ED. NOTE: One of San Francisco’s oldest alternative spaces, The LAB was founded in 1984 by a group of interdisciplinary artists. Currently the LAB presents more than thirty live events and four to six solo and group exhibitions per year. In this article artist Scott MacLeod, a long-time supporter of the venue, follows up his 2006 report The Lab Experiments on Itself with an update on the organization’s turbulent reorganization.
Responding in May 2005 to its sense that their organization had drifted away from its original primary mission of supporting emerging artists, The LAB’s board of directors began a controversial and ambitious restructuring that alienated many long-term supporters, unsettled funders and seemed even to some supporters to be a risky undertaking.
Now, a little over a year and a half later, there’s evidence that The LAB’s gamble has paid off by re-energizing the organization, its curation, and its local community.
A new, less-hierarchical structure has enhanced collaboration and communication. All three paid staff members, Co-Directors Sherry Koyama and Kristen Chappa, and Production Manager Mark Edwards, work together on projects from start to finish. There’s also a more collaborative working relationship between the staff and a smaller but more active board that is very involved with developing and organizing new fundraising events.
Fundraising and finances are still a struggle for The LAB, as for most non-profits, but the two largest funders of ongoing general/operating expenses, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the San Francisco Publicity and Advertising Fund’s Hotel Tax/Grants for the Arts program, have continued their support. Other funding is project-based, and The LAB’s increased number of grant applications has netted new funders such as the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia, Potrero Nuevo Fund, and the VanLoben Sels/RembeRock Foundation.
Adopting new technologies has helped keep expenses in check. The LAB’s once-familiar monthly print calendar has been replaced by an online version and direct e-mailiing. Increased Web functionality is planned, possibly including an online store.
Co-Director Chappa says “We are doing very well for our budget and the number of staff hours we have, but overall it is still very tight and bare bones, so in addition to our traditional Art Sale and Live Auction (March 8-11), we’ve started developing new and more creative fundraising events that we’re very excited about. Last year’s Striptease Auction and Fashion Trunk Show was successful and we’re doing it again this June.”
Chappa is also excited about the re-energized approach to programming.
“Our primary motivation this past year has been a recommitment to presenting emerging, experimental, and underrepresented artists.
One way we’ve tried to make The LAB more open and accessible to emerging artists is by increasing the number of open calls for exhibitions. The inclusion of our first juried show last September, “Some Assembly Required,” juried by Steven Wolf and Mike Arcega, came out of this effort. Renny Pritikin and Suzanne Cockrell will be the jurors of our second juried show this coming September.
The LAB has also begun actively soliciting and supporting emerging curators, resulting in shows that include “Detourned Menu: Food in the Form of Activism,” curated by Brianna Toth, and the upcoming “Corporate Art Expo 07,” in April, curated by Shane Montgomery.
But it’s less about quantity of exhibition opportunities and more about the quality of those opportunities, Chappa explains:
“I do think The LAB has is a step up from some of the other places where an artist might have a first-time show. We are offering artists more services and support to the artist. We attempt to nurture them and their careers as much as possible. We promote them and their exhibition, we link to their Web site from ours, we offer advice on other gallerists who might be interested in their work. We hope to be more of a bridge in an artist’s career to places where they will get even more support, such as Yerba Buena Center for the Arts or commercial galleries who can offer representation.
But showing work by mid-career and established artists is still very much a part of our mission. In these cases, we want to offer seasoned artists a chance to do something more experimental than they may be able to do elsewhere.
We’re also presenting more international artists such as the Japanese artists who were a part of “Listening: Living Art from Japan and San Francisco,” and Swedish artist Johanna Billing, whose You Don’t Love Me Yet was made in collaboration with San Francisco bands.
We have more artists participating in the “Post-Postcard” show every year, we have been receiving better and more press and we have no problem attracting and keeping interns and volunteers. I definitely think that there’s a new community forming around The Lab, of people who hang out together, have fun together, conceive and realize projects together.”
The LAB seems to have successfully re-invented itself by both renewing its commitment to its original goals and by opening itself up to new approaches and possibilities. If you want to witness and support the revitalized LAB, their upcoming 11th Annual Art Sale and Live Auction might be a good place to start — or restart.