If the purpose of artist-in-residency programs is to create an inspirational environment, 500 Capp Street might be the most conducive of abodes.
“There’s a long tradition of artist residency projects at different residencies around the country but it all started at 500 Capp,” said Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven and an artist who game of age in San Francisco’s 1970s alternative art movement.
That tradition is set to continue at 500 Capp, the home the late conceptual artist David Ireland bought in 1975 and inhabited for three decades. Back then – a time when Ireland, Reynolds and a crop of college-educated baby boomers moved to the city with little more than their fine arts degrees – San Francisco real estate could still be had for a song or, in Ireland’s case, a grant. He put a down payment on the home with a National Endowment for the Arts.
Ireland died in 2009, but while living at 500 Capp – formerly the home and workshop of an accordion maker – treated the home’s interior as a canvas and an exhibition space for his creations. His provocative customizations, taking root in mechanics and carpentry, dominate and define the home to this day. The walls, scraped and lacquered, emanate an amber glow.
Carlie Wilmans, a trustee of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and California College of the Arts, bought 500 Capp in 2005 and has kept it as Ireland left it. Her plan now is to start as an artist-in-residency program there. She’ll open it to emerging artists one at a time, two or three a year – offering lodging and a stipend.
The city Planning Commission signed off on Wilmans’ concept and design in October. She hopes to welcome the first tenants in fall 2012. It’s the city’s first new residency program in years, and the demand is expected to be strong.
Buying a home or even renting a flat in San Francisco is now beyond many artists, and the economic slump has taken a toll on arts funding both private and public, putting a high premium on residency programs.
The city is saturated with creative talents but lacking a means to nurture them, said Courtney Fink, executive director of Southern Exposure, a hub for arts programming in the Mission.
“There are way more artists than there are opportunities,” she said. “I see that everyday at my job.”
Fink remembered visiting Ireland’s home as a young art student. The visits, she said, “were some of my most profound art experiences and is ultimately one of the key experiences that encouraged me to invest myself in the Bay Area arts community.”
Reynolds lamented the loss of the environment in which he and Ireland came of age as artists. “I never paid more than $250 rent when I was a young artist. Gas was 29 cents a gallon, candy bars are still a nickel. … I paid $112 a quarter in classes at U.C. Santa Cruz. The economics of what young people are facing now is so different,” said Reynolds, who has a son studying filmmaking in school.
Reynolds and Ireland crossed paths in Mission in the early 1970s, and along with other baby boomers settled in the city’s inexpensive commercial-industrial neighborhoods, and made use of the tools at their disposal.
“We started to get to know one another and help with physical things that needed to be done to our places,” Reynolds recalled. “Some of those processes of fixing up spaces came into art making.”
For Ireland, that was especially true. Shortly after moving into 500 Capp, he got a warning from the Department of Public Works about a cracked sidewalk outside the home, and repaved the walkway himself. The project marked the beginning of the work that dominates and defines the home today – personalized furniture, an upstairs window replaced with a sheet of copper, a blowtorch-chandelier.
Such installations became a key pillar of the city’s alternative art movement. Back then, however, museums refused the works of Reynolds and his peers, so they set up ad hoc exhibitions in their workspaces.
Four years after Ireland moved into 500 Capp he bought a squat single-family home four blocks away at 65 Capp St., re-imagined and remodeled it, and then resold it in 1983 to artist Ann Hatch.
“It was like walking into a sculpture,” Hatch recalled. At the time, Hatch’s installation-artist friends were “complaining they didn’t have the time or space to do what they liked, or someone to support it.”
The need sparked the first residency program of its kind at 65 Capp St. Hatch called it “a kind of ambassador program” for artists from around the world. It ran 15 years. The building today retains Ireland’s design but operates as an office supplies business.
Wilmans’ plan for 500 Capp St. follows a similar model.
The house, said Wilmans, has a profound effect on her that she hopes will inspire its residents.
During a private tour through the home in October, Wilmans noticed for the first time an idiosyncrasy scraped into the dining room floor.
“I find new surprises each time I come here,” she said.