The walls of the Meridian Gallery are as blank as a sheet of paper these days. Fitting, as I discovered, for founders who trace their roots to the written word.
On a spring morning, with the Meridian awash in light and fresh paint, I stopped by for a conversation with the founders of this non-profit and eclectic art establishment, which at the time of my visit was in the throes of a move to a new building.
In all honesty, my journey there had begun innocently enough some time before. I had come to the gallery for the first time at its old location around the corner to see new works by painter Leigh Hyams. Another visit took me there to see a handful of independent Armenian films. And on one occasion at the Meridian, I saw the work of some local teen interns there as part of a unique city program that exposes disadvantaged youth to the inner workings of an art gallery.
The diversity of the Meridian’s activities, as much as the quality of what was shown, had left an impression. Even more memorable was the “style,” for want of a better word, of the place and its operators. There was no showmanship or salesmanship. None of that chill that sometimes descends while entering a gallery. This place felt as comfortable as entering your own work place or studio. And so the gallery’s move seemed a perfect opportunity to find out a little more about what makes the place tick. And more to the point, I wondered if the move was suggestive of deeper changes in orientation or ambition. Were the white walls as stark a new beginning as they might suggest? The answers turned out to be yes, and no.
But first, some background. The Meridian had resided on Sutter St. near Powell since 1989. Now relocated to Powell, it is a stone’s throw from Union Square and a windowpane away from San Francisco’s signature sound of the cable car. But it has very little in common with the more commercial galleries of the neighborhood.
Its founders are Anne Trueblood Brodzky and Tony Williams. Anne, from an art journalism background, was editor of the Toronto-based national arts publication artscanada for many years. Tony, her husband, has a background in the publishing world and met Anne at artscanada, which he joined as general manager in 1971.
In 1984, they migrated from Toronto to San Francisco and founded an organization called the Society for Art Publications of the Americas. Their intention, they admit somewhat sheepishly, was to start a well-funded new arts magazine. The funding never happened, but the energy behind the idea spawned an array of activities that has, it would seem fair to say, forced Anne and Tony to be more hands-on in relation to the world of art than might have been the case had they succeeded with their publishing venture.
The range of the gallery’s work is impressive. It includes exhibitions, new music concerts, films, dance performances, writers’ gatherings, and an ambitious youth internship program. The latter deserves some additional description. It brings 30 underprivileged youths to the gallery over the course of a year, ranging in age from 14-18, for paid, after-school work. They help organize shows, including one of their own works, and learn the basics of the gallery business. Importantly, according to Anne and Tony, these youngsters “walk by significant art each time they come into the gallery to work.”
The root of all this activity is embodied in the founders’ central conviction that “the experience of significant art creates social, philosophical and spiritual change.”
There are a few distinct threads that run through and toward this central principle. Anne and Tony are interested in “emerging” artists, a description that has nothing to do with age and everything to do artists who are breaking barriers. Often, this means pushing inward. Says Anne, “we are interested in artists engaged with their own roots.” And the Meridian is particularly interested in “marginalized” artists from a variety of cultures and economic backgrounds.
“Always,” says Anne, “the effort is about community outreach.”
One of the Meridian’s particularly ambitious shows occurred in 1990, a year after the Gallery’s opening. The so-called Haida Project explored the 10,000-year old culture of the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia. The project stretched over three months and included the carving by six Haida artists of a 30-food cedar pole and a 30-foot canoe. The pole was raised in East Fort Baker and the canoe launched into San Francisco Bay. Footnote: when the canoe was sent back to Canada, the government wanted to tax it as a transportation vehicle, a memory that still tickles Tony and Anne.
Bridging the cultures of the Americas, as implied in the founding organization’s name, remains a strong theme. In 1994, for instance, a joint exhibition of work by Brazilian and San Francisco artists was exhibited at the Meridian and later traveled to Rio de Janeiro.
As would be expected, a gallery in business for over 17 years has a long resume. But this is, for Anne and Tony, a time of beginning and of continuity. They were forced to move by their landlord, who had other use for their space. Yet, Anne says, the expansion of the Meridian’s activities had long since begun to crowd the compact size of the old quarters: “We felt more and more compressed and were already outgrowing that space.”
The new location is an old home sandwiched between larger commercial buildings. Most striking is a tall palm tree in back that is visible through the windows of each of the Meridian’s top three floors.
A spacious basement will be dedicated to the interns, a kind of potential seedbed for all the creative activity above. As much as the Meridian values reaching out to communities less heard from, it also seems to have created something of its own internal creative cycle. It fosters exchange among a variety of communities with the gallery as a sort of clearing house and catalyst. And that service to a broader artistic community seems to have nurtured its own natural growth.
Paul Van Slambrouck retired as the chief editor of The Christian Science Monitor. He also served as chief editor of the San Jose Mercury News. An avid photographer, he is currently teaching journalism at Principia College in Illinois.
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