San Francisco Entertainment Commission—and told me to
call him the next time I want to host a party. I plan to invite him
the next pop-up show.
So you want to throw an art and music show? First, know someone who has a great home or vacant space, loves arts, and is generous. Invite artists to your space, and most likely, they’ll know what to do with it. Get creative yourself, and think of a concept and a name. It’s easy to keep your overhead low if you advertise on the Internet (and by word of mouth) and get friends to lend you stuff. Don’t talk back to official people, even if they’re not in a uniform. They appreciate being called officer, sir, or ma'am. Finally, when in doubt, contact the San Francisco Entertainment Commission to find out the dos and don’ts of throwing your own arty party.
See more photos from "Pop-Up Empire" on The Bold Italic's Facebook page.