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Award Unites Artists, Collectors and a Museum

They come in buses, 50 or so Bay Area contemporary art collectors, consultants and enthusiasts, to visit 30 select emerging artists every two years. For six Saturdays, the well-heeled lot traipses through small studios and edgy galleries, looking at delicate line drawings and sprawling sculptural installations alike, to meet the people they hope will become the next generation of Bay Area visual art stars.


“It’s the ultimate backstage pass to the contemporary art world,” said Marianna Stark, a San Francisco collector. “People sit enraptured when the artists and curators talk.”


The studio visits are just one part of an art tradition that has helped bring together ambitious Bay Area artists, enthusiastic collectors and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for the past 50 years under the auspices of a museum auxiliary club of which Ms. Stark is a member, the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art.


These days, the prize the society bestows, the SECA Art Award, is one of the most prestigious in Northern California, desired not so much for its cash component, which is nominal and undisclosed, as for the opportunity to show work at a notable museum.


“It’s definitely a big deal,” said Patricia Maloney, a curator and the editor of the online magazine Art Practical.


From David Best (a 1977 award winner), who became famous for his elaborate Burning Man temples, to Barry McGee (1996) and Chris Johanson (2002), who defined the iconic street-art-inspired work of the early 2000s, to Tauba Auerbach (2008), a young artist highly sought after for her geometric abstracts, SECA has introduced emerging Bay Area artists to the wider world.


Beginning in December, the fifth floor of SFMOMA will be given over to SECA for an anniversary show looking back at the past half-century of winners as well as the exhibit of the most recent honorees: Colter Jacobsen, Ruth Laskey, Maurico Ancalmo and Kamau Amu Patton. A book featuring images from all the winners is also being published.


“It’s been a two-year process of constant work,” said Alison Gass, who co-curated the show and wrote the book with a fellow SFMOMA curator, Tanya Zimbardo. “Very quickly we realized the book was the place to do a comprehensive history, which we really wanted to do.”


SECA began in 1961 and started handing out awards in 1967. While the criteria have remained constant — the museum and SECA are looking for emerging Bay Area artists who are deserving and ready for the big platform afforded by an institutional show — the process has gone through several permutations.


Currently, a group of over 100 local art scene players, including past winners, nominates candidates. From there, the museum curators narrow the field to 30, and they visit studios with SECA members (the aforementioned bus riders), who pay $500 annually on top of museum membership fees to be part of the group. After much discussion by that group, the curators choose the winners.


Over the years, the award has recognized a great diversity of work, from an elaborate wooden gun by Michael Jean Cooper in 1977 to the blue-hued geodesic installation of trees by Chris Johanson in 2002, which helped cement the place of the Mission School of San Francisco artists in the foreground of the national contemporary art scene. Mr. Jacobsen, one of this year’s winners, plays with ideas of memory by, for example, taking a found photograph and recreating it in freehand drawings.


While SECA’s focus has been more on individuals than on particular schools of work, the 50th anniversary exhibit offers an opportunity to consider what, if anything, constitutes Bay Area regional art — a hot topic now, with the sprawling, 60-institution Southern California show “Pacific Standard Time” drawing international attention to 20th-century California art.


For Ms. Gass, looking at the body of SECA work creates a kind of “alternate history” of local art, though, as Ms. Zimbardo put it, one with “a very specific data set.”


For instance, digging through the SECA archives Ms. Gass encountered trends that are not typically associated with the Bay Area, like female abstract painters: Cornelia Schulz (a 1975 winner), Anne Appleby (1996), Laurie Reid (1998) and Ms. Auerbach.


Conversely, SECA has ignored huge swaths of famous Bay Area conceptual or performance art, like the work of David Ireland. With a few exceptions, it has rewarded painting, sculpture and other object-based work.


“If anything, the history of the SECA award refutes the notion of regionalism,” Ms. Gass said.


One of the biggest changes over time was the mid-90s move to have official curators, not the larger group, select winners. But still, in contrast to the typical opacity of the art world and thanks in large part to those every-other-year jitneys, SECA opens a door among collectors, young artists and the museum.


“That’s where SECA’s value lies,” Ms. Maloney said. “It allows these other voices to weigh in on what is in the collection of the museum.”


Published by The Bay Citizen.

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