Chair of the Board of Trustees
An artist, photographer, cultural activist, and graduate of SFAI (MFA 84'), Graham has been a board member since July 2020 and was an Adjunct Professor at SFAI in 2002 and 2016. He is a Pew Fellow and Professor of Art in Photography at Pennsylvania State University, former Executive Director of The PhotoAlliance in San Francisco, and a former board member of the San Francisco Artists Alumni (SFAA).
Exploring SFAI's Future
A reflection from my personal journey
February 2, 2022
In 1871 on the edge of the continent a small group of artists reacting to cultural isolation established the San Francisco Art Association. It was meant to envision and advance artistic culture in the Western United States. This association eventually became SFAI, so dedicated, would evolve into one of the most culturally significant centers for art in North America.
The inclination at this point is to recount my personal journey to Chestnut street. Perhaps to start in Halifax, Nova Scotia where I boarded a Greyhound bus to travel for days across the contiguous United States, to the great red doors, across the courtyard, and onto the spacious brutalist belvedere to behold that stunning vista of the San Francisco Bay.
But mine would be only one of thousands of stories related to thousands of lives, recalling thousands of tragedies and thousands of epiphanies, thousands of moments of euphoria, enlightenment, and passion.
My story holds significance only because I was convinced that all the work that those individuals had produced and sacrificed for, I believe all the ideas produced over the past 150 years are that important. Because I, and so many others in our community were so committed to the preservation of the ethos of the San Francisco Art Institute that we, so dedicated, set forth to conceive of any manner of articulation to save some portion of the sacred notion of one of the most significant institutions in our world.
And toward that end after months of confrontation, negotiation, triumph, strategy, gratitude, hope and elation we find ourselves joining with another organization that realizes the depth of our contribution and the confluence of our ideals. The University of San Francisco, in what can be assessed as a fearless idealistic and forward-looking gesture, has committed to assuming the responsibilities and common vision of what is the San Francisco Art Institute. This merger will help to ensure the continuation of our school and the contribution of our students; the individuals that come to commune, to seek guidance, to explore, to attain the realization of self, and to sustain greater artistic and creative fluency.
As we commence our sesquicentennial we must see as our cultural ancestors did, and allow for possibilities we cannot imagine. We must reinforce a framework with our new partner upon which future generations can mount their aspirations. We must maintain a place that continues to allow for freedom, exploration, and discovery.
It is in that way our work is only beginning.
―Lonnie Graham, SFAI Board Chair
Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday
June 19, 2021
Healing even the deepest wounds begins with acknowledgment. Citing the horror and the festering truth that we have lived with as a society for centuries is a step toward that healing. The willingness to continue the conversation that started decades ago during the civil rights movement initiates a level of reciprocity necessary in paving the road to understanding. At the federal level, the formal establishment of a moment or day when we might reflect on laws that held fellow human beings bound in servitude to other humans and to ultimately celebrate the revocation of that law is a moment that millions of people have waited hundreds of years for.
One hundred fifty-eight years ago, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the abolishment of the enslavement of black people in the United States. Two years later, on June 19, the enslaved black community of Galveston, Texas, learned of the abolition. One hundred fifty-six years later, we arrive at the point of conciliation. To be sure, this monument is welcome and will be celebrated. However, we all remain aware that laws or holidays or festivals, or parades only serve to raise and sustain awareness. Substantive societal change occurs within the confines of the human heart. This is the point at which we must continue to collaborate for our future.
Supporting Racial Justice
A response to the guilty verdict in the murder of George Floyd
April 20, 2021
What kind of prejudice is defined by the level of fear of a child with a packet of sweets. Or a boy with a cell phone. Or a man with his hands raised in surrender. Or a woman asleep in her bed.
When we as a society have evolved beyond murderous fear, when the conviction of a murderer is something other than a rarified exception, when reason and compassion precede impulse and rage, we will begin to make progress toward a just society.
Standing Against Intolerance
On behalf of the SFAI community
March 19, 2021
We reach out and reinforce the relationships we have with our friends and families with assurances of solidarity. We stand together and march. We speak out against the pitiful inadequacy that exists within us. For a few moments or a few weeks, sometimes months or even by presidential decree, we are motivated toward a resolution. In the exceptional case, things may change. But that change can seem as slow as evolution. This is the heart of the matter. There is no doubt that the thinking and rational human has evolved beyond the primal impulse of tribalism. Fear and misunderstanding, and irrational impulses still exist among us.
With each loss, we grieve. Illogical acts evade our common understanding. But as our society continues to reveal aspects of itself as something less than inclusive and more than fearful, we can not, and we should not be satisfied with solidarity. It becomes our responsibility to stand together and face tyranny, fear and prejudice, and intolerance. We must take the responsibility to evolve toward empathy.
Until we take a step toward activating our society against intolerance, we will continue to grieve for those of us in communities of every creed who suffer at the hands of violence.
Care for our communities. Stand against hate.
Art is an "Essential Service"
Reflections on the value of culture during a pandemic
We are living in an unprecedented moment, where one dire phenomenon is creating a ripple across the entirety of the earth. It is in these times of social distancing that art's role to connect us is all the more important for art is the act of sharing your humanity with others through the medium of creative expression. In this sense, we critically need art to show us how to care for each other, to help us understand what it means to be human, and how important community is to our survival. When art engenders empathy, it helps us to understand that we are not in this alone. That our actions matter.
The notion that "Art is an Essential Service" is something worth addressing, when much of the world has stopped functioning, on so many levels. In a global crisis the mechanics of responding demands great focus on a vast array of pragmatic and logistical concerns, whether this crisis is a natural disaster, war, or a pandemic. While art may be the last thing some people think of as an essential service, its role is crucial and should be not be discounted.
There have been massive changes in our collective behavior as most of us struggle through various levels of quarantine. It has asked us to question who we are and what we value. This comes at the most fundamental of levels, between health and economics, where the failure of either of these could have disastrous long-term affects. These are not easy choices. How will we care for ourselves and those around us, how will we resolve the balance dynamic between self-indulgence and compassion? What sacrifices will we make to ensure our collective survival?
Art is deeply engrained into our DNA—from cave paintings to Banksy. It lives at a foundational and emotional level. For as long as humans have walked the earth, the power of self-expression has existed across all cultures, all socio-economic classes, as it takes many forms in each unique context. While art has always had a wide range of meaning over a broad spectrum of cultural conditions, in this moment it is Art's power to create a sense of community and shared humanity that resonates most. Art does this in two ways; in the experiencing of art and in the making of art.
The US National Gallery of Art has seen a 400% increase in traffic to its enhanced website. Artists are turning in large numbers to performing on digital channels. Online festivals, like Dezeen, are seeing record numbers of visitors making it one of the top websites in the world in terms of traffic. In the UK, art supplies and book sales of fiction titles have more than doubled. This represents a need be engaged with something outside ourselves, something bigger, something spiritual, something that makes us experience the world in a new way, or that moves us and lifts us, or simply makes us feel less alone with our thoughts, fears or convictions.
Of specific concern is that the heightened focus on "the essential" during this pandemic may make people see art as “something extra”, something nice to have to make life more beautiful or entertaining but, in the greater scheme, not essential. A bit like saying, who cares about the architecture of a building as long as it works and keeps the rain out and the heat in. In reality, as human beings, we need much more from our buildings both intellectually and emotionally.
As the emerging success of working from home in certain professions continues to be explored, museums and performing arts organizations are stepping up to provide innovative ways to engage their audiences. While its live stage is dark, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco has started a program of mini podcasts called "Far Apart Art". Twenty-one of the Magic's playwrights have created short audio narratives "about staying healthy and creative during this special period of sheltering in place."
When reflecting on how artists have emerged from crises it is clear that art’s range is vast from the cri-de-coeur of Victor Hugo’s writing to the joie-de-vivre of Henri Matisse’s painting. It is also clear that throughout time art has been at the forefront of enlightened humanity, of making sense of life by making us feel and understand and also to celebrate.
There’s a long tradition of art existing in the most dire of times. The human spirit has survived and flourished after crises because of art. Art has been at the core of making sense of disasters, of coming together, of healing, of belief in a better future with hope. Think of the two great churches in Venice, Palladio’s Redentore (1592) and the later Salute (1681) by Baldassare Longhena. Both were designed and built to mark the end of successive plague epidemics in the city first in 1575-76 and then in 1630, well within the living memory of a single generation. Today Venetians continue the celebrate the end of the 1630 plague each year with a festival on November 21st – a thanksgiving for having seen the back of the Black Death.
On the other side of the Art equation is the value of Making Art as a way of understanding the world and as a way of sharing our common humanity. Art is an expression of what makes us human.
Art, whether in the form of grand conceptions or casual sketching, brings solace. It fulfills an innate need in humans to connect with their souls. Whether it’s about designing the next architectural masterpiece or making a work of art yourself at home, you’re tapping into this fundamental need to be part of something expressive that gives your life emotional meaning.
What is missing from so much discourse around art at the moment is the notion that art can create a powerful sense of community, especially when it is participatory. This can be a critical part of the solution for how we move towards a better future and take something worthwhile from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 2020 Burning Man participatory arts event is a compelling opportunity for this - albeit in digital form this year – because, there, art is about creating the emotional foundation for a greater sense of community, which in turn results in a very unique culture of compassion and care. One of the most enduring qualities of Burning Man is the sense of community people take back to their regular lives and the understanding of how these positive qualities can make our lives fuller and richer.
Art can allow people to share essential truths of what binds us together as human beings. We have repressed this aspect of ourselves, abrogating it to others, to commercial interests, whose primary motivation is profit. Broadly we have done this rather than risk the embarrassment of sharing mediocre art. We need to open up a range of cultural inclusion to embrace art in its many forms and to appreciate how this power of self-expression creates an opportunity for connection.
A Call to Action
We are currently on the ascending slope of the Virus curve. On this side of the curve we dwell in the chaos of uncertainty. We don't yet know the duration of the crisis and most importantly we don't know the intensity of sacrifice it will demand. While this will affect people at different levels, for most of us we are in extended isolation.
We all hope the arc of the Covid-19 virus will flatten soon, and decline, but the aftermath, economically and psychologically, will affect us for a long time to come. Whether this future is a dystopian one, as in a classic science fiction novel, or whether humanity progresses remains to seen. The difference today, is that we, as humans, have an opportunity to write this new novel, of how to "re-boot" the world together, while this moment has our focus. The end of this pandemic will lead to a very much changed world. To foster a better future, we need to continue creating art and supporting each other as a community. Art will give us the ability to shape our culture and through emotionally resonant creativity. This is where we can look for a better tomorrow.
To put this in admittedly emotive terms:
Art is an essential service, because after our need for emergency services ends, after the last patient recovers, we will need to make sense of all of this, of why we struggled so hard to survive it, why we helped our neighbor, why grief came to our door, and why we cared while others did not, and we will need to share this with each other. Art can uniquely help us explore and answer these questions.
When art moves us in profound ways, it has the power to shape our destinies by inspiring us to care about life itself and each other.
—John Mark, AIA, SFAI Board Vice Chair