Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Ann Hatch: Making a Place for Art

by Richard Whittaker, Jan 13, 2003



I met Ann Hatch at her home in North Beach in San Francisco where I was immediately taken by the vivid presence of the art throughout her house. And so first, we spent some time with an art tour, one instance of which I'll share. A large oil painting of a woman and her daughter caught my attention above a stairwell.
     "That's a Dali," Ann explained. "It's my mother and me. For a couple of years, we spent a lot of time with Dali."
     We finally retired to her living room with its magnificent view north and west over the bay and Golden Gate bridge where we soon were talking about Hatch's first experience of visiting David Ireland's house at Capp St.

Ann Hatch:  It was quite a jolt. I had no plans to buy a house or start an art space. It was a very unusual space. I had been going around to galleries with a friend, Lea Levy. I think it was the first time I'd gotten back into the art world after being in the apple business for a number of years. I was ready to start thinking about art again, and this house just blew me away. What is this?! Who is David Ireland?!

Richard Whittaker:  What was it about the house that struck you so strongly?

AH:  It was in the Mission and although I grew up in San Francisco, there were certain paths I took and the south-of-market area wasn't one that I knew. Lea was driving, and said, "I want to show you something." The house apparently had been for sale for a number of years, but I didn't know about that. David wasn't there when we went in. It was just this gray, empty house with these perimeters of light moving around it with two chairs in it. It had very unusual window placements with a very attractive S-shaped catwalk on top, and high ceilings. It was absolutely immaculate. It had a painted floor and you could see the reflections on the floor with the beautiful light moving around the room. It was something I'd never seen before. Just the presence of this light, and it looked like there were about eight colors in the house although it was just one very basic gray. When you discover something like that, like the shiny glass you might find on the beach you just go "Wow!" This is something special! I hadn't intended to, but when I found out it was for sale I just said, "I'll buy it."

RW:  That moment, can you say anything more about that moment of discovery?

AH:  It's unannounced. It's something you've found in your own time, and in your own way. It hits you. Sometimes the most obvious things just pass you by.

I guess the dwelling, the house—I think it has to do with the idea of something that surrounds you, that makes a complete statement. This house was that. It wasn't so big, it was quite a small house. You're standing in the gallery, and this light is moving around—it was so beautifully thought out. It was so comfortable to be there, and challenging at the same time. It sparked something.

I just knew it was going to mean something to me. It was serendipitous. I guess I move that way. Discovery is something I'm always having. I mean, walking the dog in the morning. You walk up and down the street many times, and yet you can still see something you never saw before. It doesn't happen every day and it's hard to predict when it will happen. But when it does, my antennae are open. I hope I never lose that.

RW:  What happens when I'm hit by something new like that?

AH:  Well, you feel you can do something with it. I think the deadening side of life is when you don't feel that you can participate in something. When you're hit with something - a beautiful object or a flower or a person - you resonate and feel "I can interact with that. That can be something I can be friends with, or wrestle with, or think about more." So it's not just a passive thing. It's much more active. It's a very active moment. You don't always know what it's going to do.

RW:  When you say, "There's something I could participate in" does this mean something has touched that part of myself I feel is really me, so to speak?

AH:  Yes. It reaches me, but it also stretches me. The first time I saw one of Jim Turrell's light spaces—I'd never thought about the texture of light before, and yet I'm surrounded by it. I've always had beautiful houses with nice views and that's about the texture of light. But the idea of that in a gallery, in a box, and having it framed that way—it's very physical and very personal. It usually moves people. I can't imagine someone not having an experience with that when it's distilled that way.

I think I learned a great deal with my experience with Capp Street. I got to know David. I asked him to stay involved in some capacity with the project even though it wasn't formed, at that point. It was a leap of faith on his part.

One of the things I've really enjoyed about being involved in the art world - and it's helped me - is that you're much more present. You're thinking about things - appreciating, in a very different way, why that light space is what it is. Or the object. It's about the privilege of thinking beyond, and getting that "hit." Maybe it takes a little while, but that connection is really critical, and then moving with it. Thinking, where do I fit in with this?

I took quite a while trying to figure out what to do with Capp Street, and then a friend said, "What are you waiting for? Why don't you just do it!" I did not have that confidence about doing whatever seemed right, but then I said, "Okay." And I did.

So you can have the experience of having the "hit"—this is a marvelous space!—but then "now what?" Commercial gallery? Restaurant? But then, an idea comes along of making something that hasn't been done before at all, and that's where things get exciting.

RW:  That's a difficult step for most of us, the step that's not prescribed by convention.

AH:  Yes.

RW:  My own step.

AH:  It's uncharted territory. It's how Columbus must have felt heading out into unexplored territory.

RW:  It's not only a difficult thing for most of us, but even perhaps, for many people, unthinkable.

AH:  I've learned that. With the school, [Oxbow School in Napa, CA] I've learned how fearful people are of newness and change. I didn't have that awareness so much in the art world. You go to an art gallery and see something you've never seen before and think, "that's okay," and you give it permission to be. But when you're in a school, and you're educating people's children, you face another level of resistance - sometimes resistance on the part of other schools. So I'm aware that people don't like change and new things, although I think it's the only way to go.

But everything is new. Just getting up in the morning is new. We can't avoid it. This is not to be radical about it, or to terrify people. But everything we do—making a new sandwich—is a new experience.

RW:  This raises an issue. There's been a high premium in the art world on "the new." But you've just spoken about the new, in a way that's unlike this art world model of "the new," as I see it.

AH:  I wrestled with that for fifteen years with Capp Street. The premise there was to provide what wasn't happening for artists-extension of the studio with financial support, a place to do new work. And the work belonged to the artists. We treated Capp Street as a museum, so the work got archived. And we worked on the artists' behalf to realize new projects-that was definitely the emphasis-on something they might not even have thought about before. We went with them on that journey. So you'd invite somebody to come, and give them some financial support and a house—and it's kind of personal for three months. They'd come up with an idea and we'd go to bat for them about what they needed, whether it was materials or access to people. We'd focus concentratedly on them, and their dream and their ideas.

So that journey of newness gave me a sense of what was interesting or engaging about my own town, whether it was the seismic activity with Terry Fox or the bells, with Paul Kos. Church bells are sort of an icon of communication.

The new part was something we were discovering together in a way. I wasn't involved in critiquing or bringing anything to the choices that the artists made. Daniel Reeves got involved with a nunnery down at Mission Dolores. I swear that place was haunted. There were spirits moving around there and, of course, he chose that place because he knew there were spirits there. He knew they were.

It's like a path. It's not the object itself, its about how do we get there.

RW:  I was just reading something from Fredric Jameson on the postmodern condition. He said something like "there are only so many new styles and possibilities and all the best ones have already been used."

AH:  I don't agree with that at all. It's infinite, and there's no limit to the creative process, but there's a difference between new and "clever."

RW:  Originality could be thought about as referring to origins. That way, it means looking back to foundational experience, beginnings.

AH:  In the sense that it takes on one's whole capability?

RW:  I like that connection. With your sandwich, making that sandwich is new, if I'm really present to this experience. In other words, am I all there? But if it's just "a sandwich"—I made one yesterday, I'm making one today—it's the same old thing.

AH:  Well, I think the work that Jim Turrell is doing comes in here—he's in the press lately, because I guess Roden Crater is getting close to being viewable. He's somebody whose work is phenomena-based, celestial, seeing, being, about the texture of air and light, and there's a very simple premise beneath it. It's about how you see.

RW:  Turrell is extraordinary. You know, I've been to the Roden Crater. The day I was there, a bulldozer was up on the rim of the caldera making the final touches on it.

AH:  You know whose bulldozer that was? Mine! - if it was a little D-4. I traded him, and it was one of the great trades of my life. I don't trade that often. I had this old tractor that was becoming a hassle and I said, "well, let me trade you for a suite of etchings." We made that trade, and apparently it was a good size for what needed to be done there. So I was very proud to have that little D-4 running around on Roden Crater.

RW:  That's a wonderful story! It was a truly memorable day for me out there, I'll tell you. But to change direction, did you grow up surrounded by art?

AH:  In a funny way, yes. I grew up down in Pebble Beach, which is an unusual place for children. My mom had a pretty good-sized place there, and my dad lived up in the city. There were art objects on the wall. We went to museums a lot when we traveled, and my mom traveled a lot. It wasn't an active involvement though. It was like this painting on the wall [pointing]-it was in the house. I always liked it. Things were around, but they were like porcelains. They had no life on their own. I didn't know the artists, and didn't even think about that.

RW:  I understand your great-grandfather collected art and was founder of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, so…

AH:  …that was kind of a pivotal point. The Walker Art Center was set up differently, originally. It was a family foundation and a certain percentage of the foundation income would go to California charities. My family had always been in California, so they went back to Minneapolis to wrestle whatever they could for the California interests. There was a 2% float that would be in question as to whether it would come to California or stay in Minneapolis. There was a pretty good-sized endowment, so it was worth fighting for.

I didn't know any of this, but I went back with my mom, 13 years old and just tagging along. There were big parties and smoozing and all sorts of gala events, and they had just hired Martin Friedman, this young whiz-bang director. There were lots of speeches and everyone was very eloquent. It was marvelous, and watching Martin do his numbers was a point of big awareness for me about how a museum, and how art-how the institution of art-works. It was a high velocity education on how museums that are well-run, work. I would go back occasionally for these foundation meetings, probably mostly just to keep my mom company on our way to New York.

So I watched the dynamic of these people in Minneapolis running this place and getting these marvelous shows - Oldenburgs, and great living artists doing, I thought, unusual, pretty far-out stuff. I watched how the director got the family members all psyched up. People were raising their hands to give millions of dollars, and I thought, this is something! I think that is one of times when art became real for me.

The work was interesting at the Walker, and it continues to be. It's one of the places I'm involved with because I really like their program. The combination of that, and because I was a part of this family and had a stake in it, and because they treated us all so well-you felt empowered, like you were a visiting potentate coming into town. And I hadn't done a thing to deserve this, except just being the heir of this man, T. B.. Walker.

The collection was given in the great spirit of those times. Some of it was pretty good and some of it wasn't. But it was fascinating and I think that is where the art institution and the people involved in it all started to have more effect on me. When I got involved in Capp Street, it all started to come back. Getting Capp Street, I wondered where in the world did I get the idea to do this? I realized it was from those early years at the Walker where things were possible.

RW:  Between that era of your teen-age years and when you bought Capp Street, was that a time when you weren't particularly involved in the arts?

AH:  Well, I went to art school. That was an experiment in creativity. I really wanted to go anywhere that was 3000 miles away from Pebble Beach! Boston provided that. They were offering a degree program at Tufts University in the museum school. I was pretty good in art, but I knew there was a big difference between being pretty good and having something to say. But I liked the materials. I loved etching and lithography. I loved the physical nature of working with those big stones, and the gum Arabic. When it worked and the ink set and you could make a print, I thought it was just fabulous. The work I was printing was not particularly splendid in any way, but it was fun to try it, and I'm glad I did.

RW:  That experience of working with the stone and…

AH:  …the grinding and the different rouges and the copper plates-the spit bite, and all of that.

RW:  Have you managed to keep something in your life that satisfies you in those physical areas?

AH:  Yes. I love construction. I like building things. I should have gotten a contractor's license. I could have saved myself a lot of anxiety. I love remodeling and building things from scratch. I love the materials. I just finished building Oxbow School in Napa. It's been six years of solid construction up there. I love working with architects. So the physical is very much part of my life. I like bringing things out of nothing.

RW:  Do you think that in art and art making there is some essential physicality that is important?

AH:  Yes. I'm very drawn to work that's quite physical.

RW:  Something is fed by having that immediate sensate experience.

AH:  I'm not an intellectual person and I like a sense of accomplishment. If you can make something, even if you don't get a great print off of your stone, but if it's prepared properly and all the chemistry comes together, there's a great sense of accomplishment. I mean, who ever thought of gum Arabic on a stone? And ink? That's right up there with the original person who made the olive work as an edible food, as opposed to the bitter thing that comes off the tree. It's manipulation, and active and passive at the same time. Being present. And we all want to mess with stuff.

RW:  I'm interested in what were the doors - you talked about your experience of going back to the meetings at the Walker Center and how something happened there for you - I'm interested in those personal experiences which were doorways for you into what has become your interest and commitment to the arts.

AH:  I've never liked doors actually. It's interesting you would use that analogy. I've always lived in places that don't have a lot of doors, and people used to comment on that. This house has a few doors, but the one I lived in for 25 years didn't really have any doors at all. It had big spaces and a loft. I don't like Victorian-type houses where it's all about a corridor and then parlors off to the side. Doors are something which, by now, I know I don't relate well to and don't like.

But the portals were, I think, when I realized I had resources. And I grew up in a funny kind of way. I mean, I knew that there was a lot of money, but it was never tangible. I never had money. Everything in Pebble Beach was done by charging. There was credit everywhere. You just went to the coffee shop and said "I want my egg salad sandwich and my chocolate shake," which is what I lived on, and it was charged. The grocery store—you just signed for it. Everybody ran credit.

Well, I came to New York and they definitely deal with money there. So there was a whole new awareness. You had to have a wallet. You had to have a purse. This was before credit cards. What I'm getting at is the portal of realizing you have resources that can take you places.

I guess a little bit of it was the legacy of T. B. Walker, I really didn't know my own grandfather, much less my great grandfather, yet by going back to Minneapolis I got a sense of the legacy of this man. He was probably a pretty unusual guy, one of these self-made individuals who came up and got into real estate and made good partnerships with people and made a ton of money and bought art with it. For Minneapolis, that was pretty unusual. They did it in New York and Chicago, but nobody was doing that and setting it out to be accessible for the public in Minneapolis.

I think the portal was when I realized that I was a part of that. My own mother had not taken advantage of that. Some of the other members of the family were living very well, nice society lives, but there was a hollowness to it I didn't understand. It didn't have any bite for me. Something seemed to skip a generation. My parents' generation wasn't terribly active. At least, it didn't seem so for me, and I wanted to be more active, do something original. When I realized I could do it, it wasn't about large sums of money and it wasn't about having a great degree or some company infrastructure. You could just set out and put a few people together and do it! Try it! It was okay to try.

RW:  You made reference to some hollowness…

AH:  Well, I didn't get any great living examples of how I wanted to live from my parents and their generation. It's not to say they're not doing just fine, it just didn't resonate for me. But my mom didn't exactly march to the prescribed path, so I've had the opportunity to do things outside of what was expected. There was nobody watching me, and so I could be a little more free. There weren't so many restrictions.

RW:  So your modeling allowed you to go beyond the conventions.

AH:  Oh, totally. That was a big boost.

RW:  You're not constrained by economic needs, and you have a model in your mother that allows you a certain freedom in the face of convention. Those are unusual circumstance in life. What are one's challenges, in a situation like that?

AH:  Well, it was clear to me from early on that I needed to make my own way, and I did at the age of about 13. I simply left home and went and lived with another family in Boston, cousins. They were very conventional, had regular meals and a nice house, and they were still married. It wasn't like one of these divorce fields. They went to Harvard. There were four kids. I just decided I wanted to live with them and asked, "Can I come live with you? You have four kids, what's one more?"

It was a life-saver in a way, just to get out from this lack of structure, which was freeing on the one hand, but a little too free for somebody under 12. So I chose a life-line of sorts. I thought, "Well, I'd like to go to Harvard. This looks good!" I started to pay more attention to school, and to take myself a little more seriously. I needed that kind of grounding. But with it, I could also explore things because I wasn't really their child, and I was allowed freedoms that their own children weren't. I had the best of both worlds—the comfort and security of this family, and the freedom of being able to explore and be a little more adventuresome. Still, I was very conservative. When you're faced with total chaos, when you grow up—I mean, drugs didn't interest me at all! Who needs that!? [laughs]

RW:  The prospect of a lot freedom-there are some difficult things that can come with that.

AH:  I tried to turn it into something positive. I remember looking out the window in Pebble Beach and thinking, "Well, we're living in a golfing community, and nobody in this family plays golf! What are we doing here?" It's like a great big, huge, eighteen-hole lawn out in front of your house. I mean, it's gorgeous, but I kept thinking, "if I can get out of Pebble Beach and find the real world, things are going to be okay."

So then this family took me in, and it worked out very well. I lived with them off and on for many years. It was always a safe place. But oddly enough, they turned out to be more radical than I ever realized. The husband had been an alcoholic and had gone to AA. I would go to AA meetings with him, and it kind of explained a lot of things for me that had been going on in my home life that I hadn't been able to understand. It was comforting to know that it wasn't the complete world just falling apart. It was funny because I came out of this chaos thinking I was going into a perfectly normal, wonderful family and there were some things going on there that weren't on the surface at all.

RW:  And how old were you when you went to this family?

AH:  About 12, right after this portrait was done [a painting of Ann Hatch and her mother by Salvador Dali] When the portrait was finished in Spain, my mother had had it with me. She said, "You go visit your cousins in Boston. You'll like it. They have kids, and you can go to the beach. You can amuse yourself." So I arrived at the airport with a note that said, call this person, and I did, and they were wonderful.

RW:  You said to yourself at some point, "If I can find something I'll be okay" - that was a conscious thing, and you were around 12?

AH:  No, that had been going on for quite a while. Since I was seven or so. My grandmother lived nearby, over in Carmel and she was a great solace and comfort, and a wonderful person to be with. But growing up in Pebble Beach was pretty weird. There were only about six kids in the whole place.

RW:  Do you see any connections between what you've been describing and your involvement with art?

AH:  I guess just the fact that there are so many possibilities. The art world is infinite and the possibilities are infinite. And because the Walker Art Center was the world I had access to, that's what I chose. There was no one in the family who was a doctor or a scientist, or I might have gone in that direction. But this was my arena, so to speak.

RW:  It occurs to me that there's an array of professions out there, but there's something about an involvement in the arts that's fundamentally different, potentially anyway, insofar as it can be deeply connected with questions of purpose and meaning.

AH:  That is certainly a big issue for me - my not having any expectations and then realizing that I had access to this enormous potential, the resources, good health, and being relatively resourceful myself - and so what do you do with it? You survive, but you don't want to be just one of these rich survivors. That's kind of tiresome. So I wanted to put a little energy behind it and use it! It was a gift-not to be burdened by, but balance was very important for me, to be balanced. To use the resources creatively, but not too creatively, not too many strings attached, and to be clear about what I wanted. That's a life-long deal, and that question goes on every day.

But by now, I've got a pretty good formula worked out about philanthropy and how much I want to get involved, and how much I want to delegate. It's an opportunity to learn a great deal. I mean. running Capp Street was difficult, but just to drop oneself into that world and make something happen was a pretty rare and wonderful experience. And it worked. And through a lot of contacts, people helped me out and seemed to understand the philosophy I wanted to be a part of that space. The artists seemed to understand it, and it happened. I don't know to this day quite why it happened so well, but it did. And now the school is a whole new thing, way more complicated.

RW:  What led you to the school? Was it already an idea? Did Mondavi suggest it?

AH:  It was my idea.

RW:  And where did that come from?

AH:  I felt that Capp Street wasn't as essential to the art community or to me as perhaps it was for the first ten years of its existence. We got fabulous installation work and wonderful reviews, and we'd sort of taken it as far as we could. I felt the artists were somewhat restless and not so much interested in being a part of something for three months. They wanted more to happen while they were in residence than we could provide. And so, in talking with them I asked what would be interesting for you? How could we make this residence be more meaningful? And often they would say, if we were teaching, or working with young people.

So I held on to that idea. And also when going to museums, I was very struck that there are no young people. They're not using these resources unless they're on some forced march from school, which doesn't happen so much with public school kids. And the museums are really sort of hollow places.

In New York, it's different. There, I think going to museums is more part of the culture, and in Europe as well. But in the Bay Area it just seems we have these massive, beautiful buildings and these multi-million dollar budgets and it's not working for the whole spectrum of people. It's kind of a self-aggrandizing club of folks that go to museums. It needs to be much more inviting to kids and it has to feel there is something meaningful for them. And so I thought, well, what happens in their education? And I realized the relation with art is getting quite whittled away.

RW:  I have to say that I loved the Gerhard Richter exhibit, but you're touching on something here. I'm reminded of my own experience of trying to get works & conversations into the SFMOMA bookstore. The content is vital, it's relevant, but there's no way in hell that's going to happen. I could never crack their bureaucratic barriers. There's something wrong about that.

AH:  We could never get the Capp Street catalogue in there. They bought four. That was the entire sum they ever bought. They've always been like that. Their sights are on some kind of national presence that doesn't have enough texture of what's really going on at the grass-roots level here. I don't know why.

RW:  There's this condition in the culture of the ascendance of the corporate-business model.

AH:  It's almost like they don't want it because it's a little messy. How would you stack that magazine? It might not be the right format. I could easily go off on a tangent here.

Well, SFMOMA's the leader of the pack here in the Bay Area, but it seems to fall short enough that there are people like me and Ann McDonald and LinkArt, and the various people who are doing galleries out of their apartments, with that kind of marvelous, "let's just do it!" kind of thinking. There are 3000 non-profit art spaces in the Bay Area, according to the San Francisco Foundation. That's a phenomenon that occurs here that does not occur in Chicago, or New York or Philadelphia or Miami. And I can't help but think it's in large part because they're not getting the satisfaction from the major institutions.

The major institutions can only do so much. But there's a yearning and an interest for a great deal more that occurs here that is very supportive of artists. So we're here on the Pacific Rim, and it's a frontier spirit and you can try stuff. You wouldn't try the same kinds of things, I think, in New York, or in Minneapolis. For instance, in Minneapolis there are not a lot of art galleries, because everything in that community is being dealt with satisfactorily by the Walker Museum and the Minneapolis Art Institute. That's certainly not the case here.

RW:  You have a feeling for this level of yearning here in San Francisco, something vital which is represented by these 3000 non-profit spaces. And as I see it, there's precious little in this culture that can hold or support this vital impulse.

AH:  But it really comes down to people. Two people together can have an art space. Actually, one person can do that. So it's the community of thinking. I'm very glad I live here because of this activity going on. I like going to New York, but it's a very different way of connecting from what's going on here. I like to think I'm somewhat connected with what's taking place in the arts, and we don't approach it here the way they do on the east coast at all.

RW:  Now with Oxbow School—you mentioned conversations with artists at Capp Street, and how some said they'd be interested in working with kids, or teaching…

AH:  …Just some more connection with people, and young people. The school all came about over a lunch with a friend who was trying to get a television program going with Mondavi support. He wanted to do a program of great artists, a talking-heads television series, and I said I didn't think that was very interesting. I said, "If I worked with Robert Mondavi, I'd put my money towards something where young people were really involved."

I was just talking to hear myself talk, and this guy went to Mondavi and said, "I know someone who is interested in doing a school. Are you interested in talking with her?" And he said, "Sure." So I went up and pitched the idea and he said, "Yeah, let's do it!" We talked a little more and I brought him back to Andover and showed him the arts community there. There's quite a wonderful art program on campus, and he loved it.

So I got myself a new job and started scratching around to see how you start a new school. What does it take? How many faculty do you need? How many kids?

RW:  Yes. That reminds me of how I started my first magazine. In a group of artist friends, I said, "You know, we need a magazine." One of them said, "Why don't you start one?" and the next day, I did. I didn't know what I was doing.

AH:  [laughs] Yes. With Capp Street, Jeffrey said to me, "Why don't you just do it?" And uh-oh, busted! I've got to do this now! [laughs] Well, you need someone sometimes to say the obvious. "Okay, let's go!"

RW:  Here's something poignant—I was thinking about this yesterday. Two friends had gotten their M.F.A.'s - one at UC Berkeley and the other at CCAC. Both were fine young artists, and both were being courted by major galleries. Both of them turned their backs on these opportunities, and that turned out to be the end. I think they both had some belief, probably unconscious, that there was a reward for such high-mindedness.

AH:  Well, there's another thing, too. You have to have a certain amount of confidence and self-awareness to deal with a gallery. There's nothing innately bad about a gallery, it's just that you've got to know what you're doing, and make your work on what you want and not what the gallery wants. There's nothing wrong with the relationship as long as you're in control.

You've got to be centered in what the work is about. It's like people in non-profits who think that writing a grant is the answer. You have to do that, but you shouldn't have the tail wagging the dog, shouldn't be inventing programs to satisfy some foundation that says they can only fund things that happen on Thursday afternoon for Hispanics. It's just crazy.

RW:  You mentioned earlier that there was a "hollowness" in the museums…

AH:  Actually the attendance is up like gangbusters, and people are using the museums, but the hollowness comes from people like me who find that… But I think the institutions are meant to give you what they can, depending on their governance. If they do a good job, then they are springboards for other people's ideas, and so rather than make it a negative statement, let's look at it from the other side. If the museum satisfied everything I needed in the art world… Here's a funny story—before I had the confidence to do Capp Street, I offered it to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I'd bought the house. I appreciated David. I'd gotten to know him, and realized that this was an art piece, not just a house. I offered it to the Museum of Modern Art as a gift. They didn't take it. If they had, I would have been out of business. I'd have been down somewhere having my nails done. So it's just the nature of the deal. They miss things that others pick up. In my case, it was a blessing.

RW:  There's some real truth there, isn't there?

AH:  If all the schools were doing arts education, we'd probably have more sensitive and creative people, but that's not what's happening. So I get to do Oxbow. So I'm very grateful in some ways. And I complain bitterly about how Napa is about building, planning, and so on, but on the other hand, how many places could you buy fifteen contiguous pieces of property and nobody would notice? And we have been able to get our vision completed up there. It hasn't been pretty, but you couldn't do it in Berkeley. You wouldn't get to square one. So I'm grateful that people do overlook some of these things because I can then rush in and make trouble, have my own fun, experiment with things.

RW:  I'm glad you pointed that out. There is something to be said for things that haven't been taken care of, haven't been discovered.

AH:  That's what I've used as my arena, the things that aren't being addressed. Arts education for high school. There are great national and local colleges for the arts. Great! But do people just suddenly arrive at a complete awareness of their art potential by the time they are freshman in college?

RW:  What happens with all these art students? There are thousands of BFA's each year and thousands of MFA's each year. What do these people do?

AH:  Well, they certainly don't all become professional artists, and yet what they learn in art school can be taken with them, which is very much the premise of what I want at Oxbow School. We're not building career artists, but we believe that creativity is a very vital part of education. It doesn't necessarily mean a show at Marion Goodman Gallery. A few may end up there, that's got to be fewer than one tenth of one percent. On the other hand, building creativity, whether it be working with paper or lithography or some other medium, gives you a sense of I can do this, whatever it is. Going to art school gives you some tools you didn't have before, whether you become a car mechanic, or a veterinarian, or a writer.

RW:  There's something very important there.

AH:  That's my belief. That just seeing and thinking and making—if you've got that drive to make something-that sense of accomplishment is transferable to any other walk of life.

RW:  This is part of the focus at Oxbow, that people be helped to see that this creative possibility is something they can discover and value in themselves.

AH:  I would say that this should be the fundamental underpinning of an art education. We want the most creative people in every capacity- the man or woman who makes the lampshade. We want the people who are thinking creatively about our illnesses and our legal problems and our design issues and our seismic retrofitting. We always want the person who is creative, not the person who just does it the same old way. And that's the tricky thing to pinpoint. It comes from the most unexpected people in the most unexpected situations, but we're always just grateful that it happens.

Sometimes a person with very few seeming advantages or resources can just surface and come out being a major player, an innovator. Other people who are very highly educated just putz along. So it's unpredictable, but that's another part of the joy of just staying connected and throwing ideas around and allowing people to get them as they can.

Learn more here about Oxbow School.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 


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