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Michelle Mansour

Executive Director of Root Division


NOV 11, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Michelle Mansour by Olga Nabatova

Prioritizing artists and young students is a big part of what Root Division brings to San Francisco’s art community. Founded by three MFA graduates as a way to create a space for emerging artists and expand on arts education in schools, Root Division has been enriching the lives of not only students, but their community as well. From their MFA exhibition series—featuring students from different walks of life—to curating professional exhibits for young students in their yearly New Growth exhibit, Root Division allows emerging artists of all ages to see the value in their work, giving them the confidence to pursue a career in the arts.

I had the opportunity to interview Michelle Mansour, Executive Director of Root Division, where we discussed Root Division’s mission to empower artists and youth, their struggles during the pandemic, and how art has been a safe haven for the community of San Francisco.

sM | With all the talk of ‘essential work’, do you think Covid affects the value of the work artists do? Would you say there’s an even greater need for the comfort of that work?

MM ─ t’s kind of amazing actually, with people spending so much time at home, creating their office spaces and backdrops, really focusing on what surrounds them, we’ve actually done a fair amount of art sales through the gallery, art auction, and through the artist’s personal studios. So between that and the interest in online classes which has been surprisingly popular, we’re not doing badly all things considered. I think people have gone through this moment of what types of things enrich your life and that has been a sort of window of opportunity for the visual arts.

We’ve acknowledged that health, safety, food and shelter come first in terms of being “essential”, but I do feel like there’s something that’s been realized with the value of what arts can bring and what artists can bring. In terms of capturing the moment and interpreting the moment, story telling and being visionaries. I think the convergence of the pandemic and more awareness of social justice issues has been an opportunity to showcase how artists are essential as  interpreters, sharing very powerful content through their own lens. It’s a true privilege to be alongside so many creative people.

sM |  How can institutions like yours be of greater service to emerging artists, especially with the severe slashing of artistic budgets?

MM ─ t’s always been true to us that artists are the core of what we do. We have the studio program, where we provide discounted workspace in exchange for volunteer service. The artists can do these services by teaching at a school, teaching adult classes or helping to organize exhibitions in the gallery. They’re giving back but also gaining professional experience in the arts, and this is very much an incubator program.

The exhibition series is similarly an opportunity to showcase local emerging artists. A lot of artists have had their very first show here before they go on to show somewhere else, which is really true to MFA Now.  We also have a series called MFA Never, people who didn’t go down the academic route but are making super interesting work. The premise of the show is that the artists submit one image and all of the submissions will end up in a publication. So anyone who sends us an image will be published into an archive, and we have a juror who reviews the work that will be exhibited in the gallery. We’ve had 175-200 submissions, which then becomes this really incredible resource of artists who are working on their MFA’s.

This year we did MFA Revisited, which was essentially the class of 2020, so we thought we could dedicate the space to showing some of their work, and dedicate the artwork and archive to that class. In general, the pandemic has really allowed us to really focus down on what’s important, who are we supporting? And how are we supporting them? Mostly trying to give artists the opportunity to continue to make work.

At the moment, for our studio spaces, we’ve been a “pay what you can” model. Many artists are out of work or are in very tentative situations, so we just wanted to do what we could in order to hold the space for them. Likewise to provide artists with a space to show their work in real life. There’s something about having an artist install their work, to be able to actually see it hung up in a gallery and for us to be able to document it. So when we pull out of all of this they can say “yeah I have this show, here are some images of it” as opposed to the thinness of a virtual presentation.

sM | How has the pandemic and recent social upheavals influenced your priority for arts education in the school curriculum?

MM ─ Transferring everything from in-person to digital is really stressful on everyone. A large portion of the population that we work with are part of the lower income part of the spectrum. Many of them are English language learners or immigrants from other places, specifically from Latin America. So not only have we had a learning curve, but also there’s the digital divide through accessibility and ability. We put together kits of art supplies at the beginning of the fall semester and again at the beginning of the spring semester which required a lot of pre-planning, so all the students can have their equipment at home.

Typically in our program we serve up to 1000 students between the ages of 5 and all the way into their 20’s. During the pandemic it’s been scaled back based on who has been able to offer programming. Mostly right now, we’re working with Kindergarten through Middle school. The groups have been more combined, where typically we have them broken up, but because of the nature of the online scheduling it’s been more of a multi-aged group. We have two Latin-x teachers working with a new-comer program with one of our partner-sites, which is composed of students who have just immigrated from Latin America, and the entire program is taught in Spanish. The idea behind the school is to allow the students to acclimatize into a new city, country, and school while learning in Spanish, before they get moved into a full English speaking environment. Similarly we have a Filipinx teaching fellow who has been teaching the children and tweens/teens in Tagalog and we just started a Bay Area Black Artist Studio Fellowship this year.

Typically every May we host something called New Growth , which we have been organizing since 2006. New Growth is our student showcase featuring all the work our students have done from the semester. In the gallery portion of Root Division, we have a program every second Saturday of the month with an event that’s open to the public and features rotating exhibitions. One section of the gallery is our youth education or ‘student gallery’ and rotates every month, giving students an opportunity to see what they’ve learned and developed.

New Growth is our exhibition for the month of May which allows our youth program to have a “professional gallery experience”. So now due to COVID, we are trying to figure out a way to get the artwork from our students and possibly do a virtual gallery tour. Typically we would take our students on a little “field trip” around each of the exhibits, doing activities on site, so now we’re trying to see how to coordinate that into the online realm.