Renée DeCarlo has no delusions about life as an artist. As the multimedia artist and owner/founder of The Drawing Room studio and gallery transferred rent and PG&E money into her bank account last week, she explained to the teller this was the first time she would be able to pay her utility bill from business income.
“I’d been funding [The Drawing Room] off of my unemployment,” she said. “So, it’s time.”
The week had been a bit of a whirlwind for DeCarlo and curator Courtney Norris of Curated State, who came together through The Inside/Outside Project to breathe life into empty storefronts and provide exposure for local artists.
Their latest exhibition, “Tides of Change,” focuses on climate change. It launched Jan. 28 at 780 Valencia St. near 19th Street, the former home of Betabrand, to enthusiastic reception. By the end of the show’s first weekend, they had sold $6,000 in art.
DeCarlo, who recently announced she is looking to move The Drawing Room from its current location on 23rd Street between Mission and Capp streets, said their temporary lease on Valencia Street extends through April and was “kind of serendipitous,” aided by a connection between 2BLiving Property Management Company and the owner of the Valencia Street building, which has sat vacant for two years.
“The intention is that we are opening it up and exposing it so that people can do a tour,” she said, explaining The Inside/Outside Project only pays a nominal amount to help pay for electricity. “They can envision their dream potential, and it’ll get leased.”
Other businesses may be hard-pressed to suit the Valencia Street space as well as The Inside/Outside Project.
DeCarlo and Norris accepted all 64 artists who submitted to the “Tides of Change” call in December, and three high school seniors interning with DeCarlo through a San Francisco Unified School District program helped to install pieces throughout the building.
“The great thing about this space is that it has a lot of small rooms,” said Norris. “We’ve been able to activate them as [multimedia] installations, videos, site-specific installations.”
Guests encounter one of these installations at the entrance by sound artist Oliver DiCicco. His kinetic sound sculpture there and another further into the building, with its mechanical complexity and reverberations, has confused some, said DeCarlo and Norris, because they don’t immediately see the connection to climate change in the abstract.
DiCicco’s second piece, entitled “Bars,” features a central rotating column that utilizes electrical current to hit sensors, eliciting a chaotic pattern of movement and chiming sounds.
“This piece is one hundred percent based on chaos, and monitoring chaos and climate change is also based on chaos. Controlled chaos,” said DeCarlo. “This piece requires the viewer to be totally present, to think, and it requires something of someone, which is what the problem is that we’re having the climate change. We can’t get people’s attention.”
Some of the pieces bear more obvious hallmarks of art and climate discourse, such as use of recycled or scavenged materials, like DeCarlo’s own repurposed skateboards and work tables layered with acrylic paint upstairs which “when finally broken, have had a pretty illustrious life,” she said.
“It has a history unique to itself, and I love playing with ways to draw into that history … giving it another life where it celebrates and honors that person’s journey.”
But the modes of art represented are profoundly broad, and each is presented with a brief statement from the artist.
Several pieces have left the show’s organizers and viewers uncomfortable and, in the case of DeCarlo’s household, even started arguments. Ana Rivero Rossi’s “Barbaric Times,” a diorama of a street encampment meant to critique those conditions in the form of what future man might see in a museum, sparked one such debate. DeCarlo’s teenagers initially thought it was poking fun at the unhoused.
“It struck me because, I mean, this is our reality. Who would have ever thought this is how people would live, like something out of a sci-fi, right?,” said De Carlo.
Rossi also printed images of street encampments onto plastic bags for an accompanying piece entitled “Invisible Lives.”
Another work DeCarlo and Norris agreed has elicited strong reactions was Andrea Bergen’s “hold on to what hurts you,” a hand-cut paper collage based on an image of a girl who was attacked by her pet raccoon and required reconstructive surgery.
“I don’t even know what to do with this because it’s so intense and the animal, you know, its claws are out … It’s a wild piece” said Norris.
They had expected a more whimsical version of Bergen’s collages, but said Bergen’s work enlivens her “anxiety about human driven environmental destruction. The artist’s statement explained how “the title represents the patterns and lifestyles we lead that contribute to climate change because we distance ourselves from the natural environment.”
The show’s concept had several influences, including the Glasgow Climate Change Conference in November, 2021, a show DeCarlo organized last year inspired by the surrealist game ‘Exquisite Corpse‘, and the book “All We Can Save,” which opened DeCarlo’s eyes to climate change and climate justice from multiple perspectives.
“I’ve been very careful about how I tie into political issues,” she said, “maybe because I’m afraid of … not representing correctly.” DeCarlo, a white woman, said she learned from the anthology’s many contributors, including women of color, about “every single human issue we have and how it ties into environmental problems,” including “how we eat, the time we give to things, how much time we spend on our screens, how we’re going to start shopping for art through NFTs.”
She said she and Norris wanted to see what local artists were making and doing about climate change and ultimately accepted all 64 artists who submitted.
“You know, covid shut everything down, so there weren’t very many opportunities for people,” said Norris.
Added DeCarlos: “We have artists who are showing for the very first time here. We have a lot of artists in their sixties and seventies that don’t necessarily have opportunities to show on a regular basis,” she said.
One of these artists, a self-taught 72-year-old, sold a $4,000 painting only a day after opening the show, the first he had ever sold.
In the eight years she has curated, added Norris, “this is the best exposure that I’ve ever experienced.”
“This is an incredible model for anyone who has space out there … something that any building owner or property manager could do,” said Norris.
“It’s challenging to find a tenant who could take over this entire space,” which is easily twice the size of The Drawing Room on 23rd Street, added Norris. This model may help to get the building rented, as her and DeCarlo’s off-site exhibitions at The ANNEX did for that formerly empty building on Mission Street near 23rd.
“I think they found the perfect one,” deadpanned DeCarlo, who would like to stay in the space longer, but thinks they would need to raise a couple million dollars, at least, to remain through 2022.
Nearly $100,000 in donations to The Drawing Room accrued over the past week alone seem to have been stimulated by the Valencia Street collaboration, including a single $80,000 contribution from an investor-activist “making sure the arts stay alive.”
DeCarlo said the donations will go toward paying rent for her next lease, wherever that may be. In the meantime, DeCarlo is considering signing a lease for The Drawing Room on Clement Street.
At least through April, Norris and DeCarlo are going to make the most of their new digs, with plans to take advantage of the slow street and collaborate with other businesses, like incorporating climate change themes in neighboring restaurant menus. The Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra and Classical Revolution will play live music at 780 Valencia St. on Fridays, and a ticketed 50-piece orchestra event is planned for Feb. 24.
The Inside/Outside Project will launch its next show, “Women Rising 2022,” on March 12.
“Overall it’s just been amazing how positive of a response we’ve had from people. It’s a big, open art space that’s free and accessible with thoughtfully curated art,” said DeCarlo going into “Tides of Change’s” second weekend. “It’s been magic.”
They’re wide open to other opportunities, too. “You know, just in this short, fleeting time, like what could happen?” said DeCarlo. “I don’t know. I think good things, though.”