SFPALM: New Name, Big Plans

By Stephanie Chastain


Whether it’s the Opera, the incomparable San Francisco Ballet, ODC Dance, or Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, performances are fleeting and committed to the memories of those who witnessed them. This is both the beauty and burden of the performing arts—how to stay relevant in the minds of audiences, funders and future generations, when the powerful moments of live performance reside only in recollection. Fortunately for Bay Area artists and art lovers, The Museum of Performance and Design (formerly The San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum) has acted as a memory bank for the artists, performances and events that have shaped the cultural life of the city. Also fortunate is the news that the museum and library have undergone a renovation and, thanks to arts savvy funders and a committed board of trustees, have expansive plans for the future.

The museum reopened under its new name in February 2008 but began in 1947 as the private collection of Russell Hartley. A former dancer and designer for the San Francisco Ballet, Hartley was dedicated to preserving the records and ephemera of legendary performances. With Hartley’s considerable archives as a base, the collection has now grown to encompass photographs, playbills, video tapes and personal papers of seminal performers such as Lew Christensen and Calvin Simmons.

Of particular interest to the local theater and dance community is the museum’s internationally recognized Legacy Oral History Project—a step towards preserving the sometimes intangible processes personalities in the performing arts. Currently there are over seventy oral histories that focus on Bay Area performances and performers. In the archives of this project, one can find interviews and inspiration from such dance luminaries as Anna Halprin, Chitresh Das, and Eve Gentry and theatre greats Jeane Shelton and Barbara Olivier. For those that are interested in becoming involved, the Legacy Oral History Project offers an annual workshop that guide participants through the preservation process in the oral history method.

Whether searching the project archives for academic research or for artistic inspiration, open access to the wealth of records is a tremendous boon to artists and enthusiasts. The museum has something to offer visitors with various interests. For the visual arts, there is an extensive photographic collection capturing the intensity of the live performance. Photos are by well-known photographers such as Kurt Herbert Adler, Lillian Bauer and Katherine Kahrs. For performers entering the field the museum can be inspiring and a veritable feast of sight, sound and support providing context and history for budding artists.

Currently housed in its original domain on Van Ness Avenue, the museum will make a dramatic move across town to new digs in the highly desirable, art dense, Yerba Buena Center area. According to Director, David Humphrey, the new facility “will include gallery spaces, a performing arts library research room, collection storage, a small theater space, meeting rooms, a café, a museum shop, administrative offices, and support spaces for exhibitions and collections.” Another key component to the new space will be a multipurpose room that will be used for everything from screenings to lectures to artist talks and will also be available to the public for community use. The plan is to move the museum to this area sometime in 2012 and the search is already on for an architect for the project.

Humphrey believes the move will allow the museum to continue doing what they do now, only better and with a broader reach. “Programming will be more connected to the exhibitions that we are presenting,” he says. “Education is a key component in the Museum and it is our vision to educate the general public on the creative process in the performing arts.” Some of this educational programming will be focused in the proposed Center for Stage Design. The Center will be an exciting expansion in the new museum that will be geared towards visual artists interested in connecting their medium to the stage. Master classes and research opportunities will be planned to facilitate the museum’s new relationship to design. “Our design collection is large and growing and we feel that it is an important part of the performing arts experience,” Humphrey explains.

The space on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building was renovated, in part, to “create a major gallery as part of our name change,” says Humphrey. To celebrate the new gallery and February’s grand reopening the museum has curated an extraordinary retrospective exhibit, “Art & Artifice: 75 Years of Design at San Francisco Ballet,” on the rich history of design for the oldest ballet company in the United States. The exhibition highlights the earliest influences from the Ballets Russes, Russian artist Leon Bakst, modern American artist Paul Cadmus and more. Curated by Brad Rosenstein, Professor William Eddleman and Melissa Leventon, the exhibit is open free to the public during normal gallery hours.

The reception for “Art & Artifice: 75 Years of Design at San Francisco Ballet” is March 18 at the Museum of Performance & Design, 401 Van Ness Avenue, Fourth Floor, San Francisco. For information call 415-255-4800 or visit sfpalm.org.

Stephanie Chastain is a freelance writer living in San Francisco with her husband Terry and their son Theo.