By Greer Montgomery & Michelle Tarbell
When local philanthropists Deborah and Andy Rappaport first began collecting art as a young couple, they had no idea it would eventually lead them to envision an innovative, internationally-recognized arts destination — Minnesota Street Project — and become the owners of an important collection of contemporary art.
In Fall 2016, the Rappaports generously lent a series of monumental woodblock prints, produced by L.A.-based artist Sandow Birk (represented in San Francisco by Catharine Clark Gallery) and San Francisco master printmaker Paul Mullowney, for an exhibition curated by the M.A. in Museum Studies Curatorial Practicum class in USF’s Thacher Gallery. The resulting exhibition, The Depravities of War: Sandow Birk and the Art of Social Critique, celebrated the artist’s, the collectors’, the gallery’s, and USF’s Museum Studies Program’s mutual commitment to promoting socially-engaged art.
This rich collaboration further led to a panel discussion at USF entitled “Re:Vision: Discussing San Francisco’s Contemporary Art Scene” on February 9, 2017 sponsored by USF’s Thacher Gallery and Art History/Arts Management Program, which featured the Rappaports and Catharine Clark, in conversation with art historian and Museum Studies Academic Director, Paula Birnbaum. The panel discussed the importance of socially-conscious art and the ways that art collectors and special initiatives like the Minnesota Street Project can support local artists and galleries often struggling to survive, especially in urban areas with high costs of living like San Francisco.
This conversation also raised issues about how art is often undervalued and underfunded, especially in challenging political or economic climates. During the event, the Rappaports spoke about their public advocacy for the arts and social justice, and their support for local artists and arts communities in and around San Francisco. They also described how, in 2003, they founded the Rappaport Family Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to supporting civic engagement and the arts. The Foundation has since donated over $6 million to various arts organizations. One of their most important resulting achievements is founding the Minnesota Street Project: an innovative, for-profit arts collective in San Francisco that supports local galleries and arts communities.
Located in three adjoining warehouses in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, the Minnesota Street Project provides affordable spaces for artists, galleries, and associated non-profits. As stated on their website, “The Project seeks to retain and strengthen San Francisco’s contemporary art community in the short term, while developing an internationally- recognized arts destination in the long term.” The cornerstone of the project is a sense of community. The Rappaports bring together artists, galleries, and lovers of the arts into a shared space that upends traditional notions of how galleries operate. Deborah explained, “We wanted to make the Minnesota Street Project as open as possible to draw people in. Nobody is born knowing how to go to a museum or gallery.” The Rappaports’ vision produced a space that shares 100% of its profits with the Project’s arts business and professionals and fosters greater support for the arts, from newcomers to established patrons alike.
Art galleries have not always experienced this level of support. During the panel, gallery owner Catharine Clark discussed the impacts of the 2008 recession and subsequent economic rebounding and urban gentrification on the San Francisco art world. An influx of technology startups increasingly led to higher rents in the city’s downtown district, which resulted in the displacement of many longstanding local galleries. Just as members of the San Francisco art scene were on the brink of despair, the Rappaports opened the Minnesota Street Project. These financial and social concerns subsequently resulted in the Rappaports’ collaboration with Clark and eventually their interest in, and support of, the art of Sandow Birk. Not only have they since become major collectors of Birk’s work, but they have also helped find ways for Birk’s large-scale works to travel and reach a broader, international audience.
Although the Rappaports boast an extensive background in arts collecting and philanthropy, their forays into these areas constituted, according to Andy, “a series of accidents.” According to the couple, they began acquiring art based on two criteria: if it was both interesting and cheap. However, they soon realized the art that most attracted them consistently dealt with themes of politics and social justice. Now, the Rappaports consider the goal of exposing viewers to political art a passion, leading them to shape their collection in ways that make social commentary and encourage social change. Indeed, their lack of a philanthropic background is partly what allows them to view art as a means to solve social problems with new eyes.
To view the Re:Vision conversation in full, click here.
For more on USF’s M.A. in Museum Studies Program, click here.