Anyone who thinks museums are cold and cavernous simply has not spent enough time inside of one. In San Francisco, we are blessed with all kinds of art, there to be absorbed and digested in its many forms.
From the performance arts of the symphony and ballet to the modern art of SFMOMA and Minna Street, you’d be fibbing if you said we aren’t cultured. The fine arts, too, have long established their place in San Francisco, with the sisters that are the Legion of Honor and the de Young—together comprising the FAMSF—pumping out thoughtful, masterfully curated exhibitions all through the year. Most recently, the de Young’s “Monet: The Late Years” raked in upwards of 100,000 visitors in its first month alone.
Claude Monet serves as one of the pillars of recognizable art. You see a water lily, the bridge of Giverny, and there you have it. We are immediately transported to an art history class we likely took in our teenage years. For some, that is where art begins and ends. The Monets, the Da Vinci’s, the tried and true gentleman who have cornered our understanding of art as a concept, an idea. But art is ever evolving, and even a mainstay such as Monet can be made new again; when presented correctly, we can look at his art as if for the first time. In a place such as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, titans of art such as Monet are major players in a ever-diversifying parade of narratives that aim to compel visitors to think, to feel, and to discover.
With “Monet” now in its final weeks, I chatted with Communications Associate Shaquille Heath to learn more about the human aspect of the exhibit: what does it take to build an artistic experience around a legend? Heath can offer a unique understanding of the inner workings of the Fine Arts Museums as a whole from her vantage point on the communications team. She also is at the pulse of San Francisco at large, with a passion for bringing diversity and inclusion to the city’s art scene. Our conversation may have started with “Monet,” but quickly grew to greater heights, as art often inspires us to do.
Tell us about your personal experience in building “Monet: The Late Years. How long did it take, how many private collections and museums did you work with?
Prior to joining the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, I worked for an agency in the tech world. One thing that I didn’t realize before working at an art museum was the amount of time and research it takes to compile an exhibition like this one. George T. M. Shackelford, the organizing curator of Monet: The Late Years and deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum, is a known Monet scholar who has spent his life studying the intricacies of the artist. With our Director of the Art Division, Melissa Buron, (our own Monet master) the two spent years working together to compile an exhibition of this magnitude.
There are almost 50 pieces in the show including 1914-1917 Water Lilies, a masterpiece that is a part of our collection here at FAMSF. (Visitors are familiar with seeing this at the Legion of Honor.) The exhibition is compiled with loans from Europe to Asia and across the U.S. One of my favorite pieces in the show, Roses, comes all the way from the Musée Marmottan in Paris. I’d recommend for visitors to look closely at the object labels as they walk through the galleries to see where each piece has come from and how far it is has traveled —it’s quite thrilling. It’s a rare treat to see so many incredible Monet’s together like this in San Francisco!
Tell us about the camaraderie of the teams working at the FAMSF. What is it like to work towards the shared goal of a big exhibition like this? What is the culture of the team? How do you celebrate, how do you collaborate, what are some obstacles faced?
I'm very grateful to work with such an incredible group of people here at FAMSF who have, truly, a deep love and appreciation for both art and telling stories. Working on an exhibition like Monet is an incredible experience and is always super exciting because it's MONET! But for me personally, it's past exhibitions like “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” or the upcoming “Soul of a Nation” that make me really proud. To be able to put on shows like this for San Francisco is not only important, but vital. These exhibition help to tell a wider range of art stories that aren't traditionally told in museum settings. And I want to make sure our visitors always have access to learning about artists that may not be covered in Art History 101.
How do you decide to frame the story of the exhibition from a communications/PR perspective? So much goes into building an exhibition that isn't always apparent at first glance. How do you and the rest of the FAMSF team decide how to craft a narrative around a collection of paintings and how do you decide what will speak to people most?
When we’re getting ready to start promoting an exhibition, we typically sit down with the curators and have them walk us through the show and all of its major themes. They are the experts, so hearing it from them first hand is critical to giving us a deeper understanding of the exhibition before we start crafting any messaging or narratives.
From there, we take the major themes and think about which pieces are the most relevant to our audiences. What is new and exciting that would make visitors want to come? Are there any interesting themes that are timely or particularly relevant to today? Are there any local or Bay Area ties that would excite visitors? Once we’ve listed out those, then we start to craft messages and stories around those angles, and start discussions with reporters about what they then might find to be most interesting to their audiences.
For an exhibition like Monet: The Late Years, our job is really easy. Monet is such a beloved figure that it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to get people excited about coming to look at beautiful water lilies.
Speaking as a young communications professional working in the art world, what do you think it is about Monet that resonates with so many people of different ages? How would you identify the enduring quality of his work?
At the museums we like to talk about “the magic of Monet.” He’s one of those artists that transcends. There’s nothing like standing in front of a Japanese Bridge or the Water Lilies painting. You can just feel the energy radiating from the canvas. For this exhibition, I’ve been particularly touched by the Weeping Willows paintings. I’ve learned that many of the willows works were created as a mournful response to the tragedies of World War I, which Monet could hear from his garden in Giverny. When you take in one of those paintings, you can feel the sadness, even if you don’t specifically know their background. And that is what is so magical about Monet—standing in front of his paintings is a completely different experience than viewing it in a book or on a mug.
Our visitors feel the magic too. In fact, we had more than 100,000 visitors come to see the show in its first month—and it’s on track to be one of our most popular exhibitions ever!
There is a marked difference between early Monet and late years Monet. In your opinion, how do you see museum goers interact differently with each? What was so special and dynamic about this exhibit in particular, given that it is exclusively the late years?
I think what it so dynamic about his later years is the realization that Monet created these works during his 70s and 80s—the last decades of his life. As you see Monet’s impressionist work become more abstract, it’s a reminder that we can always reinvent ourselves. I think we’ve all had a moment where you’ve felt really stuck. We forget that we have the opportunity to change and evolve—at any age. And that in itself is so invigorating.
Since joining the FAMSF, how has your relationship and understanding of art changed or evolved? Has it changed how you interact or view San Francisco itself? Has it altered how you understand or view locals in SF?
Since joining the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, my relationship with art has changed drastically. I always knew that art was healing, but having the opportunity to be around it all the time has only reinforced that belief to me—and has only emphasized its importance. Art is there to enable dialogue and to speak to life in visual ways. Sometimes something happens that makes us feel a certain way, and we just can't put that feeling into words - and that is art. We have an upcoming show at the de Young called “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which I'm so excited about because it speaks to this exactly. For almost all of history, black people have not been able to have a fair voice, and during the Civil Rights era, artists were using art to promote solidarity and resistance to the times, and to speak to the issues that they were facing in a way that words couldn't convey. That is so powerful!
Working at FAMSF has also given me such a deep love and appreciation for San Francisco. Since joining the team here, I've had the opportunity to connect and work with more locals who make up the artistic spirit of this city. Part of the reason I moved to San Francisco was its rich history in creating and enabling artists and change, and while tech continues to be a dominating narrative, it has not replaced the love this city has for art. It's been so wonderful to engage with more San Franciscans who are focused on this work.
You’ve mentioned how Monet reinvented himself in his late years with completely new works. How do museums such as FAMSF reinvent themselves with each new generation while still remaining true to their core tenets and mission? As a young professional in SF yourself, how have you reinvented yourself, your career trajectory, your creative pursuits?
I don't necessarily think it's about reinvention, but about ensuring that we're staying flexible and dynamic. With every new generation is a new list of interests, wants and expectations. It's our job to ensure that everyone, from our members who have supported the museums for years, to a visitor who is walking into a museum for the very first time, feels welcome at our museums, and knows that there is something here that they will be moved by—whether it's seeing the beautiful water lilies in “Monet: The Late Years” or walking through our permanent collection galleries and experiencing pieces like Lincoln, Lonnie and Me from Carrie Mae Weems.
As I've mentioned, before joining the museums I worked for a PR agency in the tech world. Switching from tech to art wasn't a hard choice, but it was a hard move. I thought that because I didn't study art history or have art experience, that I could never work at a museum, but obviously that's not true! We all have so many skills and strengths that remain valuable when we are ready to make a change. Now that I'm here at the museums, a big focus of mine has been helping the museums become more inclusive. There is a group of us here at the museums called the IDEA Committee (Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity and Access) that are focused on this kind of work. How can we ensure that the museums are amplifying more voices? How can we ensure that our visitors are learning through art from more diverse perspectives? Being able to combine these three things - my love for art, my passion for diversity, and my communication skills, has clicked something deep in me. It's harmonious.
Perhaps that is what San Francisco can do through the Arts at large in a way that few other cities or institutions can: marry the past with themes of modernity and greater human understanding. Consider 100,000 visitors flocking to “Monet” in the first month alone. To me, that says something. There are chasms that we don’t have names for, and those are the spaces that art can fill. From there, we can understand and care more about the difficult things, ask the big questions, and face it all with beauty and bravery.
// Shaquille Heath works in communications at the FAMSF; her writing has been featured in news outlets such as “The New York Times” and “Mother Mag.” “Monet: The Late Years” is on exhibition at the de Young through May 27th.
Isabella Welch is a graduate of UCLA with a degree in history. Her writing has been featured in history journals, travel blogs, arts & culture magazines, and more. Director of Editorial & Creative Development at Bob Cut Mag, lover of stories and tinto de verano, she’s usually found wandering the Headlands.