“The de Young Open”: An Insider Story

By Lindsay Ganter and Shaquille Heath

January 28, 2021

Developing an exhibition is always a team effort. From curators, security officers, and education team members to exhibition techs, frontline staff, and facilities techs, our staff knows how to get things done. Yet even with our decades of expertise, The de Young Open turned us on our heads.

While most art exhibitions take years to come together, The de Young Open was engineered in a matter of months. The truncated timeline was complicated even more as our teams worked in the midst of a global pandemic, a raging wildfire season, and on a day when the sky turned orange. On Zoom calls and behind face masks, every person on the team worked tirelessly to pull together the exhibition.

We wanted to spotlight a few of the many incredible teammates who worked so hard to make this exhibition a reality. Below they share the moments of joy, some inevitable frustrations, and all the pieces in between, behind the herculean effort to organize this unprecedented exhibition.

The Origin of The de Young Open

Timothy Anglin Burgard, Distinguished Senior Curator, Curator-in-Charge of American Art, and curator of The de Young Open

In 2019, when curator Timothy Anglin Burgard proposed the idea of a juried community art exhibition as a means of celebrating the de Young’s 125th anniversary in 2020, he could not have foreseen the impending pandemic. Fast-forward to the maelstrom of March 2020. Just two weeks after our March 13 closure, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Director and CEO Thomas Campbell courageously announced that The de Young Open community art exhibition would mark our reopening (a date unknown at the time).

Reflecting on the significance of The de Young Open announcement, Tim notes, “In retrospect, the symbolic and practical impact of this decision, which provided both our staff and local artists with a source of inspiration and a future goal, cannot be overstated.”

For Tim, and the many other staff members who devoted countless hours to producing The de Young Open, the resilience, determination, and pure grit required to realize the exhibition are inextricably linked to its identity: “Frequently, I am asked if I have a favorite work in the exhibition... I always answer that the greatest work of art in The de Young Open is the exhibition itself, which was not only a true labor of love for every artist, but also for every member of the Museums’ staff.”

staff members in The de Young Open

From left: Registrar Kimberley Montgomery, Exhibitions Manager Shannon Anandasakaran, and Curator Timothy Anglin Burgard. Photograph by Gary Sexton

Where do we even begin?

Shannon Stecher Anandasakaran, de Young Exhibitions Manager

When The de Young Open was announced in March 2020, the project’s exhibition manager, Shannon Anandasakaran, was unsure whether it would actually be possible to plan and install the exhibition in only a few months. “I almost initially thought it was unachievable because of the amount of people and artwork that we were talking about,” Shannon shared.

From the outset, she understood that the exhibition’s success hinged upon the team’s ability to identify and source an off-the-shelf software that would accommodate artwork submissions and jurying, in addition to serving as a digital exhibition catalogue. After much research, the team found a software that enabled the exhibition’s seven judges to review 11,514 artworks submitted by 6,188 Bay Area artists.

For Shannon, the hardships precipitated by the pandemic motivated her throughout the exhibition’s life cycle: “What kept me engaged right from the beginning was the feeling that it was the right time to be doing this despite all of the many, many challenges. It felt like a great thing to do for the artistic community in the Bay Area, because it seemed to offer some sort of hope in the very dismal time of the pandemic when people were losing their jobs and things were not going well.”

woman with mask standing in the galleries of The de Young Open

Exhibitions Manager Shannon Anandasakaran helping to prepare the exhibition. Photograph by Gary Sexton

“Judging” the Submissions

Enrique Chagoya, renowned artist and juror for The de Young Open

Enrique Chagoya remembers what went through his head when he was asked to be one of the artists who would help select the final works that would be featured in The de Young Open. “I don’t usually like being a judge for art exhibitions, because you end up making a lot of people unhappy. But in this case, I didn't mind because the process was blind,” said Chagoya. Learning that he would jury alongside other renowned artists, such as Mildred Howard and Hung Liu, Chagoya made an exception.

Chagoya, Liu and Howard joined four curators from the Museums to examine the 11,514 submitted works throughout the month of July. While reviewing the works, Chagoya was surprised to see so many pieces that hearkened to the current moment. “I was happy to see a lot of images on social issues. Either environmental or the protests that had been going on with Black Lives Matter,” he noted. “There were so many artists involved with such serious concerns.”

In the end, the jury selected 762 artists to be featured. “I went to see the exhibition in person, and I was really happy to see how it was displayed. And I was happy to see how many artists were really enjoying the installation of their own work,” Chagoya shared. Humorously he added, “I hope at the end I made more friends than enemies.”

The de Young Open juror

Artist Enrique Chagoya sheltering at home during the jury process. Photograph by Kara Maria, artist, and wife of Enrique Chagoya

Artwork Drop-offs and that Orange Day

Lucia Coronel, Associate Director of Special and Capital Projects

Once the artists were notified of their acceptance into the exhibition, they then needed to bring their pieces to the de Young for installation. Lucia Coronel was one of the staff members who was on-site helping to receive the works. “All of the artists were incredibly excited when they dropped off their pieces. They felt that this was a golden opportunity and that they were treated with all the seriousness that they should have been,” she recalled.

Something that has stuck with Lucia is how all the staff came together to make this happen. “Because of the circumstances, we couldn't have the same group of staff who was originally scheduled to handle this project. It was a volunteer situation with a lot of collegiality.”

On September 9, Lucia and everyone across the Bay Area awoke to an orange sky. “It was really unsettling,” she shared. “None of us had an explanation for why things were that way.”

Despite the apocalyptic sky, the team pushed through. “You know, there’s the artists and there is the museum staff. But we’re all human. And we experienced this as San Franciscans. We had a lot of conversations, so we didn’t just interact about the pieces. There was camaraderie as San Franciscans or Bay Area residents. It helped to calm our anxieties on both sides. It broke a few barriers.”

orange sky in San Francisco

Left: Carol Murphy and Erica Chu from our Visitor Experience team, waiting to greet artists at the de Young museum on September 9, 2020, a.k.a. “Orange Day”. | Right: Artist arriving to drop off their work at the de Young museum on September 9, 2020 aka “Orange Day”. Photographs taken by Lucia Coronel

Installing The de Young Open

Ryan Butterfield, Director of Preparation and Installation, and Amy Andersson, Registrar

Working furiously during a compressed time frame, the Museums’ Registration and Technical Production teams faced unique challenges as they received, documented, and installed The de Young Open’s 877 artworks (more than eight times the number of objects included in a typical exhibition). 

Remembering the extraordinary measures that were taken to ensure the health and safety of the artists who delivered their artworks, and the staff who received and installed those works, Registrar Amy Andersson said, “To prioritize health and safety, we reviewed existing protocols, developed new ones, and even performed mock intakes to ensure the safety of all participants and help prevent the spread of COVID-19 . . . Fortunately, every department more than rose to the occasion, and because of that exceptional teamwork we successfully hosted an unmatched exhibition displaying the local talent throughout the Bay Area.”

For Ryan Butterfield, Director of Preparation and Installation, it was the combination of several anomalous circumstances that made his team’s installation of the exhibition in a four-week period all the more extraordinary: “The de Young Open was the largest exhibition ever put on by the museum, and it was also done during an unprecedented pandemic, and organized within six months. All of these factors made it the most difficult project my team has ever worked on . . . The sheer mental focus and stamina of the installation team was tested every day. I am proud and still amazed that we were able to install the exhibition according to schedule.”

men on a lift installing paintings

Members of the Technical Production team installing artwork in the exhibition’s wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling salon-style hang. Photograph taken by Ryan Butterfield

Varnishing Day

Anna Present, Director of Visitor Experience

The artists featured in The de Young Open were the first to see the exhibition in person, after its installation, and just a few weeks after the de Young had reopened its doors. “It was unexpected to feel that much energy and to have that many people there, as we had just reopened after the City’s closure mandate,” shared Anna Present, Director of Visitor Experience, who was on-site for the artists’ Varnishing Day

“We were very cautious and aware of safety,” Anna said, noting that the excitement of the day almost “overrode the need to feel scared” of being around people again. “It felt very celebratory!”

One moment stands out for her. “All of the artists were welcome to bring a guest, and one artist had invited their mother. When I asked the artist who their guest was, at that exact moment the artist’s mother just burst into tears. She said, ‘I'm just so proud of my son! I never thought this would be a reality!’ Witnessing this raw moment–them sharing it together . . . It was a lifetime of buildup.”

Watch “The de Young Open” artists inaugurate the exhibition.

people in a gallery at The de Young Open

Artists viewing their installed works for the first time on Varnishing Day. Photograph taken by Carrie Montgomery, Director of Special Events

Welcoming You Back

Justin Servillon, Visitor Experience Supervisor

Finally, the moment we had been waiting for had arrived. Justin Servillon, a supervisor on our Visitor Experience team, was on-site when the public visited the show for the first time. “We got a lot of feedback from people the first day, who made a point to stop back by our desk and mention that this exhibition was one they’d be making multiple visits to see.”

For Justin, being able to meet and talk with so many of the artists was a top highlight. “You don't get to interact with artists very often. It’s not like you get to meet Calder or Picasso. So that was really special!” he shared.

Though Justin has opened dozens of shows during his time at the Museums, this one felt different. “Because of how personalized [the exhibition] was, and how rooted it was in the community around us . . . for those who had a work in the show, or were there to see their friend or families work . . . that sense of pride was more palpable.”

large group of staff members

Some of the incredible staff who worked on “The de Young Open.” Photograph by Lucia Coronel

Unfortunately, the de Young had to close its doors to the public again only six weeks into the run of The de Young Open. The experience of pulling together this sprawling exhibition during an extraordinary time remains a vivid, and fond memory for the entire staff. The artworks from the exhibition will remain accessible online even after the exhibition officially closes on January 31, 2021.

Text by Lindsay Ganter, Special Projects Manager; and Shaquille Heath, Manager of Communications, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Learn more about The de Young Open.

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