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SOMArts: Maria Jenson

Meet the Creative and Executive Director of San Francisco’s SOMArts


JUN 13, 2023 | ISSUE 4

Photo by Jeremy Fokkens

SOMArts has a true community-first approach, making them a spectacular place to enhance both your artistic and cultural knowledge. Maria Jenson, Creative and Executive Director of SOMArts, shares some insight into the creative process behind her organization’s emotionally provoking exhibits, support for emerging artists, and dedication to the Bay Area community.

sM | What inspires you and your team in the curatorial process for such diverse exhibits?

MJ ─ It definitely is a team effort! We don’t have a curator per se, we have a number of community collaborators and work with Carlina Quintanilla, our Director of Curatorial Partnerships. We also review submissions through our curatorial residency program which is really exciting for us. It is a nine-month incubator program that provides a unique opportunity for emerging curators and artists to gain mentorship and support in order to execute large scale exhibitions in our approximately 31,000 sq. feet space. Three residencies are awarded each season through an open call process which allows them an opportunity to further expand on their curatorial practice and explore timely social issues. Additionally we provide space to three longer term partnership organizations: Queer Cultural Centre, Asian Pacific Islander Centre. and ArtSpan–each of those organizations curate their own exhibitions annually.

We also work with the SF Foundation to co-produce the Murphy and Cadogan Contemporary Art Awards, which is a focus group on the Bay Area visual artists. These awards champion the artists who are in their first year of the MFA program. A lot of rewards go to people who finish something, but this is great as it recognizes their developing process and ideas, and it’s nice that they get some funding support at this time. It also gives these artists recognition, we have a lot of art dealers and gallerists who come to these exhibits and often they are being approached by folks already. We’ve had to move so many things to the virtual realm, and sometimes you worry that things may be lost in translation. It’s interesting to see that we don’t have a curator, as it’s almost as though the community is curating their own space. It’s the artists and the curators, who are bringing forward these proposals and we are providing economic, installation and mentoring support, to give these visions a chance to have life. We have also learned from these artists and curators, making it very organic and intentional.

sM | Do you mainly focus on the Bay area?

MJ ─ The art world is a global reality. We are very regional or geographically specific. We sense that the Bay area is a community where, unlike New York or L.A where there are lots of opportunities or ways to engage, the Bay area is unique as a lot of great talent is developed here but the opportunities don’t present themselves as frequently. Many artists in the Bay Area do go on to have a career in major cities or across the globe, but for our purposes as a cultural centre, that is at once an arts organization but also belongs to the community, we focus largely on community. We are really looking at those artists who don’t get an opportunity. I’m not a big fan of the word underrepresented or marginalized, I’m thinking more it really has to do with where is the opportunity? And how do people find the opportunity? And that really becomes for some aspect of the art world, very much about who you know while for us we try to make it as publicly accessible as possible and we really want to nurture those artists that live in the Bay.

SOMArts functions as an incubator space for artists. A lot of artists who have worked with us are now exhibiting in major museums, so some of the same artists that we were like “omg someone should recognize this artist!” are now part of major exhibits at SFMOMA for example. Our work is not about being competitive, it’s a pipeline, a point of entry into the art world. We have made sure that we are serving our artists and curators with what they need, so when they do go into a larger opportunity they are equipped with the tools they need to succeed, such as negotiating contracts or understanding the value of their work. They have a sense that what they are doing can take them out into the world. So for me it feels like a very special garden that we keep turning the soil over and planting new special seeds.

sM | How do you think the role of being an artist and activist overlap in our current social climate?

MJ ─ Art and activism has overlapped since the beginning of time. They have a critical and important effect on the world. For some art, it may not be as obvious, but the aim of an artist or activist is to create art that is a form of political and social currency, actively addressing cultural power structures rather than representing them or simply describing them.

Not a lot has changed. What has changed now, which is why I think this question comes up, is social media. Social media has made these images immediately available on a global scale. That’s why the impact of artists and activists feels much more immediate for all of us and I think we almost look to our artists now as our first responders when something comes up that is a political, social, racial issue. It’s almost as if the artists are on the ground before anyone else is, playing back to us an image of what we are seeing on the nightly news, yet somehow art has made it feel much more immediate. The sensationalism has been removed and instead we are looking at what the root causes are. So to me, art and activism is about empowering the individual and the community and it’s generally situated in a public arena, where artists are working closely with communities. If we think about the partnership of art activism and BLM, or the Women’s March or Pussy Riot, anything really—we almost now assume that art is the main communicator of information and is much more impactful and credible than looking at online news.