Since opening in January 2012, the gallery Will Brown has made an effort to exhibit almost everything but “art.” At least, art in the sense of work made by local living artists pursuing a career in the field. Their first show featured a number of heavy-hitters, but the pieces were displayed covertly in the gallery basement; all were acquired illegitimately and loaned anonymously. The second show, Untitled (Black Painting), removed the pretense of even showing objects, opting for chalk outlines of famous monochromatic paintings from throughout art history. In this, the gallery’s third full exhibition, the space transforms once again. For the next month Will Brown plays host to the Manitoba Museum of Finds Art, formerly housed (unsanctioned) within a larger and possibly better-known institution: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The brainchild of SFMOMA employee Alberta Mayo, the MMOFA existed within her office (the waiting room for SFMOMA Director Henry Hopkins’ office) from 1975 to 1978. Beginning with a show of photographs by fellow museum employee Joel Sackett, May expanded her programming to include artists who might not necessarily be noticed by the museum at large.
In the Will Brown installation, objects from the MMOFA permanent collection are displayed much as they were in Mayo’s office, on rows of shelves above her desk. These tchotchkes run the gamut: a prank pat of butter, a handmade MMOFA porcelain piece, a small bottle of International Klein Blue pigment balls, a signed baseball, multiple “Manitoba” trinkets. In this current display, the shelves gradually devolve into moose paraphernalia (a result of wordplay and the alternate title of “mooseum”), with multiple Bullwinkle figurines featured prominently.
The fact that these items continue to exist and have stayed with Mayo since she left SFMOMA imbues them with significance, but the viewer has no way of knowing if they would like to share in that feeling. The stories behind each object are left undefined. Without Mayo there to tell the story of the strange “corduroy pouch with rock inside,” the collection remains — to a certain extent — an impenetrable bunch of funky stuff.
The show provides the sense of being in the midst of a large-scale and long-term inside joke. In a panel discussion at the show’s opening, Mayo emphasized how much the SFMOMA staff liked each other. These exhibitions, their openings, and the ephemera they produced are rife with jokes about “the other museum” (a.k.a. SFMOMA).
Two tabletops show a variety of show announcements and internal correspondence that document the peculiar history of the MMOFA. The most telling is a scrap of paper with a typed note from Mayo requesting the removal of an Ellsworth Kelly painting from her office so that she could finish installing a Manitoba Museum show.
Instead of trying to determine the import of the “mooseum’s” collection or figure out what fame-bound artist touched what, the MMOFA functions best as an inspiration for all those who suffer through dreary day jobs. Arts institutions tend to attract creative individuals with personal commitments to the field, but can, in turn, suck the pleasure from all they once loved about the art world. The Manitoba Museum argues for carving out a creative space in your work environment without asking permission, building camaraderie with coworkers separate from the institution, and refusing to allow your job title to decree your every move at the workplace.
As Jordan Stein, one-third of the leadership behind Will Brown, remarked at the opening, there is something to be said about pursing a line of action without a mission statement, for the pure enjoyment of seeing what will happen, despite the risks you take in the process.
For an in-depth essay on the history of the MMOFA at SFMOMA and a revealing interview with Alberta Mayo, see Tanya Zimbardo’s fantastic post on the SFMOMA Open Space blog.
The Manitoba Museum of Finds Art is on view at Will Brown through June 2, 2012. For more information visit wearewillbrown.com.