USF's Museum Blog

Curating Community with Robert Flynn Johnson and Shipyard Trust for the Arts

by Else Trygstad-Burke (MA 2016)

One of San Francisco’s most wonderful attributes is the city’s closely interconnected art communities. In October 2016, students from University of San Francisco’s graduate Museum Studies and undergraduate Art History/Arts Management Programs were invited to collaborate with one of the city’s longstanding art organizations, Shipyard Trust for the Arts (STAR). Four students were granted the exciting opportunity to assist Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator Emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, in curating a show for STAR’s annual fundraising auction, held on October 15, 2016.

The Shipyard Trust for the Arts is a non-profit organization that oversees an extensive group of affordable artist studios at the Hunter’s Point Shipyard, in addition to providing art education programs for the Hunters Point and Bayview communities. The annual fundraising auction, which takes place during the organization’s Fall Open Studios event, raises money for the Shipyard Trust’s educational programs. Mr. Johnson generously offered to volunteer his time and expertise to curate the 2016 auction exhibition featuring works by STAR artists.


Shipyard Trust Open Studios, Photograph by Brian Moore

USF students Gabriella Barnes (Art History/Arts Management, 2017), Olivia Havens , Sarah Mackey , and Else Trygstad-Burke (Museum Studies, 2016) participated in a two-day workshop with Mr. Johnson, beginning with a small gathering at his Victorian home in San Francisco. Along with several Shipyard Trust board members and USF faculty member Paula Birnbaum, the students were invited to view Mr. Johnson’s thoughtfully curated collection of paintings, photography, rare books, works on paper, textiles, and more. This provided a unique opportunity to observe the way in which a private collection reflects personal style, mingling with design choices that include furniture, lighting, color and texture.


From Left to Right:  Robert Flynn Johnson, Sarah Mackey, Else Trygstad-Burke, Olivia Havens and Gabriella Barnes

The visit allowed Mr. Johnson to discuss his curatorial style and personal vision, and to give the students a chance to understand the aesthetic principles behind his design processes. He also discussed his career and work at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Achenbach Foundation, emphasizing the potential for exhibitions to address compelling social issues. For example, Johnson described his experience curating The Face of AIDS: Works on Paper by Jackie Kirk, a ground-breaking one-woman show of 50 paintings (25 pairs) at the Achenbach in 1991 that personalized the AIDS epidemic for museum visitors to much critical acclaim .


Jackie Kirk, Self-Portrait (Joey), 1990, Image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts.

In response to a question about the challenges of presenting socially controversial exhibits, Mr. Johnson stressed the importance of forming strong interpersonal relationships in any museum job. He highlighted three essential elements of success in the museum field as “work ethic, intelligence, and diplomacy.”

The experience of viewing Mr. Johnson’s collection provided students with an excellent background for the installation of the STAR auction exhibition. Because artwork for the auction is donated by numerous artists from the Hunters Point Shipyard, it comes in a variety of mediums, sizes, and subject matter. This provided an exciting challenge for the curator and the students participating in the workshop. Mr. Johnson had the students organize the artwork into three categories – landscapes, abstractions, and still life works – before arranging them within their respective spaces.

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Robert Flynn Johnson, Sarah Mackey and Else Trygstad-Burke prepare the installation

He incorporated the students’ opinions and feedback regarding the positioning of each artwork in relationship to the space and to the other works, encouraging them to think critically about how and why each work should be placed in a particular way. The final result was a beautiful and diverse array of artworks that adapted to the gallery’s unique space and engaged the viewer. This distinctive educational experience was valuable for the students, and a wonderful collaboration between USF, the Shipyard Trust for the Arts and Johnson. A special thanks to Robert Flynn Johnson, along with Marti McKee and Stacey Carter of STAR, for making this collaboration with USF’s Museum Studies and Art History/Arts Management Programs possible!

To learn more about USF’s graduate program in Museum Studies, click here.

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