The Next Chapter of Live Performance at SFMOMA: A Conversation with Megan Brian and Frank Smigiel

By Heather Desaulniers


An open space bathed in bright white. White walls and window shades; an industrial white light grid. An expansive, double height room where the ceiling feels far away. Smooth maple floors give a bit of natural color and contrast. Through a window, lush greenery is visible. Clear glass at the top invites a gaze from outside. There is no designated stage or seating. No pre-set parameters. This is a site that, with each unique project, will become something different. A clean canvas, primed with potential.

Housed on the fourth floor of the SFMOMA, the Gina and Stuart Peterson White Box is where viewers will encounter live theatrical art at the recently re-opened museum. Soon, this space will be bustling with creative passion; abounding with cutting-edge commissions; surging with a multitude of artistic fields and genres. A new venue for new programming—this is the future of live performance at SFMOMA.

SFMOMA White Box, rendering by MIR/Snohetta
SFMOMA White Box, rendering by MIR/Snohetta

Looking ahead is exhilarating. But it also reminds us to look back; to remember what came before. And live performance has a long history at SFMOMA. It is a reflection of the institution’s commitment to innovation and audience engagement as well as its desire to challenge norms within the artistic community. SFMOMA Associate Curator for Performance and Film Frank Smigiel traces this thread back to Founding Director Grace McCann Morley’s progressive views on museums and their relationship to the public. “[McCann Morley] believed that a museum shouldn’t be a static conservator of treasures, but an extension of art in people’s lives,” he conveys, “and so, from the beginning SFMOMA has never been wedded to a ‘stewardship of objects only’ model, it had broader ideas on art and its eye on the audience.”

When it comes to live performance, SFMOMA has leaned into this pioneering spirit. Over the past eight decades, patrons have been exposed to a diverse range of movement arts—from circus exhibitions in the early days to avant-garde performance in the 1960s-1970s, including the choreographic partnership of Eiko and Koma. Radical movement-based and physical-theater happenings spiked in the early 2000s, by multi-disciplinary artists like Matthew Barney. And just this past April, Alonzo King LINES Ballet performed Faith in the Roman Steps at SFMOMA’s Art Bash, a gala event that unveiled the newly expanded building in the heart of downtown San Francisco. Choreographed by King, the world premiere contemporary dance unfolded on and around the stunning architectural staircase in the new museum’s Roberts Family Gallery. “At SFMOMA, there is a legacy around being at the frontier of artforms, and that endures with mediums like performance,” notes Megan Brian, Assistant Director for Education and Public Practice at SFMOMA.

SFMOMA’s current Performance and Film team are eager to propel this rich dialogue into the future. “Performance and Film was resurrected in 2007, with an aim to think more deeply and broadly about the living, collaborative nature of both lm and performance,” Brian explains. With that objective in mind, there are big plans for the next chapter of live performance at SFMOMA.

Like a tree structure, Performance and Film at SFMOMA is divided into separate branches for each discipline. Then, within the curatorial area of Performance, Smigiel outlines another subdivision, “this arm holds two different programs—Performance In Progress and Performance All Ages—with three artists commissioned to design new works in each track.”

True to its title, Performance In Progress is all about the process of creation. Each of the three artists will have their own mini-residency in the Fall—a time to conceive, shape, and construct his or her work. And then in March, there will be a combined final program, where they will come together to premiere their finished commissions. For 2016, Performance In Progress welcomes Jacolby Satterwhite, Naomi Rincón-Gallardo and Oakland-based Desirée Holman. “While all three are working on distinct projects, there are thematic fibers linking them,” says Smigiel, “each of these artists explore multiple disciplines in performance and they are all working with eccentric ideas of the future—how visions of the future can be used to sort out problems of the present.” In terms of movement and choreography, expect many voices and approaches from Performance In Progress. In this particular group, Smigiel describes an array of physicality, “processional models—parading and moving through landscapes—are strong for these artists, as is a more inclusive notion of the performative body; movement that is vernacular and egalitarian, movement generated and performed by non-trained dancers.”

As its name suggests, Performance All Ages is for everyone, from the youngest museum patron to those who are more ‘young at heart.’ This year, Lucky Dragons, Cloud Eye Control and LA-based musician Chris Kallmyer will be crafting original work in this track. Like Performance In Progress, each of these projects is unique, and yet there is connective tissue weaving them together. All are focused on immersive art experiences; where the space between the performer and viewer becomes porous, where the audience becomes an active contributor. “These three multi-genre artists are investigating and experimenting with the convergence of participation and public performance,” shares Smigiel, “to that end, each Performance All Ages residency will last for an entire month and will include workshops, drop-in activities and a special museum ‘takeover.’”

Brian and Smigiel are excited to see these live performances emerge over the next year. In addition to the commissions themselves, they are also eager to see how audiences engage with the material. How the programming lends itself to different lenses of viewership. How planned viewing and random chance exist in both strands. “Performance In Progress is more destination-based—an audience will arrive for a showing at a particular time in a specific place,” details Brian, “but of course, as folks are visiting the museum, they may also discover the live performance completely by accident.” The same can be said for Performance All Ages. There will be those who come especially to attend or participate in one of the events, as well as viewers who happen upon the action. For Smigiel, this attention to and consideration of viewership circles directly back to McCann Morley’s intent for patron engagement at SFMOMA.

Clearly, the past three years at SFMOMA have been a time of construction, a season of planning for what is to be. And now it is time to launch. The museum is open to the public; Performance and Film’s 2016-2017 programming is set; the White Box space is prepped. Smigiel hopes that this next chapter of live performance at SFMOMA will “provide opportunities for local and non-local artists to collaborate with the Bay Area arts community, continue to foreground a vital exchange with the audience and encourage a deep dive into the art.”

Visit for information on all ongoing and upcoming programs, exhibits and performances, including live performance, at the new SFMOMA.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.