Museum of Craft and Folk Art: A Niche Arts Non-Profit That the Tourists Can Find but the Locals Can’t

The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, Globalization, February 15-April 27, 2008; $5 admission; 51 Yerba Buena Lane @ Mission btw. 3rd – 4th; San Francisco, 94103, 415-227-4888, M-F 11-6 (CLOSED WEDNESDAYS), Sat-Sun 11-5;

Not sure where Yerba Buena Lane is? Ask Jennifer McCabe, the new Executive Director, who’s had her eye on the Museum of Craft and Folk Art for a long time. Late last year, McCabe chose to make the professional leap from well-respected experimental non-profit New Langton Arts to jewel-box niche non-profit MOCFA, the only folk art museum in Northern California.

The new show on display is The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, Globalization. McCabe was able to put her stamp on this long-planned show that is traveling from the Godwin-Ternback Museum at Queens College. For MOCFA’s intimate space, she reorganized the installation of over 30 garments and textiles from the original chronological order to one constrasting silhouettes and styles, all the better to show the links between cultures across time. Additionally, she’s also infused the exhibition with the work of contemporary textile designers to show where the medium is going. Garments from ancient cultures sit next to pieces by the house of Chanel, scrunch queen Mary McFadden, Pucci and the fashions of Carla Fernandez, a contemporary Mexico City based designer who uses sewing techniques from indigenous Mexican cultures.

In December 2005, the Museum of Craft and Folk Art moved from its 20-year home in Fort Mason to a petite storefront on Yerba Buena Lane. The Museum of Craft and Folk Art is tucked along the newly minted pedestrian alley (master-planned by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in the ‘80s), and is patiently waiting for blockbuster big sis, the new Contemporary Jewish Museum, to open directly across the way in Fall 2008.

When you go, be aware that the museum is small, about 1500 sq ft, but your $5 admission is well worth it. The MOCFA is a carefully curated jewel box, making the most of every inch of space. The price of your ticket also funds the museum’s education program for elementary school students, which is designed to integrate the arts with cultural studies and social sciences.

McCabe is going to shake things up while still honoring the museum’s existing tradition of strong scholarship. She’ll bring in more contemporary artists and build on her community ties by bringing in the work of local artists. Benevolent landlord Millenium Partners is allowing McCabe to take advantage of the (for now) empty storefronts along the lane and showcase the work of CCA (California College of the Arts) students and grads. (CCA used to have the word craft in its name-California College of Arts and Crafts- and its undergraduate programming still has a heavy emphasis on craft with majors including Ceramics, Fashion Design, Furniture, Glass, Jewelry/Metal Arts, and Textiles.)

The retail store, an important revenue-generator for the museum, will remerchandise its assortment to feature more work from Bay Area artisans. The new Buyer, Heather Griggs, hails from SF based specialty retailer Williams-Sonoma Inc. She’s in search of more local jewelry designers and craft artists like Olivia Competente, Corinne Okada, and one-namer “Maja.”

Curating is all in the family for this newlywed. McCabe's husband Julio Cesar Morales is an artist, curator, gallery director (Queen’s Nails Annex) and professor (San Francisco Art Institute). He will participate in a panel discussion about the current MOCFA show on Saturday March 15 at 2:00 pm titled Cross Reference: fashion, music and film. McCabe and Morales met when he was commissioned to produce a new work by New Langton Arts in 2005.

Beginning in 2004, McCabe spent three years with New Langton Arts, leapfrogging from Program Manager to Assistant Director. Shortly after arriving at N.L.A. she organized the first retrospective of the career of Tony Labat, a conceptual and performance artist and teacher at San Francisco Art Institute. She also regularly teaches classes in contemporary art history at Mills, SF State and City College.

History of the Museum
The Museum of Craft & Folk Art was founded in 1983 by Gertrud and Harold Parker (no relation to the former director of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, Harry S. Parker III). Gertrud is an accomplished fiber artist who began her training in the textile arts as a child in Vienna. A resident of the Bay Area since 1939, she studied and experimented further with textile arts through the 1970s. She was inspired to start the museum in 1981 after visiting the Contemporary Craft Museum in New York, whose permanent collection was dominated by Bay Area artists.

Back in SF, friends who learned of Gertrud Parker’s new mission introduced her to Margery Annenberg, a gold and silversmith who had started a gallery in 1966. The two women joined forces and a modest space was secured at 626 Balboa Street. Then, with infusions of cash first from The San Francisco Foundation then from the James Irvine Foundation, the museum was able to secure a proper gallery space at Fort Mason where it thrived for the next 20 years.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend at the de Young Museum last year was a terrific show but contemporary quilts have been covered by a museum in this town before. In 1988 MCFA held their groundbreaking show, “Who’d a Thought It,” featuring the work of Bay Area African-American women. This was the first MOCFA show to be underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts, and it traveled to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the American Craft Museum in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago.

1991 was another pivotal year for MOCFA. A consultant from the American Association of Museums recommended that the board de-accession the permanent collection in order to free up valuable resources (money and staff time) that were required to house catalog records and the collection in a climate controlled environment. The proceeds from the sale of the collection were reinvested in an endowment fund and the staff were then able to concentrate on education through exhibitions and publications.

Fast forward to today. MOCFA resides in a stunning flagship location on pedestrian-only Yerba Buena Lane and the Parkers are still active members of the board on a first name basis with the staff.

Making the Most of Your Visit to Yerba Buena Lane
If you're already downtown, the dead end of Grant Ave. at Market is directly across the street from Yerba Buena Lane. If you're driving, park at the Jessie Square Garage (enter from Stevenson which is off Third Street between Mission and Market). Upon exiting the garage, walk south to Mission and you’ll see Beard Papa, a Japanese chain of made-to-order cream puffs. You’ve arrived at the foot of the alley. While you’re eating your pastry, look directly east at St. Patrick’s Church, one of the few pre-war buildings that remains since the Redevelopment Agency began the nieghborhood’s facelift over 20 years ago.

After visiting the Museum’s exhibition space and gift shop, continue towards Market Street (it’s OK to take a moment in St. John Knits) and head to the 5th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel to see their permanent collection of the work of contemporary California artists.

Start at the concierge’s desk and ask fot the pamphlet, The Four Seasons Art Experience; A Walking Tour of the Hotel’s Art Collection Featuring Works of Bay Area Artists. They have a good combination of emerging and established artists like Jennifer Starkweather, Katherine Sherwood, Deboarh Orpallo and David Ireland. You can download the tour on your own ipod for free before you go or borrow one while you’re there:
Southern Exposure’s talented “audio lead” Tim Halbur interviewed the artsits for the podcast and produced the piece.

When the Jewish Museum opens its doors across the lane and when some of the high profile retailers fill the storefronts, Yerba Buena Lane should become the vibrant throughfare that it is meant to be. For now, even the postman is having trouble finding MOCFA.